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Can Downey return to a place of cultural prominence?
SOUL OF THE CITY IX: In his final installment, veteran journalist Lawrence Christon explains the reason behind this series.
WRITTEN BY :   Lawrence Christon, Contributor

DOWNEY – Stories don’t have beginnings and ends as much as they move you along the river. Now that this lengthy one, the Soul of the City, is winding down, I’d like to tell you how it came about, and why I’ve had to tell it. It requires a preamble however, for which I beg your indulgence. You’ll understand why in a moment.

I grew up in Manhattan, within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was perfectly natural for me to check it out regularly, first with a kid’s awe at the Egyptian tomb and medieval armor (particularly the swords), and then, as I grew older, with a growing feel for western civilization’s epochs; Greek statuary, the explosion of color and the dramatic rediscovery of the human body in the Renaissance; classicism, neo-classicism, romanticism; the breakdown and radical experiment with color and form that followed the Industrial Revolution; then modernism, from Marinetti to Rothko. Without knowing it formally, I’d been soaking up the history of the world (there were Asian, African and Latin American exhibits).

I went to three high schools, an elite prep school, an inner city ghetto school (surprisingly peaceful; the kids knew they had to get along), and a standard generic suburban school on Long Island. By 18, I’d experienced the three major social and economic classes that make up a modern industrialized society.

Jump-cut to 15 years or so later. After my active duty discharge from the Marine Corps in San Diego, I decided to stay in Southern California. In 1973 I went to work for the Los Angeles Times as a theater reviewer covering every conceivable kind of performance, from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Ron Milner and Luis Valdez. The classics, the moderns, gay theater, black theater, Latino theater, children’s and community theater (which is how I discovered Downey); more than a thousand productions, before I moved on. I added a Sunday column called Stage Week. There was hardly a luminary who came through L.A., from Harold Prince to Carol Channing, I didn’t talk to for the column.

I traveled, sometimes on assignment, as in Sydney, Adelaide (for the international arts festival) and Melbourne; Moscow, London, New York of course (and other U.S. sites); and sometimes on my own, to Paris, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. I was in Rio during Brazil’s transition from a military dictatorship to civilian rule, and saw an explosion of the arts, particularly in theater, from the pent-up energies of the young and marginalized. In Bejing I took a long walk out of The Forbidden City with Ying Ruocheng, China’s leading theater director and one of its top intellectuals, to ask him what it was like to endure the most fruitful years of his life in internal exile and official disgrace, mucking out stables on a communal farm. In Johannesburg, when apartheid threatened to plunge South Africa into civil war, I stood on an apartment building rooftop with Barney Simon, artistic director of the Market Theatre, which was sending remarkable works like “Woza, Albert!” out to the world. We watched the dusty glitter on the hills, thrown up by the gold mines, slowly darken as the sun went down.

“Why don’t you get out of this place?” I said. “It’s ready to blow.”

“I can’t leave,” he replied. “This is my home.”

In these and other instances, I began to develop a feel for the nexus of history, politics and culture. I developed a sense of place.

I witnessed (and sometimes covered) political struggles and the arts in Los Angeles. Actors could work freely, without Showcase Code restrictions, when, after rancorous dispute, the Equity Waiver rule was passed in 1972. I saw new theaters and festivals start up, from the $15 million Visalia Shakespeare Festival, to Warren Christensen’s Garden Theater Festival, which wired the L.A. region all the way out to Topanga Canyon. I saw Bill Bushnell twist the arm of corporate downtown to convert an old bank into the Los Angeles Theater Center. Some of you may remember Academy Award-winning director Tony Richardson’s short-lived attempt to establish the Long Beach Shakespeare Festival, with a host of film stars, at the city’s Performing Arts Center. And of course there was the spectacular two-week Olympic Arts Festival, which, followed by the ’84 games themselves, made L.A. the center of the world. I wrote a history of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory, which started with two guys, a $17 budget, and a station wagon to haul costumes and props, and is now a top-ranked national theater, with a $9 million a year budget and an ongoing $50 million endowment fund.

So you could say that, over the years, accidentally or not, I’ve gained a body of experience not available to most.

Cut to the recent past. I never paid much attention to what was going on in Downey until I felt the air going out of the balloon, let’s say around ’07 and ’08. The Avenue Theater had become a wreck. Most of the stuff at the Krikorian was, and is, brainlessly commercial. The good local restaurants were closing in favor of franchise joints and sports bars. Outside the Stardust on Firestone, and the hit-and-miss Epic Lounge, there was no nightlife. There still isn’t-The Palms on Florence is the only new place with live music, but it’s essentially a Latino cruising joint. The demographic was changing, from white collar Anglo professional to working class Hispanic. The city was doing good things, like holding an impressively well-managed public hearing on the McMansion issue at the Downey Theater; and it was doing weird things, like narrowing the windpipe of Downey Avenue and putting in right-turn traffic lanes, only to paint them over in a few months. You could make a left turn on Clark, then you couldn’t, now you can again. The parceling out of the old Rockwell space into more franchise outlets and restaurants, framed around a huge parking lot instead of occupying its center, was not a good omen for a distinctive future.

Except for the few dependably cheery civic boosters, and people making money, there was this general sense of some kind of necrosis setting in to the urban life of a bedroom community, where the day broke down into work, car, supermarket or mall, then home. Occasionally a meal out, or a walk in the park. One rec. center. The Y. Not much else to do if you weren’t into sports. The Downey Symphony gave four concerts a year, the Downey Civic Light Opera played for six weeks. Our one bookstore closed. So did our art museum, shut down by the city over an internal legal dispute. (I’m conflating these developments in time).

A few people began to wonder about how to shake Downey out of its deepening snooze. There were discussions. Art, or an arts scene (they can differ) seemed the way to go. No society in the world, however small, doesn’t have its rituals of music, dance and visual artifacts to express its human passage through time. In the modern world, politics, industry, banking, business and law take precedence and, along with a military, form a power structure in which art has no place. That is, until that power structure gains wealth, confidence and an outward view. Then art informs everything. The cultural palaces are built. Artists are free to make art and audiences show up to experience it. The deliberations on meaning, on being alive, on possibility and the mirroring of human nature, become just as vital as they are in the primitive world. You could say that wherever we are, we’re all looking into the same mirror.

Around 2010 city council began listening to arts advocates. The Downey Arts Coalition formed to present the work of local artists. By 2012 the Downey Art Vibe partially morphed into the Stay Gallery to do generally the same thing. The city hired VenueTech, a San Francisco theater management firm, to run the Downey Civic Theater. More recently, a city theater committee of two, Roger Brossmer and Alex Saab, announced a measure that would allow local arts groups to enter a lottery to make use of the theater once they met certain requirements. The general attitude of the city council has been that they have no business dealing with the arts accept to support them; once they set up an operating framework, they were hands-off. By then, the midsummer of ’13, there had already been a number of exhibits, readings, presentations, a Make Music Downey fest. To hear a lot of people speak, the onward Emersonian prospect was back in place. Happy days are here again. To many, they’d never left.

Ah, but wait a minute. Not so fast. There’s trouble in paradise.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, to hear members of the council say they don’t know anything about the arts, but that they support them. Why does the political life of our city leaders have to preclude cultural knowledge and wisdom? That can lead to vulnerability. That can lead to bad faith, as you’ve read about regarding the city’s hypocrisy and mishandling of the Downey art museum issue. It can lead to plain silliness, as when Mayor Mario Guerra said he’d hang one painting a month from the DMOA’s collection in city hall, to which a friend of mine said, “Who goes to city hall to see a painting? One painting.”

There’s still the critical issue of downtown, which, excepting the small Stay space, makes no room for galleries, live music joints or performance spaces. The city is neither legally nor morally empowered to move businesses out to make places for them. The fake movie façade that announces the Avenue Theater has become a monstrous death mask for the ruin that lies behind it. At night it dominates the street scene. No one has asked, incidentally, just what the local Baptist church, a major property owner in the district, will permit by way of nightlife and cultural pursuits if they involve liquor.

The great surprise, to me, was the discovery that the arts advocacy groups don’t know much more about the arts than the city does. As it’s turned out, there isn’t the ferment we hoped and expected was out there, ready to boil onto the scene. There’s no part of Downey where groups of young artists, or even older ones, occupy low-rent lofts, studios, workshops, performance and rehearsal space in numbers, as has happened in the shifting scene that’s moved from East Hollywood to Silverlake to Eagle Rock and now Atwater Village. It’s good that once-discouraged Calixto Shibaja is showing again, but the few other good artists Downey has produced, like painter Robert Townsend and Dave Alvin of The Blasters, have permanently gone on, in Townsend’s case to gallery contracts and five-figure sales; and in Alvin’s, to a troubadour career that places him somewhere between Bob Dylan and Tom Waites.
A revealing moment came during a council meeting when Alex Saab asked Val Flores, who heads the Stay Gallery, to define what art is.

“Anything that’s creative,” Flores replied.

Not a terrific answer. If your car mechanic wraps duct tape around a live wire to keep it from shorting out, that’s a creative solution. Is it art?
Try this, from the late, great art critic and historian Robert Hughes:

“Painting slows down the eye. It’s a marvelous rebuker of unfelt experience. It’s semantic; it links the body with the eye…the whole purpose of art is to bridge alienation.”

You don’t hear discussion like that among the people who purport to bring culture to Downey, and don’t know that bad art is bad for the spirit; it’s like being lied to. I don’t mind ignorance. Most of us are ignorant of most things most of the time. I mind the puffy insularity, the indifference to self-education and growth that leads to discernment and is a lifelong process. Who among the arts bunch can talk to you about “Parallelogram,” the most discussed play to hit the Mark Taper Forum in years? Sam Francis was arguably California’s best-known abstract expressionist, famous the world over. How many of Downey’s self-appointed arts spokespeople have been up to the Francis retrospective at Pasadena’s Museum of California Art? Chances are, none (I didn’t see any opening night).

The results are predictable. After two years, Stay still hasn’t gained traction; and after three, the DAC is beginning to take on the characteristics of a cult; that is, an ideological zealotry about their cause, an irate defensiveness when challenged, and an unwillingness to examine itself and its righteousness.

Altogether, these aren’t promising signs.

What the city needs, in addition to an architect on retainer who can advise on some kind of reasonably unified Downey look, is an arts commission headed by someone with adequate knowledge and experience in the entire spectrum of the arts (nobody can know everything), a staff position that has city employee help, and regular input from every segment of the community. It needs a performing arts conservatory, which holds classes in the day, and performances and exhibits at night (a refurbished Avenue Theater site, though small, might be good beginning for this).

Some questions to ask: Can the hugely successful La Systema of Caracas be replicated in the Downey School network, bringing an entire new generation of kids to music? If it can be done in an impoverished African village, as reported on “60 Minutes,” why not here? Its greatest emissary, Gustavo Dudamel, is 20 minutes up the road at Disney Hall. Surely he could provide help, even if it were to reference someone to talk to.

Speaking of talk, why not call David Sefton, who ran the magnificent series “Arts Alive!” at UCLA and is now artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, to ask about staging a citywide arts festival in some of the open space in Downey? L.A. is midway between Adelaide in the Southern Hemisphere and the Edinburgh Festival in the Northern Hemisphere. Could Downey intercept some of their artists en route to give performances and hold workshop with our own artists? And why not use the Downey theater for actual theater? Imagine a “Romeo and Juliet” in the flesh, not on a fake movie marquee, with a Latino Romeo and an Anglo Juliet? If we can have summer concerts in the park, why not Shakespeare and other colorful works as well? Why do we need all of the Downey theater’s programming generated from a management exec in San Francisco? Can’t we book some of our own, or share bookings with other theaters? Has anyone heard of the brilliant Latino theater group Culture Clash? What about solo or small ensemble or vocal recitals?

There’s an awful lot we can do, and if I’m dubious about so much Downey-centric navel-gazing and self-congratulation, it’s because those conceits guarantee mediocrity and a slow withering from willful isolation. I’ve challenged the Stay people and the DAC people because I don’t want them to fail. Failure would be a grave setback for us all. I just want them to find that Archimedean lever that will give them greater perspective on what they need to do. After all, many of those abovementioned people with a lot of experience and resources, more than we have, weren’t able to make it.

On a more positive note, cheers to the symphony for continuing success, ditto the Epic Lounge, and congrats to Lorine Parks for creating a warm and receptive setting for her Poetry Matters series, and for the informative Art From the Edge program hosted by Roy Anthony Shabla. I can’ t comment on what goes on at his Green Salon because he won’t be interviewed. Apologies to Brossmer, Saab and Gilbert Livas for my crack about treating the DCLO like a bedpan. That’s a bad simile to describe their honest effort to salvage a bad situation; that is, the historic DCLO’s collapse, which didn’t have to happen. While on the subject, VenueTech was of no help and I strongly suspect became an added irritant once the DCLO refused to turn over its box office. All the principals were at fault in this one.

Dear reader, I hope you’ll understand now the reason I’ve stepped forward with this series, even as it’s made some people angry and uncomfortable. What good are knowledge and experience if you can’t share them? Downey once had a great future, which has slowly evaporated. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the future again differently? If we work hard enough at it, we’ll find out.

Published: Aug. 22, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 19

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