Time Travel

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Last weekend I rode Amtrak up to Santa Barbara. Just a little day trip to visit the art museum, walk along State Street and commune with the pelicans.

Any travel that takes me out of my daily routine helps to de-clutter the mind. This trip made room for some observations about the city that sped by outside the train window.

You get a privileged view of Los Angeles along the tracks that head north and west from downtown, along the LA River then diagonally across the San Fernando Valley.

Not that the view is pretty -- it's mostly the backs of rundown buildings. Almost all the walls facing the train are covered in graffiti.

But I like that the tracks let you time travel through the Los Angeles story.

They follow the route of the first trains to steam up the coast at the turn of the 20th century. The same track along which the Valley ranches were colonized into suburbs and absorbed into the city.

The back sides of factories, warehouses and auto repair garages tell a story that's less optimistic than the one usually told about the suburbs.

In Van Nuys I spotted a giant salvage yard for wrecked cars right beside the tracks. Just beyond it, I couldn't ignore the symbolism of the Van Nuys station, where we stopped for two quick minutes.

The station is on the site of a General Motors assembly plant built in the late 1940's to turn out Chevys. And to provide good, stable salaried jobs to the settlers of the postwar 'burbs.

Within a half century, all evidence of the GM era in Panorama City was gone. Now there's just a big shopping mall called The Plant.

The tracks barrel past many faded, vanished things from LA's formative years. Former aerospace contractors, defunct lumber yards, industrial parks that are no longer busy.

The view does get prettier as the northbound train leaves the city limits. We climbed slowly through the boulder fields above Chatsworth, where hundreds of movies were shot before the freeway came through.

My wife watched the familiar rocks go by and said the scene felt like one of those Disneyland tableaus of the West.

Returning to L.A. after dusk, the best moment occurs as the train curls into downtown, past dark hulks of old industrial works not yet turned into loft housing.

Just before Union Station the tower of City Hall pops into view, lit up like the beacon it has been for new arrivals in Los Angeles since the late 1920's.

Traveling through the history of L.A. helped clarify for me why I don't care much about the latest passion of the local preservation community: saving the Century Plaza Hotel.

I was less put out than many about the Ambassador Hotel too. Its demise a few years ago was unfolding in the middle of the work for my book on the Wilshire corridor. So I knew intimately the hotel's storied past as the host to so many LA events.

I felt sad about the Ambassador's ruins being dismantled rather than recycled, but I felt that the wailing about loss of an architectural gem was hollow.

The Ambassador is barely mentioned in the books on Myron Hunt, the architect who designed it. He, apparently, liked his Huntington in Pasadena better, and so do I.

It has survived many re-dos, but the failed Ambassador had lapsed into little more than a movie location and haven for feral cats.

The Century Plaza for me is more noteworthy as an example of architecture. It just does nothing for me as a symbol or as an object of nostalgia. It's just too recent.

It should take more to earn the status of historic and cultural landmark. Especially in a place as old and storied as Los Angeles.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.