DOWNEY - A different Fernando Vasquez showed up last week for an address and Q&A with the Project Area Committee (PAC). Gone was the uninspiring, lackluster city council candidate from the 4th District, encased in boilerplate platitudes and dogged with conflict-of-interest questions-not to mention his failure to report all of his campaign contributions.Now that he's arrived, the tension seems to be gone. If you were in the room, you still got a pol's ready handshake and a freshly minted business card. But he seemed easygoing, personable, informed (and candid when he wasn't) and a good listener. More to the point, he told us that before he got his degree, his undergraduate work was in urban design and function. The City of Downey could use someone like that. The effects of city leaders' decisions can last years and even decades after they leave office, and there's been growing concern over, as one councilman said in private, "getting us out of the Karen Carpenter era." He (the councilman) was speaking of the arts, which, outside of the symphony and the civic light opera, have been conspicuously absent in Downey. But the general tenor of remarks you'll hear from concerned locals, in and out of politics, is that the city is stagnant, or, as economic development director John Perfitt put it (echoing Gertrude Stein), "There's no there there." That's why we've seen vigorous efforts over the past few years to give the town a facelift, an economic shot in the arm, and some kind of civic and cultural identity-"the place where the freeways meet" somehow doesn't cut it. Not that Vasquez has all the answers. But he does have models of comparison. He knows the value of public squares, for example, which he observed in Barcelona. Downey doesn't have one (malls don't count). He knows the value of getting out of your car and strolling through interesting places, as he's observed about Belmont Shore, San Diego's Gaslamp area, and Pasadena's Old Town; that is, a pedestrian area. "It doesn't have to be big," he said. Downey doesn't have one of those either. He spoke generally about the importance of development, of bringing nightlife in the form of dining, entertainment and shopping, and of keeping young people interested enough that they'll stay in town, both at night and when they're old enough to leave for good. He reminded us that the recession is still here, financing is difficult, but good things are on the horizon. The Gateway project on Downey and Firestone is in construction, as is La Barca's onParamount and Third. Fiat is bringing a dealership to the abandoned intersection of Gallatin and Lakewood. Porto's has already been a huge success, feeding 5500 diners a day (his report). And, of course, the latest news is that Raytheon is bringing in a research and training facility, which will go up on Woodruff near Stewart and Gray. Since Vasquez is new to the job, he's not up to speed on everything, like developing the Firestone Corridor, which right now is an ugly narrow parking lot when it isn't an ugly terrifying raceway. And he's not answerable for some of the developments you might read about in a Russian comic novel. How captivating and astute will the result of this much-trumpeted $90,000 branding campaign turn out to be, when 95% of Downey's population never received the questionnaire on what they think characterizes the city? (There's a website, but if you didn't go to a council meeting, you'd never know about it.) What kind of Gateway leads away from downtown instead of into it? Say what you will about double-dealing Tesla, their cars are sexy. Poor Fiat. Their new models-PAC members and the audience got a photographic peek--look like those runty vehicles that roll into a circus ring and disgorge a truckload of clowns. And if Downey can pony up a reported $700,000 to bring in Porto's, why couldn't the city cough up $30,000 for the building upgrade to save Sambi's, which Vasquez concedes was "a jewel, a great place for Downey families"? During the Q&A session, Vasquez reminded us that, as he put it, "The city's role is to provide services. It has to pay its bills." Maybe that's all it's officially obliged to do. But a city is more than a geographical precinct regulated by statutes and legal and safety codes. A city is a community of shared experiences, of history and culture, values and aspirations, all of which give its people a sense of being at home in a unique place that has everything they want, so much so that they're the envy of outsiders. Downey is still the step-up city of the Southeast region, with fine homes, parks, schools, and exemplary fire and police services. But at night it's a dead zone. For music, performance, galleries, dining and dancing, conversation, or any of the ingredients of urban buzz, you might as well be out on the Oklahoma panhandle. The city has enthusiastically thrown its support behind an array of youth programs, but they end at high school graduation. Thereafter there's little to attract and keep the young-not to mention the reasonably sophisticated adult. Signage, branding, and motherly street names such as Caring Way aren't going to address the underlying condition of Downey's essential dullness, the dry rot in its commercialized soul. Fernando Vasquez is only one cautious man with one voice among five. And he's up against decades of cultural inertia. But he's young, and he seems to have an idea of what makes a place a place to be. He may be off to a good start. Here's hoping. Christon is a journalist, author and critic who lives in Downey.
********** Published: March 10, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 47