It hit me earlier this month as I rolled up to a stop at the crest of the hill that is Centinela and Florence avenues. I take in this intersection at least a dozen times a week, and on about the sixth time one particular week I realized what was missing: The trains are gone. It took a while because what was missing wasn’t always there, and wasn‘t supposed to be, but the fact that Centinela and Florence was always waiting for trains made it edgy and distinguished it considerably from, say, Centinela and La Tijera a couple miles west.
The change in landscape was both huge and subtle. Superficially the corner is not changed at all: The train tracks are still there bifurcating the intersection east to west along Florence, stopped traffic on one side, the steeple of a Catholic church rising sharply like a rebuke, or an invitation, on the other. The railroad crossing sign with its black-and-white warning and blunt “x” configuration is still there, a thing that delighted me as a child and delights me now as a relic from the pre-electronic age of media when road signs and other public messages were simple and direct, sometimes a matter of life and death -- Stop, Danger, Coloreds Only. As a youngster with a rather dark imagination I liked the power of imperatives, and the bells and red lights that announced approaching trains were, to my earliest sensibilities, like God; when I got older and started driving, the trains were more an impediment than anything else but still awesome in the sense they were so obviously out of place. Trains lumbered like big beasts through the most ephemeral of big cities, a place barely on the map during the golden age of rail, a young dream-driven city wholly antithetical to the clank and drag and dogged purpose of trains, especially the humble freight variety. I found the incongruity of train and
place fascinating and deeply touching. Despite the fact they held me up on occasion, I loved their unlikeliness, their decaying significance and, here at America’s continental and mythological end, their illumination of the fact that there was no West left to uncover. As I sat in my car and the bells clanged and the trains galumphed along at that maddeningly unhurried pace that probably hadn‘t changed in the last 100 years, I did not sigh or count freight cars so much as think, Carry on.
Sitting at Centinela and Florence that day I half-expected trains to come through, as I always did -- a flashing light was always more than possible and a pretty good bet after nine or so in the evening -- before I knew that the trains were gone. The bet had been off for a while. I remembered in the same moment why: The Alameda Corridor. The corridor is a massive subterranean trench meant to streamline cargo transportation from the docks of Los Angeles to points inland; it started operations more than a month ago and in the process put most of the trains that still run through L.A. out of business. This was designed to happen. The corridor is widely considered a wonderful thing not only because it gets rid of the noise and traffic congestion created by traditional train tracks, but because of its rare efficiency among public works projects. The corridor was completed on schedule, and on budget. It is meant to ease the pain in the oldest and least prosperous parts of the city, where trains were most numerous and disruptive and improvements most scarce. Where so many undertakings in the hood have evaporated or have taken decades to finish -- the Century Freeway, for one -- the Alameda Corridor is a shining example of all deliberate speed, of everything working together for community good.
I should be happy about this, and the social critic part of me is. I was as optimistic as everybody else about the corridor during its construction, understood its purpose, but didn’t bother to understand that its advent would mean the end of trains as I knew them. Those trains fostered their own kind of community good that‘s going to be irreplaceable in L.A. When the rails descended at Centinela and Florence, or anywhere else along the Florence path, cars on the unlucky side of the tracks settled into a certain resignation; people threw it into park or cut the engine and reclined with ethereal looks otherwise never seen on the faces of drivers in these parts of town. Trains induced a surrender none of us were used to but didn’t really mind. We were all in this wait together, rust buckets and gleaming SUVs alike. There was no one to blame or to honk at or to go around, and in that sense the trains actually were, as they were in my child‘s mind, God-like. Some people listened to the radio, some fussed with their hair in a mirror but most stared into the middle distance, perhaps like me noting the essential oddity of trains in L.A. at all, and perhaps like me appreciating it.