Looking back on - Downey Parks

DOWNEY - The year was 1930 and after several failed attempts to establish a neighborhood park in the growing community of Downey, many residents had simply given up hope.For years, a number of civic organizations and prominent individuals had tried to build a small, community playground, but with little help - and even less money - no formal plans were ever finalized. But some hope came in April of that year, as community leader Roy L. Jenison, who owned an extensive portion of land in East Downey, decided to tackle the challenge. After working on a comprehensive plan for months, Jenison offered a 10-acre tract of his own land, near the corner of Firestone and Lakewood boulevards, for the development of a community park. Jenison would provide the land so long as the county agreed to pay for the ground improvements and the equipment. But with park acquisition low on the county's priority list, Jenison's $67,000 plan was rejected by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who managed many of the community's city-like services before Downey was incorporated in1956. Although Jenison's proposal was denied, his attempt to bring a quality park to Downey sparked a movement among residents who would soon ban together to launch a series of community parks that, almost 60 years later, still encourage residents, both young and old, to swing, slide, run, jump, jog and picnic. Downey's first park, Imperial Park (now Apollo Park), is truly a story of collaboration as several organizations and residents worked together to bring it to pass. In January 1949, the County Board of Supervisors sold two acres of Rancho Los Amigos land, on the corner of Rives Avenue and Quill Drive, to the Old River School District, which at one time ran three elementary school in Southwest Downey before the Downey Unified School District was formed. Working closely with the county parks and recreation department, the Old River School District, with help from the Downey Chamber of Commerce, was able to further secure the nearly 18 acres of land along Rives Avenue, from Quill Drive to Imperial Highway. According to an October 1949 article in the Downey Champion newspaper, "it was understood [that] the…remaining five acres to Imperial Hwy. would be developed by the county as a park." With development funds slowly rolling in from the county, work began on Downey's first park, which was to be named Imperial Park. However, in 1950, the county withdrew the funds necessary to complete the park because of pressure from other county-supported cities, who insisted that urbanized areas pay for their own park and recreation services. Abandoned by the county, Downey residents, mainly the fathers and mothers of Old River School students, took up the task themselves. By 1951, Imperial Park was dedicated and a Magnolia Grand de Flora tree, which still stands today, was planted by the Old River School Mother's Club. After its completion, the community, ready to establish more parks in the city, formed the Downey Recreation and Park District, an autonomous agency charged with establishing and supervising the community's parks. The new Downey park district, founded in 1953 even before the city was incorporated, originally covered all of Downey, but also a small portion of Bellflower. Popularly elected as the first Park Board of Directors were Mignon Caughran, Fannie E. Weiss, co-owner of the Downey Livewire newspaper, George Miller, Reno Sirrine, and Scott Temple, one of Downey's first councilmen. The district's first superintendent, who was responsible for getting the program off the ground and initiating recreational programs in each park, was former county parks and recreation manager, Daniel Furman. In December 1953, the district saved nearly $150,000 when the county transferred vacant land to the new agency. In addition to Imperial Park, which would later be renamed Apollo Park after the successful space missions, the county also donated a 15-acre "undeveloped" parcel of land at 10419 Rives Ave., now Furman Park in recognition of Daniel Furman's leadership and contributions to the Downey Recreation and Park District. With one park in the north, and another in the west, the district decided to establish a new park in South Downey. City limits were less defined before Downey was incorporated. As a result, many maps included a section of modern-day Bellflower within the park district's boundaries. Consequently, in the mid-50s, the district acquired a 12-acre lot at 14001 Bellflower Blvd. The recreational area, dedicated as Caughran Park, was named after board member Mignon Caughran and was known for its large, 50-by-100 foot, indoor swimming pool. With a 25 cent admission for kids and daily swim lessons for adults, the park was popular with Downey and Bellflower residents. However, when Bellflower incorporated and launched its own parks and recreation department in the early 1960s, Caughran Park was transferred to the city of Bellflower. It since has been renamed, T. Mayne Thompson Park, in honor of one of Bellflower's first councilmen. In 1956, the park district acquired 16 acres of land in East Downey near the San Gabriel River. Rio San Gabriel Park, located at 9612 Ardine Street, would be established here as one of the city's largest parks. By 1957, the district, now operating four park sites, had bought more land in Northeast Downey from the "State Division of Highways at the intersection of Lakewood Boulevard and the Santa Ana Freeway." Six years later, the land would become Dennis the Menace Park at 9125 Arrington Ave. In the early 60s, hoping to replace the lost of Caughran Park in South Downey, the park district leased, and then purchased, eight acres from the Downey Unified School District for public park use. The property was later opened in 1965 as Golden Park at 8840 Golden Ave. That year brought much change for the park district as it was then officially absorbed into the municipal services offered by the city. Now referred to as the Downey Park and Recreation Department, the new city division began establishing a string of community parks. In 1967, Treasure Island Park at 9300 Bluff Road was dedicated. Named in honor of Councilman Scott E. Temple, one of the early supporters of the park district, Temple Park, a quaint, half-acre at 7132 Cole Street, opened in 1968. Crawford Park, located at 7000 Dinwiddie Street, followed in April of 1970. Set on a triangular 2-acre plot of land, previously owned by the Edison Company, Crawford Park was commemorates the life of Downey pioneer Judge Matson Crawford who helped establish this community. Brookshire Children's Park, at 12520 Brookshire Ave., opened next in 1971, followed two years later by Wilderness Park, Downey's largest park at 26 acres. In 1975, Independence Park was established and later updated with a skate park in 2002. The newest city park, Discovery Sports Complex, an 11-acre park with two large baseball diamonds and athletic fields, was dedicated two years ago next month. All in all, Downey has grown tremendously. Now complete with 12 separate parks, a community and senior center, and gymnasium, the Community Services Department offers dozens of recreational programs and classes for both residents and non-residents. Looking back, Downey can be proud of its early founders who despite major setbacks and shortfalls embraced each other, came together on one accord, and offered their best for this community. When visiting a Downey park in the future, have fun, get dirty, but remember the people, remember the names. Though somewhat forgotten in history, these pioneering citizens deserve this appreciation for thinking of us before we ever arrived.

********** Published: September 30, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 24