Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Union Station

Meet the Man Behind Union Station’s Cultural Renaissance

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As the iconic L.A. landmark kicks off its 80th anniversary this month, Metro’s Ken Pratt reflects on the station’s derelict past and promising future.

It’s just past 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning in April at Los Angeles Union Station. Elbows rub up against elbows as throngs of passengers descend from the Gold Line platform. Ken Pratt, Metro’s deputy executive officer of Union Station operations and management, takes in the energetic scene. “Look at this sea of humanity,” Pratt says with a wide smile.

In preparation for its 80th anniversary this month, the station recently underwent a transformation of sorts, spurred in part by its 2011 purchase by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Pratt has been part of the vanguard overseeing the stations’ next act as a cultural destination featuring monthly public programming spanning the arts, film and live entertainment in the stunning architectural space.

While the era of romantic train travel has long since disappeared from the American conscience, Union Station has become a destination unto itself. Last month, for example, Metro collaborated with KJazz-FM to host Grammy-nominated artist Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah for Jazz Tracks, as part of a series of free live performances at Union Station. The station has also been host to Uncorked: LA Wine Festival, poetry readings throughout April in honor of National Poetry Month, and film noir screenings inside the historic ticketing hall.

To celebrate the station’s anniversary, Metro is hosting a two-day festival in and around the Union Station beginning Friday, May 3.

Ken Pratt holds an illustration of a market near where he grew up. Photo by Brandon Lomenzo Black.

“It’s going to be fun and entertaining and family-oriented,” Pratt says.

The upcoming festivities include live musical performances at the station’s historic ticketing hall and South Patio, docent-led art and architecture tours, as well as a photo retrospective. The festival will also feature family-friendly activities including a train ride on a mini locomotive.

For Pratt, ensuring passengers and visitors have a memorable experience at the station is a top priority.

“My baseline,” Pratt says, “is the ability to impact tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives in a positive way, in a positive experience and elevate the impression of Metro to all these people.”

That’s a lot of people. Union Station currently serves an estimated 100,000 passengers daily. That number is expected to double by 2040.

Today, the grand architectural masterpiece is a hub of activity, but it has taken Metro a significant amount of time and money to overhaul the station from what it once was: derelict and devoid of personality. Pratt says that when he first started at Union Station in 2012, the ticketing concourse was overrun with homeless individuals, prostitution and drug dealing were common sightings, communicable diseases like tuberculosis and scabies were abundant and likely to spread from passenger to passenger.

“You can build Disneyland but no one is coming if it isn’t safe and clean,” Pratt says.

According to a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times, one morning in 2013, Pratt and his staff counted more than 450 homeless people asleep inside the station.

“Since then, the agency has spent more than $21 million beautifying and restoring the station, installing heat and air conditioning and cleaning the waiting area’s 268 Art Deco lounge chairs,” Pratt says.

“My baseline is the ability to impact tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives in a positive way, in a positive experience and elevate the impression of Metro to all these people.”

Ken Pratt, Metro’s deputy executive officer of Union Station operations

During the past several years, Pratt has worked with private and nonprofit organizations along with municipal, county, state and federal agencies to offer assistance to the homeless population, including social, psychological, medical, dental and financial services as well as housing support and transportation.

“Metro has now a complete staff available [to address homelessness at the station] plus the affording of LAPD’s H.O.P.E. (Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement) team,  as well as county health and Metro personnel working with that population,” Pratt says.

Their efforts are paying off — and it isn’t the first time Pratt has witnessed Union Station evolve. Pratt, who is 70 years old, was born in Los Angeles and grew up six miles from city hall.

“I remember coming through the center section of the doors and walking up to the ticket counter in the early 50s and buying tickets for the San Diegan to go see our relatives in Santa Ana,” he says.

SK Kakraba striking the xylophone in his performance for “Metro Art Presents.” Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Union Station

Pratt has witnessed Union Station from its heyday during the late 1940s and ’50s through fits and spurts of ridership decline during the 2000s, to its present revitalization, replete with locally sourced seafood and craft beer at Imperial Western Beer Company; Café Crépe’s French-inspired fare served alongside Lavazza coffee; and Japanese cuisine served at Bread n’ Rice.

Alex Wiggins is Metro’s chief officer of systems security and law enforcement. He christened Pratt ‘the mayor of Union Station’ a couple of years ago. The unofficial title trails the dapperly dressed Pratt around the station.

“He has a true sense of ownership for everything that occurs there,” Wiggins says. “I think he takes it personally the goal of beautifying the campus, maximizing the business opportunities there and really owning what happens there 24/7.”

Pratt describes his position and the feeling it generates inside him by comparing it to “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

“I’m the kid who got the lucky golden ticket,” he says.

El Haru Kuroi performing as part of “Metro Art Presents.” Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Union Station

He radiates positivity and energy despite his own personal setbacks. Pratt was barely a few months into his role at Union Station when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a relatively rare form of blood cancer that forms in the body’s bone marrow. He receives oral chemotherapy 21 times a month to aggressively treat his cancer.

“Seventy-five  percent of my bone marrow is cancerous, but that’s the way it is and I’m here and I’m happy about it,” he says with an infectious laugh and no-nonsense candor, “and I get a lot of shit done.”

As for the station?

Metro has plans for a potential mixed-use development on the station’s excess land and the addition of more retailers and eateries inside the iconic buidling.

“The future is more than bright,” Pratt says. “We’re continuing our efforts to restore the station and bring in additional restaurants and retail to enhance it as a destination that it has now become.”

Los Angeleno