Qualitative Research Methods

Union Station and Invisible Cities

I have three major “social positions” in reflecting on this performance. First, and actually least critical – a technical perspective. Five years ago, I produced a live audio production taking place in a black box theatre, where my actors wore these very sensitive portable microphones, and every slipped cough would be picked up and magnified. So I am impressed by the breathing and volume control the actors must have used – and how did they block the action, how did they rehearse?

Secondly. Southern California (also known as “The South Land”) will always be one of my “homes”, real, imagined or remembered. My grandparents settled in San Diego after retirement, and I frequently stayed with them as a child. I lived there after high school for several months, moving permanently there, and then Los Angeles, from 1998 until 2003 – most of those years without a car. Union Station is a recurring, magical place in my memory, as the gateway to seeing my grandparents, but also as a place I used to commute through when I worked in downtown LA.

Union Station is the biggest hub of its type on the West Coast. Millions of people walk through here every year. While long-distance trains come through here, thousands more take the subway, use buses, or regional commuter trains that go as far south as San Diego County. It faces Olvera Street, the original Western settlement of LA. Nearby landmarks include Phillipe’s, a famous cafeteria that has been open for 110 years (they claim they invented the aus jus sandwich), and civic properties like the old main post office, one of the city jails, and water utilities. Chinatown, with a large decorative gate, is a 15 minute walk uphill – it’s more of an artist community today, most Chinese immigrants live in east county cities such as Monterey Park. Nearby is a 101 entrance, or Hollywood Freeway entrance – in LA all the freeways are named based on the direction you’re going – when you’re on the 10 heading east, you’re on the San Bernadino Freeway, when you’re on the 10 heading west, you’re on the Santa Monica Freeway. Downtown is relatively compact but only in Union Station can a pedestrian even contemplate reaching all of the myriad locations available without heading on a freeway – from north of Simi Valley south to Oceanside and Camp Pendleton, then San Diego, or east to Riverside.

Union Station is also one of the most used film or TV locations in the world. IMDB lists almost 200 films such as Blade Runner, but I don’t think it includes the many times it’s been used in single TV episodes. This adds to the charm of this location being picked for the opera. While millions of Angelenos and Californians have firsthand memories and experiences of Union Station, millions of people around the world could have subconscious memories of the location, making it a great metaphorical selection for “Invisible Cities”.

LA, like most big American cities, started out with a strong cable car/trolley/streetcar system until the mid 1950s, when a coalition of oil and car companies made sure they were demolished, using a company called National City Lines to buy up tracks and then destroy them. As a film nerd there is not only a dreamlike quality to seeing Union Station’s waiting room, almost unchanged, appear in black and white as well as modern films, but also to seeing familiar streets dominated by streetcars and pedestrians in older movies.

This also provides another context to the opera’s imagined travel of Marco Polo, and the magical and half-imagined “Silk Road” he described. I would argue that using Union Station takes advantage of this blurred distinction between “worlds”, allowing visitors, performers and viewers to travel in or simply exist in a blurred space between the past and present. It’s not merely that all of the fixtures are from 1939 when the station was built, but that existing in this space means participating in a continuity of place where trains and streetcars/subways were and are the transportation choices for long distance and everyday commuting, not planes and cars.

Ticketing Room, Courtesy Wikimedia

Some final trivia. When you see the performance taking place in a large room with green walls, that is the old ticketing area, no longer used for that purpose, but typically used in many films and for special events, sometimes special dining.

The main location where the action takes place in the opera is called the Waiting Room.

Union Station Waiting Room. Courtesy Wikimedia

Those beautiful boxy chairs are original to 1939 (though they have been fitted with new covers, I am sure). Every passenger who enters the front or from the side courtyard must go through the Waiting Room to connect to all the other services. There are several restaurants and bakeries on the ground level, then a huge concourse of fourteen tracks on the upper level, used by Amtrak and regional Metrolink (list here). Sleeping car and business class passengers can use a lounge upstairs; late at night, only ticketed passengers are allowed in the Waiting Room seats. Behind the concourse there’s a large bus plaza. There’s also a lower level escalator with a hidden art installation: the video plays the sound, but the static images on this page show what can be viewed.

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