The Gold Line

by Tony Chavira

photographs by Ruth Wallach from

I can’t deny that I’m playing favorites ... As the first article in a small series about light rail in Southern California, I want to start with my personal favorite rail line: the Gold Line. As a little backstory, my father’s old architecture firm used to be in Old Town Pasadena and I have a few interesting memories of being a child and taking the Gold Line (in those days, local stops for the old Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railways which closed up shop in 1996) to Union Station downtown. It was pretty infrequent, but for that reason maybe it felt like a ride at Disneyland: I’d stare at the detailing in the station and look through the windows as we slid through South Pasadena, the Cornfields, Chinatown, and eventually stepped out into the deco-ness of Union Station to eat and hang out at Olvera Street.

Del Mar station art by Ries Niemi
Del Mar station art by Ries Niemi

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, the Gold Line is a light rail transit system that flows seamlessly from Sierra Madre Villa west under the San Gabriel Mountains to Pasadena, then ducks south through Highland Park, Heritage Square and Chinatown, until coming to a final stop at Union Station. As time has gone on, the stopping stations have developed little Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs) with apartments, markets, office spaces, and all kindsa cool stuff. In particular, check out Sierra Madre’s “small town” community (and their pubs), Mission Street’s comfortable, scenic walking community (and their street-side restaurants), and Chinatown for food and ambiance (and their emerging art scene). I included Union Station as number 8 on the coolest architectural structures in L.A. So now you have no excuse; I’ve attacked the space on all fronts.

Heritage Square/Arroyo station art
Heritage Square/Arroyo station art
by Roberto L. Delgado

A quick history: the Gold Line was built originally to be an extension of the Blue Line from Los Angeles, but the City of Pasadena had actually proposed a whole new line extension during the 1980s, which was basically tabled indefinitely until it was brought up again by the City of Los Angeles. Long story short, the cities came together and laid the tracks, only to realize that it didn’t attach directly to the Blue Line. Eventually the branding color changed to “Gold” and residents rejoiced heartily!

The Line itself has a great view of the San Gabriel Mountains, the snake-like flow of the Arroyo Seco passageway, a glide down the Cornfields and Chinatown, and the nervous sense of access to the Los Angeles gateway at Alameda and Olvera: restaurants, entertainment, history, culture. A true sample of the diversity of living in Los Angeles ... almost a deliberate tour of everything amazing that Los Angeles has to offer from people who’ve lived their lives on the Eastside. The best part: it doesn’t involve driving. Seriously, I should’ve just put that first.

And what will happen in the near future to this glorious line? Some of these things I’ve already mentioned if you’ve been paying close attention to my articles, but I’m too excited NOT to tell you at this point.

Mission station art by Michael Stutz
Mission station art by Michael Stutz

First, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Project has a plan to work with the U.S. Green Building Council to certify the Arroyo-Seco Cornfields as a LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) pilot project for a huge, sustainable, community. Since the Gold Line passes right past this area, it’s a prime location for a TOD ... it’ll be green, have a cool little community, be right by the river, probably have some parks and stuff, probably have some small businesses, have direct access to both downtown and Pasadena. It does, in fact, sound kickass to me.

Second, the CRA approved (and has, in fact, begun building) an extension to the Gold Line out of Downtown L.A. that will move down First and then Third Street into East L.A. almost all the way to Montebello/Monterey Park. That means at least four more stops added in places like Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Mariachi Plaza, Maravilla, the Civic Center, and finally at Atlantic Boulevard. In fact, the CRA’s plans will eventually lead to extensions (and TODs) all the way across the mountains in the north to Montclair and all the way through East L.A. south to Huntington Park. Ambitious? Thankfully, yes.

So the moral of this story is to take the Gold Line whenever you can. It’s fun, well-maintained and available. Don’t get me wrong, I love driving around Los Angeles, but when the Atlantic extension is done I’ll probably drop the East L.A. to Downtown commute altogether in favor of the train. And why not? It’s good as gold.

Okay, that was cheesy; but seriously, do check out the Gold Line yourself when you have some free time.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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