Hunger for arts scene

Dear Editor:All congratulations and honors are due Mayor Guerra, the Downey City Council and other officials who have been instrumental in bringing new businesses to Downey. Bob's Big Boy, Porto's, Kohl's, the Granata's bar-b-q grill on 2nd and Downey Avenue are among the new arrivals - in the middle of a deep recession, no less. Tesla Motors is of course the coup de grace, a state of the art electric car manufacturer whose vehicles have the audacity to be sleek, sexy and powerful. Tesla shows every sign of becoming an international success story. To the estimated 1,200 jobs that will be created at the old NASA site, Tesla will be bringing its own executive, engineering and professional cadre to Downey. Question: What will they find away from the workplace in our putative downtown? And what will the residents of the proposed affordable housing projects at the Avenue Theatre and Verizon sites find when they have leisure time? Answer: Not much. Downey is a fine area for homes and real estate. Its homes are representative. Its service infrastructure (police, fire, city management) is excellent. But when it comes to a municipal version of the Tesla car, it's more like those improvised '50s Chevys that stink up the streets of Havana. The plucky Cubans have an excuse: no money and a 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo. What's ours? Why is it that downtown is so pokey, desultory, moribund and gray, cramped and empty at the same time? Why is it that the Krikorian theater is the social center for the young, when its product is studio generic and bludgeoning to the spirit? How is it that people of all ages, ethnicities and interests will routinely say of downtown Downey that it's boring? The Tesla exec and his family, like the mythic observer from Mars, will see in Downey retrograde traffic congestion, no vibrant center, no cultural scene, no night life, no buzz. Forget chic. If a city is characterized by a mentality, all a visitor has to do is pick up the letters page of The Downey Patriot to find the most stupefying ignorance spew forth without regard to fact or reason, most of it, alas, reflective of Fox News and its cranky reactionary buffoons. Talk of retrograde. No wonder Trader Joe's doesn't want to come in. They're right: we're in the wrong demographic. Besides, we have our Trader Joe's, if we're willing to get real about the makeup of our citizenry. It's Amapola's on Florence Avenue. It may not do for the chardonnay and brie crowd, but it does offer fresh produce and meat. I was born and raised in a great city - New York - and have stayed in a number of the great cities of the world, Paris, London, Rome, Rio, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Beijing and Moscow among them. They all have their history and traditions. What distinguishes them in culture and a municipal planning scheme that provides for convenient mass transit and plenty of opportunity for people to walk where they need to go. Not even the most frenetic civic booster is going to place Downey in the company of the above-mentioned cities. On the other hand, Florence, one of the principal sites of the Italian Renaissance, had a population of only 60,000 when Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci worked there. Ours is 110,000 and rising. What can we do to revitalize Downey? I keep coming back to the arts and their variant, entertainment. The Avenue Theatre, though apparently doomed, remains an option to anchor downtown with indie films, festivals, lectures, music and readings. There's the Downey Theatre next to the Embassy Suites and a number of open spaces and sites for outdoor concerts of every sort. There are other indoor venues that could be transformed into night spots, comedy clubs, underground spaces and jazz and music spots - all located in the vicinity of Firestone Boulevard and 4th Street and Dolan Avenue and Paramount Boulevard. And maybe, God forbid, we could put in a bookstore. Which means people could get out of their cars and walk from one place to another, revivifying the street scene. Sharon Lavery, director of the Downey Symphony, is connected with USC, where a lot of tomorrow's world-class musicians come to study. It shouldn't take much to get them to perform here. You don't have to go to more than a couple of city council meetings to realize that our current panel, though obviously capable of advancing the city's economic and civic interests, doesn't for the most part have the skill set, knowledge or interest in seriously getting behind an arts scene. It may take a couple of election cycles to get one going. The hunger is there, as attendance at the Epic Lounge (when it was happening), the packed summer concerts at Furman Park, and DCLO performances, signify. It's a law of nature that things either grow or die. All of us have a stake in what happens to Downey in the immediate future, whether we glow in the night or become as dark and dreary as an industrial park after dusk. Right now the dominant tone of the Avenue is set not by restaurants and clothing stores, but the decaying eyesore of the theater marquee and the macabre space that yawns around the Miller Mies Mortuary. That should tell you something. - Lawrence Christon, Downey

********** Published: December 11, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 33