Any schoolkid who’s taken math has heard of the theorem “the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.” It’s applicable just about anywhere, team sports, Gestalt therapy, any function that combines differing elements into an overall working system that takes on an added, inclusive characteristic.
It applies to the city of Downey too. Its parts function. Its infrastructure is sound, including city services, management, financial solvency, health and educational services, permits and licenses, police and fire support, road repair, traffic lights, the whole thing. It works.
Those are the parts. But there are people who have lived here a long time and look at the sum and find it wanting; unhealthful in more than a physical sense, increasingly dull, hectic, unattractive, haphazard, indistinct. Generic, if you will, built on the fly.
There are plenty of Downey churches that attend people’s spiritual needs, and numerous civic organizations that offer all sorts of help and service to the community. The transition from a white, professional and semi-professional class majority (aerospace) to a largely working class (manufacturing, service industry) latino majority (73.7%) has been smooth. And Downey’s residential housing, most of it anyway, remains its best appeal to a good life.
But in a larger sense, for those able to see the city over the arc of decades, there’s a definite feeling of decline far greater than the pang of quaint nostalgia. A lot of bad decisions have been made regarding Downey’s future, and they’ve been made by the current and past few cycles of the city council, our purported leaders. And there’s no indication that things will get better.
Some of this has come to light in the past few weeks in the letters section of the Downey Patriot, by Jim Rodriguez, who claims he was booted off the city’s planning commission because he insisted on “greater transparency and public engagement” on the part of the commission; by councilman Alex Saab, who implies he was vilified by Rodriguez, which he wasn’t, at least in those letters; and by Roy Shabla who, in a semi-hysterical, semi-coherent broadside against Christianity, or Christian churches (he doesn’t distinguish), demonstrated one of the reasons why the struggling arts community, of which he’s a prominent part, has virtually disqualified itself from any more meaningful conversation about sharing Downey’s future than it’s already had.
A line in Rodriquez’ letter caught my eye. He was writing about KB, the massive townhouse development on Paramount Boulevard, and what he thought it needed by way of improvement, only to be met by the rejoinder, “The design, elevations, and site-plan has (sic) been peer-reviewed by an outside professional and renowned architectural firm, in addition to staff reviews…” Fine, you would think, if you were in the room to argue for improvement. But let’s hear what our own city architect has to say.
Guess what: the city doesn’t have one.
Downey has an expert engineering department that can look over specs and blueprints to see that any submission meets the legal requirements of various building and safety codes. But it doesn’t have anyone to comment on the overall conception of a building or a building complex; that is, what it looks like, how it fits its surroundings and the overall urban design of the city. (When the McMansion issue first came up a decade or so ago, they hired an outside consultant to help them figure out what to do.) But that’s another problem: the city doesn’t appear to have an idea of that either. Its reflexive submission to the needs of the business community includes acceptance of whatever a business’s designer or architect comes up with. That’s it. Fait accomplis.
This came home to me when I overheard two perplexed city councilmen comment to each other about how weird it was, objectionable really, to see how much sidewalk space the KB project had gobbled up. Clearly they didn’t like it. It was insulting to their responsible judgment. But there was a nothing they could do about it.
This isn’t about KB or Jim Rodriguez or the intramural squabbles of a planning commission or the semi-opacity of city officials having it out in the editorial pages of The Downey Patriot. It’s about the sum of what Downey is becoming, has become, and how the values and decisions of the city’s leaders in all of its parts are very specifically shaping Downey’s identity, which will harden and persist long after this cast of characters has left the stage.
We’ve seen destructive people on the city council, blowhards, opportunists, people who use their position for financial and political gain. And we’ve seen very good, capable people give quite a bit of time, at very low pay, to help the city through good times and bum times. Its abandonment of the venerable Downey Art Museum and the popular Downey Civic Light Opera is nothing less than a disgrace. But the the city worked us out of the stinging Tesla betrayal. It scrambled to stay solvent through the Great Recession of ’08. It’s kept us reasonably safe.
Still, something of critical importance seems to be missing. Why does the Promenade look like it belongs in the Mojave desert? Am I alone in dreading what that proposed commercial and residential complex south of Rancho Los Amigos will look and feel like? I don’t think so. The fact is that Downey’ political leaders are far too enamored of the commercial sector at the expense of other parts of the whole. That’s all you hear about when they talk up the city: business, police (both authoritarian by nature). The minutiae of road paving, lighting improvement in the parks—they’re all important. But, to quote the old Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is?
Nor can we discount the deadening effect of an apathetic, uninformed general public, which results in who gets elected to office.
As I’ve watched the city council in action over the past decade or more, I sense what’s missing. I keep hoping that it would include at least one cosmopolitan figure, one public intellectual, someone who understands history and culture and civilization, what art and ideas do to shape a society, someone who understands the arc of human development in a given place in both immediate and historic time. Its sum, if you will. And how much all this rests on consideration of the individual as a citizen with layers, and not just a customer. Maybe that’s what we’ve been missing in our building and licensing of the future—the intimate human scale.
I once interviewed an accomplished Westwood architect named Chuck Kanner, who insisted I meet him in front of an apartment building he’d designed in Koreatown. It was a modest building, well-constructed, nicely appointed and landscaped. A low wrought iron fence stood in front, with a couple of gaps filled by wide marble benches.
“People in this neighborhood,” he said. “Joggers, dog-walkers, folks out at dusk to take the air, strangers to each other, often stop to comment on one thing or another. Sometimes the commentary stretches into talk, and they sit on these benches to continue. Relationships develop. These benches have created a community. They’re my proudest achievement.”
I wonder if our evolving Downey will find its bench.