The soul of the city part II

DOWNEY - If you really want to get the feel of a place anywhere in the world, just walk around, hang out, observe and listen and smell and taste, hear what people have to say. People tend to be proud of where they live. Even if it's shabby, they'll find something to play up, a piece of history, a cultural artifact or tradition, a shrine, a shared spirit. You don't need glossy travel brochures, web reviews, and government and chamber of commerce handouts (unless they're advisories about getting kidnapped or shot). Whatever you're looking for, even if you're looking for the whole thing, somebody will lead you to somebody else. It all starts with getting out there on the ground. To walk along Downey Avenue north off Firestone for a few blocks is to wonder how city officials managed the neat trick of convincing the National Civic League in Denver to declare Downey an All-American City, particularly when one of the selling points was downtown revitalization. Yes, Porto's has been a huge success, and that chunk of fast food and takeout restaurants that make up the Gateway plaza across Firestone looks to be doing well.

But Downey Avenue, downtown's commercial aorta?

The northeastern corner at Firestone Boulevard begins under a faded sign that says Simply Elegante and tops a store selling outlet dresses. Stay, the pocket art gallery with very little art in it (as of last Sunday night), is next door. Tracking north, there's Avenue Print shop, a State Farm insurance office, One Day Cleaners, and other storefronts that end on 3rd with another dress shop. Across the Avenue is the blank-eyed Cardono building with chief lessees Coldwell Banker and Dynasty real estate. Porto's parking structure takes up the other half of the block. Across the street is the BBQ and sports bar Bastards, Peking China restaurant, a hookah lounge, and at the end of the block, the gray, looming space taken up by Miller Mies Mortuary. On the east side is an empty building that was once a savings and loan; the former Granata's that's being refurbished as yet another sports bar (which we need like we need another Kardashian sister); the Assistance League Thrift Shop, the Mambo Grill, and another realty and insurance office on the corner.

Sound exciting?

In the middle of the block stands the Avenue's most prominent and telling symbol, the fake, imposing marquee that has replaced the real marquee of what was once the Avenue Theater, and where the title "West Side Story" announces itself in blank perpetuity. It's a Potemkin movie front (a local calls it "a tombstone"), built from questionable use of the Art in Public Places Fund, concealing a ruin in which $1.2 million of city money has so far been sunk.

The commercial buildings thin out as you go further north, where 4th and 5th Streets are dominated by three churches, a minimart and an apartment building. Downey Avenue was reduced from four lanes to two by the city in an effort to "calm" traffic. You look, and wonder, that's it? Our Riverwalk? Our little Great White Way? The calm, especially at night, is a snooze.

"I always see the glass as half-full," says Mayor Mario Guerra. Like other city officials, he refers to the devastating effect of the '08-'09 recession, which put Downey $11 million in the red, and what the city has done to climb back. In a nearly three-hour interview and subsequent e-mails, he says, without specifying, that there are plans for downtown development, including the Avenue Theater, which probably won't be a theater again (a general outline is covered in the city's 2010 Downtown Plan).

"We are excited about its potential," he says. Right now, The View is under construction on 2nd Street, a $23 million 50 unit residential building designed as an affordable housing site, as opposed to low-income or Section 8 housing. He refers to the refurbishing of the historic Rives Mansion, and the upscale restaurant that will go into it. Guerra talks of the master park plan, in which $450,000 was spent in Treasure Island improvements alone. He pulled out pictures of the recently approved plaza greenery plan, showing the trees that will soften and enrich the appearance of city hall, which in its earlier incarnation looked like the bleak survivor of a neutron bomb blast.

He outlines the hopes for Tierra Luna, the 168-acre, $300 million development on the old Boeing site. The city is going all in on this one. Fifteen hundred projected jobs. Four-and-a-half million dollars a year in tax revenues. Eighteen retail outlets. A couple of big box stores. Kaiser Permanente hospital and administrative expansion. Office space. Meeting space. Walkability routes. Restaurants and a food court. A hotel.

"We are a great bedroom, move up, family oriented, historic, safe, proud, independent city," Guerra e-mails, "with a good school district, our own police, own fire department, our own library, and a Character Counts community." He also considers Downey "the guiding light of our region and area."

There's a tendency to be somewhat leery of Guerra's gusty enthusiasms, the quality he has that recalls humorist Stephen Leacock's line "He leaped on his horse and charged off in all directions." You could say that his zesty embrace of the city of Taughmaconnell, birthplace of Downey's founder (and former California state governor) John Gately Downey, and its adoption as a sister city, is a tough sell in today's Downey and its 71% Hispanic population, which has vivid cultures and traditions of its own.

Reminded that the first hour or so of current city council meetings can be characterized as The Tonight Show starring Mario Guerra, including the monologue (joke-free, alas), Guerra closed his eyes in a brief expression of mortification and said, "I get carried away, I know."

But even his detractors admit that, as one put it, "He's passionate about the city."

His vigorous one-man campaign to get people off their butts to take walks around Downey is a hugely beneficial effort to counter the statistically alarming rise in obesity and its deadly companion, diabetes (not to mention how it helps people learn about their own city). When a dispute arose between an adult day care in South Downey and its surrounding residents, Guerra drove over unannounced and unnoticed, and sat in his car for an afternoon to observe what the fuss was about. That's a public servant. He recalls columnist George Will's line about Ronald Reagan, "We could always rely on him for a dependable hit of narcotic cheer."

That's certainly the feeling you take out of Guerra's city hall office. But there are serious points of incomprehension too, not just with him, but with the city council in general.

Last week the Economist Intelligence Unit listed five crucial elements that determine a competitive (and progressive) city. One of them was "an inviting and productive culture." Leaving City Hall, you notice a large banner that says, "Beauty is Good" and think, that's certainly got to be an improvement on the '80s mantra, "Greed is Good." But then you see, below the headline, phone numbers to call for graffiti and hazardous waste removal and shopping cart retrieval.

Who's idea was this? It certainly doesn't apply to any classical conception of what beauty might be, "the prince of truth caught between disguises," as Norman Mailer put it, or the mysterious and thrilling exaltation reached for in art and music, literature, poetry and performance. It's a city sign. It makes you realize that the city of Downey and the art and culture of Downey run on parallel lines that don't meet, and in that gap lies the deadly potential for spiritual torpor and decay.

I'll examine this in our next installment.

********** Published: July 4, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 12