Potential of downtown

Dear Editor:Over the past year or so, meetings of the Downey Redevelopment Project Area Committee, and the appearance of director of economic development John Perfitt before a packed Cormack Room last week (reported in The Downey Patriot), have been intended to gauge public reaction to the city's plan to convert a couple of newly purchased properties, the Avenue Theatre and the Verizon building, into residential spaces. Some of that was discussed. But there's been an unintended consequence to the plan. The reason so many showed up, young and old, is that the city has also been pondering additional uses for those properties. A lot of people are unhappy about what a dead zone Downtown Downey has become, despite the city's intermittent efforts to spiffy it up (see Paul Granata's letter last week). Now they see a way to change that: bring arts and entertainment to downtown. This is an idea that's clearly been gaining momentum over the past few weeks, judging by letters to your editors and commentary at the meeting. And it's not just voiced by people who miss the old theater out of nostalgia for their younger days. You can feel the electricity in the air, the eagerness of spirit, from people who see its enormous potential for enlivening downtown, whether through art films, A-list studio films that bypass the Krikorian, indie festival works, or even, as Lorine Parks suggested in your pages last week, a venue for local filmmakers (or all of these things). It can also serve as a late night spot for jazz and rock groups (the ETC storefront on 2nd Street showed the appetite for the latter recently). The Verizon building has even more potential. I don't know if it has an auditorium or lecture room. If there is, or if one can be built, there's no reason why it can't host solo and chamber music recitals, like the string section from the Downey Symphony, or sets from our own great Pancho Sanchez, literary and poetry readings, lectures, and even performances of great American musical numbers by professionals from the Downey Civic Light Opera (Actors Equity offers a waiver for this kind of busman's holiday). The Downey Museum of Art could move some of its art exhibitions over. Classes could be held in every discipline. Whenever the city puzzles out loud what to do with its properties, you always hear about bringing in more restaurants and businesses. But every city has restaurants and businesses. They alone aren't going to distinguish Downey. It's an odd situation to be in where, aside from the DCLO and a couple of other venues, Downey not only fails to draw audiences, diners and customers from nearby communities, it doesn't even draw the majority of its own residents. There was a time when Downey was referred to as the Beverly Hills of the Southeast Region, largely because an educated professional and semi-professional class built beautiful homes to live in, and enjoyed excellent city services, including an exemplary police force. The Regency Room was as fine a dining and dancing supper club as any in the region. Marmac's the all-you-can-eat prime rib joint, was written up in Time magazine. A lot has changed. The Regency is a car lot and Marmac's is long gone. Downey is still a fine community - particularly when you regularly hear tales of corruption in the nearby cities of Bell Gardens, Bell, South Gate, and the horror story that's become Maywood. But Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Cartier's won't be moving in anytime soon. Nor should they. The demographic has changed. Still, that's no reason to think that there are no smart people in Downey, that all we're expected to do is shop, eat and go home. The Cormack Room meeting, full of people ranging from teens to octogenarians, disproved that assumption. They're deeply hungry for the kind of life that only the lively arts and entertainment can bring, and there are a lot of artists and performers out there who wouldn't need a lot of coaxing to give Downey a try. Physically the downtown area is already a natural. Now that the Downey Theatre's do-nothing manager has departed, taking his six-figure salary with him, the city could seriously consider what to put in there to complement the DCLO and the travelogue series. Add that to the Avenue Theatre, and the Verizon, and eateries like Mimi's, the Embassy Suites, and Granata's - all within walking distance of each other, which is crucial - and you start to have a scene echoing Fats Waller's line, "This place is jumpin'." This is much easier said than done, of course. The city has no precedent for this sort of thing, no proven mentality for understanding culture beyond giving it lip service, and it would surely have to hire someone to manage as an arts entrepreneur - maybe even form a small counterpart to L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs. This could be a hard sell to taxpayers with other priorities, and God only knows what havoc the national and international economic crisis is going to wreak locally. And how well would our new condo and apartment dwellers put up with any kind of commotion downstairs? Perfitt and the PAC have been clear that they are only "conduits" to the City Council, which has no first-hand knowledge of the issues discussed in the Cormack Room. Nobody knows what the developers, who've already been contracted, are going to do, or even what their capabilities are beyond the obvious. And if the restaurateur who's already bought into the Avenue Theatre decides to rip out its seats in favor of dining room, goodbye Avenue Theatre. But a couple of city officials were at the Cormack Room meeting. One is a member of the city's planning commission and seemed keenly interested. The other was Mayor Mario Guerra. "You talk too much! You don't' listen!" someone yelled at hizzoner. "I'm listening, I'm listening!" he protested, amiably. Let's hope so. A lot's at stake. - Lawrence Christon, Downey ********** Published: January 16, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 39