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THE SOUL OF THE CITY, PART IV
WRITTEN BY :   Lawrence Christon

DOWNEY – The job pays $743 a month. No benefits, no retirement. It takes up most of your spare time. Generally speaking, you meet two kinds of people, those who want something from you and those who call you out, supplicants and soreheads. Just about everyone else scarcely knows you exist, or what you actually do. You have to exude optimism and reasonably dignified decorum, whether you feel like it or not. This includes dressing in suit and tie for public appearances while often dealing with people who look like slobs. You have to have an infinite capacity for minutiae and tedium. You have to know budgets, ordinances, issues, departments, levels and responsibilities of government, all the working parts of the city as microcosm of society. You have to be willing to travel. You have to be willing to accept that, in the name of public service, you’ll start out full of energy and initiative, and by the time you’re termed out, if you last that long, you’ll simply be glad that things haven’t fallen apart while you’re still there to be howled at for the mess.

Oh, and unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll have to keep your day job to make ends meet.
Sound good? Then run for city council.

Directly and indirectly, I’ve been critical of a city council that tends to view criticism as insult, even when it’s voiced in the name of wanting improvement, of aspiring for better things-positive criticism is the reflection of an unmet ideal (mere griping just sours it for everybody). But let’s take time out for a minute to appreciate what these people do. We rightfully honor firemen and cops; they’re willing to put their lives on the line every time they go to work. But councilmen and women are no less dedicated. It’s a high-stress job with a high level of responsibility, few perks and little status outside city limits. When you succeed, people assume that’s what you’re supposed to do, no big whoop. When you fail, they’re on you like flies on carrion.

Okay, time in. Resume play, ladies and gentlemen.
Let’s agree that the city of Downey works in its day-to-day practical operation, and that the current members of the city council are honorable people and aren’t on the take. Let’s also agree that, for the past 10 years or more, there’s been a general, indefinable sense of decline, of “rot,” as one reader acknowledged in a comment critical of this series. Downey Landing, Porto’s and The Gateway food court are all measures taken to bring life back into a city abandoned by the aerospace industry, betrayed by Tesla Motors, and burned by the national economic meltdown of 2009. The massive development, Tierra Luna, was conceived for generally the same reasons.

But these are mainly economic tactics used to shore up a tax base. If social and culinary amenities come along with them, that’s nice. To feed the stomach is not to feed the spirit and the imagination however, and in the past couple of years a few of the city’s leaders have pondered the dullness that’s crept into an otherwise safe, clean and functional city like some kind of marsh gas. So have a lot of people in the community. At the juncture, a number of arts organizations have sprung up to freshen the air. Not that the city doesn’t already have established arts groups. But the irony is that the amateurs are on the march while the pros, the ones who haven’t already fallen, are barely lurching along.

In either case, the city has noticed and wants to do something about it. Roger Brossmer and Alex Saab, and to a lesser extent Mario Guerra, have been holding meetings and discussions with artists to find ways to move forward. To their credit, they acknowledge that they know little or nothing about art and just want to set up an operating, mutually accountable framework so they can back off and turn the artists loose.

Another thing they don’t know however is that a hefty majority of the artists, or arts advocates, don’t have deep knowledge of the arts either. A reference to Proust, Prokofiev, Balanchine or Delacroix would baffle most of them, as would mention of contemporary figures like Leo Brouwer, Chris Burden, James Turrell, Carlos Barbossa-Lima and Chico Buarque. We’ll get to this later on. In the meantime, to demonstrate its good intentions, the city has bought into the game by backing a new player, the Stay Gallery.

Stay is the brainchild of Valentin Flores, an enterprising 30-year-old who convinced the city to spring for a $2000 per month rent at the Downey Avenue site of what was formerly a drape shop. (The money has been redirected from the Art in Public Places program; five years ago this would have been a misappropriation of funds; now it’s still an iffy move.)

“Our mission,” writes Flores in an e-mail, “is to revitalize and engage our community through art and culture. Our vision is to define and create a vibrant sense of place where people can live, work and play in downtown Downey.”

It’s just as well that the mission statement is vague. Stay has been trying a lot of different kinds of programs, including art exhibits, music programs, school programs, a toy drive, a fundraiser for the Downey High football team and one for the Downey Museum of Art, among others. They plan an exhibition series, an elementary school program, a collaboration with artists at Rancho Los Amigos, a mind-body wellness program, an independent film program and a spoken word series. And other programs as well (they just held an exhibit of Warren High photos).

That sounds like a tall order, with a leadership that has skimpy credentials. But creative director Gabriel Enamorado and operations manager Joseph Manacmul exude earnestness, intelligence and quiet intensity of purpose. It’s smart that Stay doesn’t define itself too soon; that gives them more room to grow and attract a wider public.

Costs are expensive however. And when pressed, Flores can be testy and defensive. Asked for a business plan and organizational chart before we sat down for a second interview, he didn’t produce them. Budget numbers were elusive. We finally settled on a five-year goal of $285,000, earned through donations, memberships, fundraisers (they do a lot of these), grants, and corporate and local sponsorships. But Stay won’t come anywhere near matching these gifts through art sales and door fees.

They’ve also developed a reputation as party animals. Of course Downey Avenue could use nothing better than music and laughter. But people looking in aren’t thrilled to see a lot of revelers living it up on the city’s (meaning the taxpayer’s) dime.

I’ve seen many groups and cultural programs make their start, from the $15 million dollar kickoff celebration of the California Shakespeare Festival in Visalia (which folded in five years) to the creation of the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department under Mayor Tom Bradley, which is still going strong. The $9 million per annum South Coast Repertory, one of the top regional theaters in the country, started with two guys, $17 and a station wagon for costumes and props.

Some made it, some didn’t.

I wouldn’t want to offer any prediction about Stay’s chances. But whether it costs $20,000, $40,000 or $70,000 a year to run, or $285,000 to maintain for five years, I look at its brief employee roster and its board and don’t see a financial officer, a treasurer, or a comptroller.

I wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions about that either, and haven’t. There hasn’t been a whisper of financial mischief, and a lot of money is clearly going into physical upgrades of the space. Still, given the dynamic of this recipe, I wonder about its future. I’ve asked around. I’m not the only one.

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Published: July 18, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 14



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