Cultural identity

Dear Editor:Judging by The Downey Patriot's coverage of the City Council's June 9 meeting, when it comes to the subjects of the arts in Downey and the fate of the Avenue Theater, we're feeling a lot of heat but seeing considerable less light. We need more clarity and open-minded discussion and less dismissive dispute, where everyone goes home angry and nothing is accomplished. If, as the Patriot reported, city officials say that restoration of the theater to the purpose for which it was designed - showing movies - is unrealistic, how do they know? Who would have though that a Manhattan landfill, home to marauding seagulls, rats, scavengers and vermin, would one day serve as the foundation for the multi-use residential Tribeca, a neighborhood which not only enjoys hip cachet, but is home to a film festival, hosted by Robert DeNiro, that's one of the most prestigious in the country. Clearly the Avenue Theater is in ruin. But if it cost millions to rebuild, at least that will redeem the reported $1.23 million the city has already sunk into it, money that will be lost if the idea of a restored theater is abandoned. And for city officials to complain that no one seemed to mind the unstable state of the theater until the city took it over is to overlook the bad management that ran it into the ground in its last days, when its seats were sprung and it fell into filth and disrepair. When the city "saved it," as one official said, Downey citizens saw with delight the potential for new life. After all, isn't the purpose of government, including city government, to serve the needs of the people? Another reason this issue hasn't come up until recently is that Downey has changed, perhaps faster than its civic leadership realizes. A new demographic is taking shape. Young people are hungry for more than what television and the Web can supply. Under new ownership, The Patriot now serves, via its letter section, as a town hall debating center. And clearly a lot of voices we hear, and letters we read, are calling for something Downey distinctly lacks: cultural identity. But the arts people don't get off so easy in this dispute either. Nobody sounded a peep when a sour battle of egos closed down the Downey Museum of Art, echoing the famous line from the Vietnam era, "We destroyed the village in order to save it." What we (and I include myself in the arts advocacy mix) need to understand is that right now that city is not equipped to handle an arts component in its organizational mix. It doesn't have the money, the structural resource to coordinate and support artists and arts groups, or even the mentality to understand what they mean to a community and how they function. The City of South Pasadena, with a comparatively more educated and affluent class than Downey, and a much longer history, is in the same fix we are, but a movement is under way among its citizens to form an independent arts council. Many professionals, including executives in the non-profit arts sector, as well as artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, and musicians, have volunteered to bring it about in discussions that are intelligent, well-intended and free of acrimony. The George Redfox group and the Jared Head group and anyone else out there who wants what they want, whether it's Shakespeare, jazz, or indie films, have to coalesce into an organization bloc that articulates and clarifies its aims, and mobilizes support from what is clearly a more and more open citizenry. And we're going to have to do it ourselves. Which means that Jared Head needs to back off from his heavy rhetorical fire. I don't know Mayor Guerra and have only had one conversation with him. Maybe he was intemperate June 9, but he's an emotional man. Generally, he seems a goodhearted sort who wants to do the right thing by Downey - he makes it a point to get around town more than most of our past mayors. It doesn't make any sense to yell at him, or any of the members of city council, whatever you may think of them in private. To insult and harangue someone publicly is to create a staunch enemy; to do it to people who hold your fate in their hands is the height of lunacy. You can come up with the greatest idea since the invention of the Internet, but when they see you approach the mike, you're a dead man walking. I'm all for passion, and this cause is a good one. But Mr. Head's temperamental outrage can only sabotage the effort and desire of a lot of good people to make something better of Downey. - Lawrence Christon, Downey

********** Published: June 19, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 9