Dear Blanca Pacheco, Rick Rodriguez and Alex Saab:
Congratulations on your election—and in Alex Saab’s case, re-election—to the Downey City Council. You’ve waged successful campaigns against an unusually large field of opponents, and all honors are due your having won the preference and confidence of your district voters. You carry their hopes, and the hopes of the entire city, into the future.
As a journalist and Downey resident, I’ve been a city-watcher for decades, and became more than casually impressed when I first saw the level of professionalism and competency with which city staff conducted a public hearing at the Downey Theater on the McMansionization issue; and at the colorful, varied, sometimes near-rowdy meetings of the Community Redevelopment Agency at the Downey Library, where people of almost every conceivable age, background, occupation and income level met to discuss the future of the city. This was democracy in action!
The CRA is now defunct, not as a fault of the city (funding was cancelled by the state). But the absence of any of those kinds of meetings is symptomatic of what’s been happening to Downey ever since the local aerospace industry collapsed, and with it, the cultural and civic amenities that came with the residential life of a largely professional and management class—elements that produced a robust sense of community.
This is where you come in, to a job that’s more difficult than ever. What’s becoming clear over time is that prior councilmen, aside from performing perfunctory duties or using their office for personal and political gain, have been more or less kicking the can down the road when it comes to visionary leadership. To go to city council meetings now is to see a group dealing with everyday, largely utilitarian issues—road repair, underground gas pipes, signage--the more bureaucratized, the safer they feel. Audiences show up to hear their specific agendas hashed out; once the discussion is over, they get up and leave. Hardly anyone stays around to see how the democratic process of city government works on a scale that’s supposed to include everyone.
In a way, you can’t blame them. The leadership has become a technocracy. The minutiae it has to deal with is both crucial—particularly with the threat of litigation looming behind every decision—and stupefyingly boring. No wonder they have no mental energy to deal with larger, more ambiguous issues, like those forms of heritage crucial to identity; culture and the arts; and the use of space when it comes available. When they come up with an issue that requires thought and reflection rather than numbers and specs, they punt. When there’s something specific and measurable, they turn it over to consultants and developers without asking what the self-interest of those people may be, or their track record in keeping promises. Or the unexpected results of their projects, as in the near-elimination of sidewalk space outside the KB townhouse development on 5th and Paramount.
I’m generalizing, but the trend is unmistakable. The developer who is still building The Promenade long after its proposed completion date never mentioned how sterile and dreary all that uniformly boxy architecture stretched over a vast dystopic terrain would be—even Benihana’s lacks traditional character. And you know that promised four-star hotel will never materialize.
As for the Avenue Theater, in which the city has now officially lost a half-million dollars, more mid-level restaurants and food outlets, in a street already loaded with them, will not take the meaningful place over a cultural center proposed by local arts leader Lorine Parks, among others.
While on the subject, Downey’s 2005 Master Plan for the future, mandated by the state, mentioned the Downey Symphony, The Civic Light Opera, the Downey Art Museum and the Downey Civic Theater itself as the city’s prime cultural attractions. The DCLO is gone; the Symphony can barely cover a tenth of its operating cost; VenueTech, the management firm that runs the Downey Theater, is virtually fleecing the city while staging one-and-done events that contribute nothing to Downey’s cultural identity; and the art museum, which preceded LACMA as L.A. County’s first of its kind, has fallen to the blowhard vindictiveness of a former mayor who wouldn’t heed state attorney, now state senator, Kamala Harris’ appeal to reopen it (this while the arts are exploding twelve miles up the road, making L.A. an international arts capitol).
Clearly the city has been unable or unwilling to deal with these issues. I’d recommend forming an advisory arts council consisting of locals who have proven themselves vital to the community. They would include Frank Kearns, Lorene Parks, Andrew Wahlquist, Carolina del Toro, Pat Gil, Valentine Flores, Harold Tseklenis, Donald Marshall, Roy Shabla and Marsha Moode. Singly and as a group, they’ve all met with the city to try and figure out the next step, but like the rest of us, they need official leadership to find a new direction.
Another issue you’ll have to deal with is the economy. Downey’s unemployment rate is slightly higher than both the California and national levels, but more to the point, the city’s average per capita income is $23,216 and its household $60,374. (The generally agreed on number for a representative middle class income is now $125,000.) Over 11% of Downey’s residents live below the federal poverty line. At the same time, the lowest price of new housing (including the townhouses going up on 3rd and La Reina) begins at $400,000. This does not include mortgage interest, insurance, utilities, food, clothing and transportation. At the pre-election candidates’ debate, someone mentioned the need for financial subsidies for increasingly unaffordable housing. But the city is not equipped to offer them, and in any case they wouldn’t serve as a long-term solution to a place whose new jobs are mainly in the service sector and therefore low-paying. This is one of the most crucial and demanding issues you’ll be dealing with. Downey has had a magnificent past, and its residential designs, schools, its much-heralded fire and police services, and the more intangible element of community spirit are legitimate sources of pride. But all this has been under duress over the past decades. It won’t take much more to make Downey lose the quality that’s made it Downey. Particularly with technology and globalization crowding the mid-foreground of our lives.
What we need from you is critical thinking, an almost reflexive mode of saying to yourself and the rest of us, “Is this the only way? Is there a better alternative? What’s at stake in the larger community?” For example, a number of studies, including the California Air Resources Board, have published the health results of prolonged noise and air pollution, which include stress, neurological disorders, asthma, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, low birth weight and premature birth. I recently asked a councilman if he’d ever considered these factors in approving residential development like KB on the heavily traveled Paramount Blvd.
His answer: “No. We’ve never thought of it. No one brought it to our attention.”
I know you have an orientation process to familiarize yourself with city government, but I’m hoping you take to heart the work of the late Jane Jacobs, still America’s premiere urbanist, who wrote, “When we deal with cities, we are dealing with life at its most intense and complex. Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
To which a writer for The Atlantic added, “ When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals. When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.”
The above mentioned Master Plan sent out 40,000 inquiries to the citizens of Downey. One hundred and ninety-three responded. I also made an unofficial and loose tally of the percentage of people who voted in the council election. The number barely broke double digits. Alex Saab told me that when he went door-to-door on his first term campaign, he was shocked to hear how many people didn’t know that a city council existed, let alone who represented them.
This isn’t good enough. When VenueTech president John Lind came to town to size up the theater, he observed, “The city isn’t responsive to the people, so the people feel they have no part in what goes on.”
I’m hoping you’ll change that. For starters, either you can add more content to the Discover Downey newsletter, or resume publication of the Downey Communicator, in which city news on issues and developments, and invitations to comment, went to every household in the city.
I’m glad that you, Ms. Pacheco, are willing to address the neglected tensions of South Downey; that you, Mr. Rodriguez, are interested in making city government more transparent (as in Where did the $650,000 go that was earmarked for parks and bike lanes three years ago?); and that you, Mr. Saab, can further articulate what exactly are those “values and priorities,” as you put it, that truly make Downey unique.
I often play tennis afternoons at Furman Park, which is next to Rio Hondo Elementary School. Sometimes I pause to watch when the kids are released into recess, swooping over the large playing field like flocks of joyous songbirds. When your first terms are up, the fifth graders will be in high school. If you earn second terms, they’ll be starting their lives as young adults. Who’ll look out for them in their formative years, I wonder? Who’ll enable them to develop the civic and social consciousness integral to living good lives?
Never underestimate your role, both in act and example, in shaping what they become.