DOWNEY – A friend recently returned from Paris and mentioned how, beyond grand imperial architecture, fabulous museums, famous cuisine, and one of the world’s great repositories of history and culture, it was pocket parks that make the city livable.
I’ve thought of that observation every time I’ve driven by that vast empty lot on 5th and Paramount, the one that’s about to be developed into a residential complex consisting of 117 townhouses. I’ve often wondered if our city planners, in recommending approval, ever took into account the numerous health studies from state and federal agencies, including a 2012 California Air Resource Board report, which cite the illnesses people can develop when they live near busy highways or heavily travelled streets, like wide Paramount Blvd., which is both speedway and major traffic artery, depending on the time of day. Asthma, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, stress, neurological disorders, low birth weight and premature birth—premature death, for that matter—are among the maladies that tick up for people who live near the poisonous gases, particulate matter and nerve-wracking noise that altogether fall into the category of traffic pollution.
Imagine a little park with a barrier wall in there, I’ve wondered. Rolling greens, stately trees, songbirds, meandering footpaths, maybe a little pond. You don’t have to do(Ital) anything in a park. It’s one of the universally great places, like the beach, where you can experience Walt Whitman’s guilt-free pleasure, “I loafe(cq) and invite my soul.” If it can soften the City of Light, imagine what it can do here, the place Southland advertisers have characterized as “Where the freeways meet.”
Nah, never happen, I conclude every time. Besides, considering the rising cost and general unavailability of housing, a critical issue in the region, the city probably made the right decision.
Then, in last week’s Patriot, I read Joan Niertit’s thoughtful examination of the direction the city of Downey is taking in trying to manage change and growth. I’m deeply admiring of this piece, and how adroitly it’s managed civic engagement with political neutrality. No snide remarks here or eye-rolling over yet another Bigfoot stomp on our Keep Downey Beautiful rose garden. Just the opening image of a grand old Victorian house and a venerable tree, mangled and destroyed to make way for yet more grotesque McMansions, which everyone recognizes as hideously tacky except the people who build and live in them.
Implicit in Niertit’s essay are the questions, Do we really want to do this, or things like this? And, Why? And at the heart of these questions is the one great question: does relentless commercial and residential development always represent progress? Or, as she puts it after carefully listing the benefits of growth, “I…know that development is under the guidance of the City’s Master Plan. What I question is whether that Master Plan is guided by a master strategy.”
Another word for that is vision, and the answer would appear to be no. It’s no secret that Downey has never recovered from the loss of the aerospace industry, which brought urban as well as personal affluence, innovative technology, national and international cachet, massive regional employment, and a general class of people whose education and levels of accomplishment required city services and amenities, i.e. police, schools, housing, etc., to keep them here. In turn they created clubs and civic organizations, local culture and recreation, a penchant for fine dining. In short, a pleasant, community-oriented, reasonably civilized standard of living.
Most people you encounter locally are still pleasant, but there’s a general sense, particularly among the aging 20th century holdovers, that something more than a defining industry has been lost. The city, such as it is, feels more hectic, more disparate, more improvised and architecturally directionless, with everything new seemingly built on the cheap. A great many of Downey’s problems, like climate change and drought, shifting demographics, globalized economics and the widening scarcity of well-paying jobs, don’t originate with Downey. The city has had to scramble to keep afloat, and financially speaking, it’s done well—particularly in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, from which the national economy still hasn’t recovered regardless of what you hear.
But quality of life, in the general and not the medical sense of the term, hasn’t been as good. A telling metaphor is the national and A-list attention given last week’s opening of the Broad Museum in downtown L.A. Downey had an art museum once, the first in L.A. County, and technically it still exists. But the building it once legally occupied was arbitrarily taken by the city over a private in-house dispute, and for years now the Furman Park site has been unoccupied while the museum’s collection languishes in storage.
I don’t mean to raise that issue again except as an example of how the city has failed to address the larger question, beyond providing licenses, services and conveniences like parking spaces and public toilets, of what constitutes the good, the livable and civilized life, and how best to offer it to its citizenry.
Culture and the amenities would have to fit in here. But look around. Fine dining has given way to the sports bar—there isn’t a single high quality restaurant in the city. The Downey Civic Theater, our largest municipal building and a facility that should be pulsing with day-long activity, has declined into irrelevance—nobody talks about what’s happening there except the gaggle of community groups and commercial acts that book single events. It’s a theater that never shows theater. For most of the week it looms in the dark like a ghost ship.
The Symphony still performs, and both the Stay Gallery and the Downey Arts Coalition have shown a lot of variety, dedication and initiative in programming numerous events throughout the year. But they haven’t yet spliced into the city’s DNA. The general feeling described in Niertit’s article, of loss, of inhuman commercial scale, of indifference to the look and history of things that give people their sense of belonging, still make up our atmosphere.
When Fernando Vasquez took office on the city council, I thought that was just what we needed. He majored in urban planning and he spoke of visiting small cities in Europe that know the esthetic and spiritual value of central plazas and parks, with fountains and benches and other architectural venues where people could sit and enjoy and invite their souls. But it’s clear now that he’s not going to bring that vision to Downey. Nor is the rest of the city council, whom I consider to be conscientious, well-intended public servants. We don’t know what they’re really up against in trying to guide the city into the future. I believe they’re doing the best they can, and it’s easy and convenient for us to criticize them, as I’ve done in the past, and as Joan Niertit implicitly does in her piece. But I also believe they’re not fully up to the task of reinventing Downey’s identity. Slapdash branding won’t do, and frankly it’s insulting for them to try and make us think it will.
We mustn’t forget that we live in a representative democracy. If Downey has unraveled from its former distinction, it’s up to us to ask of our future leaders, the ones who’ll step up when our current crop terms out, what their vision is to make this city more than an ongoing commercial enterprise, that is, a place of happiness and fulfillment where we feel distinctly at home in the universe. The place for us like no other.
Maybe it’s too much to ask of anyone, but we can at least try as we inch our way there.