Culture advocates evision downtown as potential jewel

DOWNEY - With many changes afoot in Downey business and leadership, anticipation for the new, vibrant restaurants, grocery stores and upcoming city projects is mounting."You're never going to have a more aggressive City Council - that wants to get things done - than you have now," said Councilman Mario Guerra. "We just approved the Downtown specific plan. We're on the verge of revolutionizing the quality of life in Downey." However, one particular group of residents wants to make sure arts and culture isn't forgotten as the City Council continues its ambitious march towards sustainable economic development. Filmmaker Andrew Wahlquist is one such resident, hoping Downey will follow the lead of other cities who converted their humdrum downtowns into blustering meccas for art and entertainment enthusiasts. "The character of an area creates a draw towards people wanting to come here - like the Pomona Arts Colony, for example," said Wahlquist, 32. "It's amazing; they have all these two-story buildings with a residence on top and a gallery underneath - basically someone's home." Wahlquist, who started, a blog, which promotes local art, theatre, music and film, said he had a friend who lived in the thriving downtown arts colony, but didn't stay due to its uncompromising location. "But here in Downey, we're the center of Orange County and Los Angeles," Wahlquist said. "In Pomona, there's something like 40 galleries now, coffee shops, monthly art walks…we need a transformation like that in Downey." Last month, at the request of this newspaper, Guerra, along with Councilman Roger Brossmer, hosted nearly a dozen Downey arts, conservancy and culture advocates who pleaded with community leaders to preserve the city's history and architecture while offering more artistic and creative opportunities for Downey residents. The conversation, while inclusive of all Downey, focused mainly on the downtown district, which advocates hope to make a popular destination for arts and entertainment in the region. Brossmer began the discussion by touting the city's new contract with VenueTech as a positive first step in redefining the downtown as a space for cultural programs and entertainment options. "I am very optimistic - this is a step in the right direction in getting the theater in play," said Brossmer. "What excited me was not only the programming that will be at the theater, but also the arts, the connection to the downtown. They're planning just as many things outside as they are inside. I'm super excited about this." Guerra said he would love to see the Avenue Theater, purchased by the city in 2008 with housing funds, become a second venue for artistic events, but unless a buyer steps forward, he maintains that housing must be built on the property. "Would our preference be to save the Avenue Theater? Absolutely," Guerra said. "Why wouldn't we? There's this perception that somebody wants to buy it - great, show us a plan. I'm willing to meet with anybody. It's just got to be feasible." For years Downey conservancy groups have been trying to pitch proposals to the city, hoping to save elements of the structure from demolition. George Redfox, local historian and photo teacher at Warren High School, believes saving mid-century modern architecture in homes and buildings will only better help define Downey. "The art and the preservation go together," he said during the round table discussion. "The facts show that historic preservation drives up neighborhood values, the value of a city, but there's always a reason why it can't be done. The architecture gives the city character, a place and a time, and artists are attracted to that." Brossmer responded by questioning whether the Avenue Theater is relevant now that the Downey Theater's programming will be revamped to offer more arts and culture events. "As far as the Avenue Theater - it may be nostalgic, but I don't see the history component of it," Brossmer said. "And I got a theater 100 yards away that is my responsibility so moving forward I'm much more energized on fully maximizing the potential of our existing theater - my money's on the Downey Theater." "As a performer having been to the Downey Theater, even though it's a nice civic theater, it's really not an ideal place that I want to go to," said Jared Head, 22, founder of Caged Comedy and owner of Lazarus Works Film & Photo Studio. "From the standpoint of logistics backstage - it's absolutely horrendous." Wahlquist agreed, insisting emerging artists need a smaller venue to hone their craft before taking on performances in the large, 738-seat Downey Theatre. "Artists need a place to start, to develop and be protected. The Downey Theatre is too big," he said. "One thing that is a civic duty…is asking, where are our artists, what are their needs, and how can we inspire them and help them along the way. We need a 99-seat venue, something smaller." Matias Flores, co-founder of Downey Art Vibe, sponsor of several Downey art exhibits since 2007, believes the city will follow if community groups start working independently to bring more music, art shows, and theatre performances to the city. "That's the main deal - we need a place for artists, and artists are everywhere in Downey," said Flores, 31, who helped organize a photo exhibit at the Downey Theater in February. "The last one we had there was about 700 people. About 25 percent of the people came just for the arts, and the rest were there to hang out. It's something to do on a Thursday night." Guerra acknowledged that there's more to be done in the downtown, but reminded residents that it takes time and money to initiate such changes. "We can encourage, we can facilitate, we can beg - but you gotta have the money," said Guerra with a laugh. "I'm not afraid to take risks, I like where this is going. We're all saying the same thing. But we need to have more discussions like this. I want your ideas - I want to get things done." In addition to the possibility of a future film series at Kirkorian Theatres, the group also requested that the city establish an arts and culture commission that could work with the downtown business district to help promote more artistic activities and cultural events. "Something similar to the green task force - we just need an official excuse to talk monthly about theatre and arts events," said Wahlquist, who agreed a new, transformed downtown could get busy. "I'm okay with parking problems - as long as there's something to do."

********** Published: December 23, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 36