The soul of the city

DOWNEY - What do you think when you think Downey? That's a question that's been seeping into local consciousness for well over a decade, like that mysterious gaseous smell that periodically drifts over the region, drawing complaints from the population and head-scratching perplexity from officials who can't seem to track down its origin.

A couple of online Realty companies have run Yelp-like commentary from visitors who have considered renting or buying in Downey.

"A pretty nice residential community surrounded by a lot of crappy cities,' wrote one.

"Nice but bland and boring," wrote another. "They should call it Debbie Downey."

Small town? Small city? Downey's civic leaders like to emphasize the idea of small because it underlines the importance of community, of people who know each other, have a few laughs together, help each other out, share experience, answer to each other if need be, which altogether gives them a sense of place in time in a livable spot on the earth.

This is a commendable notion, when you consider how our post-industrial, post-modern global village, fuelled by the ruthless engines of market forces, has seen its miracles in science and technology, health and communications, gained at the expense of those down home values. We're living in an era of increasing corporate depersonalization lived within a near-violent centrifuge of speed and change, change we can't keep up with, change that skews our values and our sense of what constitutes the good, meaningful life-even our sense of reality. Are Facebook friends true friends? Does anyone believe that reality shows are real? Is formal education a lifelong road to knowledge and wisdom, or is it a costly requirement for the job market? What has the price of a macro world exacted in moral and political corruption, individual powerlessness and mistrust? Or even just making a living?

When you look at it this way, small is good. But as a quality of mind, small can also be stifling. Small resents change. Small is comfortable with its ignorance and defensive of it. Small has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. The insularity of small eventually creates a morbid condition.

A functional balance between the two worlds, home and away, has been something a lot of people in Downey, and not just its civic leaders, have been thinking about, because in the breach lies Downey's elusive, dwindling identity. On returning last week from Denver, where Downey officials successfully lobbied the National Civic League for the designation "All-American City," Councilman Alex Saab reflected, "Identity seems to be a problem with a lot of other cities too."

But it's particularly acute here. Why? Because in the absence of any natural scenic wonder, of defining rivers, streams, woodlands, mountains or grand oceanic views, Downey's claim to fame is based on a history that's been completely disrupted.

The all-American designation is fine. It's helpful. But it's based on limited criteria. Anyone today who calls Downey a great city needs to have his head examined. Just drive around and have a look at its drab, disparate commercial architecture, its weird mix of odd old buildings and indifferent sprawl, its forgotten-in-time look. Or the generic, cheap-o appearance of its newer structures. Downey was never great, like Florence is great, a city people visit from the world over for splendors that can't be experienced anywhere else. But it's been brushed with greatness.

Downey was founded in 1873, but up to the mid-twentieth century, it was essentially a rural community. Early aviation pioneers began to change that in the 1930s, but in World War II, when a relatively defenseless West Coast mobilized to fight the Japanese forces in the Pacific, military aircraft production shifted into high gear. After the war, and into the era of commercial aviation and aerospace technology, outfits like Boeing and North American Rockwell, and their sub-contractors, stayed on to design and manufacture airplanes and space technology that fed the nation, and the world's, need for commercial as well as military air transport, and spacecraft.

Lakewood was built by the blue collar workers of those companies, the carpenters, electricians, welders and parts assemblers. Downey was built by the professional class, the upper execs and managers, the lawyers, doctors, finance experts and engineers. That's why many of Downey's residential areas remain spacious, beautiful, or classic examples of mid-century ranch style design. The lucrative industry that gave us the Apollo Space program and the Space shuttle also gave us good schools, good restaurants with silverware and linen tablecloths, and a social and cultural life. The 748 seat Downey Theater was built in 1970. The Downey Symphony was good enough to play the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One of David Hockney's first local showings took place at the Downey Museum of Art.

By 1999, shifting congressional priorities and changing economics led to the collapse and withdrawal of not just our greatest taxpayer, but our source of pride and our sense of who we are. Downey has never recovered. A brief flirtation with Tesla Motors, which restored our flickering hopes, ended in heartbreak. A changing demographic and an aging, diminishing Anglo population--along with the sense of history and continuity elders bestow on the young--have left us in a state of flux. The art museum is closed, the Civic Light Opera at the Downey Theater is finished, and the symphony is struggling to survive.

Is there anything that can turn it around? In the next few installments, we'll look at some of the developments that are brewing, particularly in a younger, energized arts community, because if there's anything that art is about, it's possibility. I leave you with this image: A few years ago, at a city redevelopment meeting, the mean age of whose membership was in the 60s, two shy, nervous teen girls stood in the back of the room. They were reluctant to speak. Someone called them out.

"We just came to say," said the bolder one, "that we love Downey. We grew up here. But it's so boring. There's nothing to do. Please give us art. Give us entertainment. Please give us something to keep us here."

********** Published: June 27, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 11