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Downey: From Orange Groves to the Apollo Space Program

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Located in the Gateway Cities section of Southeastern Los Angeles County, Downey is an iconic Southern California suburb with a rich historic legacy. Similar to a number of other nearby cities, it has deep roots in agriculture and aerospace, as well as a complex cultural history. Many Southern Californians know that Downey is where the sibling musical duo the Carpenters went to high school, but few know that it is also a city with one of the largest Cuban populations of anywhere in America. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Downey's past from the agriculture of the 19th Century, through the war years and the rise of the aerospace industry, and the development of the Apollo Space program there in the late 20th Century.

Early History

During the early Spanish era of California, the site of Downey was originally part of the 300,000 acre Manual Nieto Land Grant. In 1834, the Nieto heirs split up this grant, and the portion between the banks of the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River became Rancho Santa Gertudes. A generation later, somewhere near the end of the Civil War, an Irish immigrant, John G. Downey, purchased 17,000 acres of land, then known as the Los Nietos Valley. About a decade after the purchase, Downey began promoting his property as one of the "gardens" of Southern California.

Situated between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers, the land where Downey sits has always been very fertile. The settlement of Downey was established in 1873 and it remained an agricultural area all the way until the Second World War. John G. Downey is considered one of the pioneers of the modern subdivision; he subdivided 96 acres of land in the 1870s and started advertising the property as a prime spot for homesteads and vineyards. Downey's promotional material listed the land for $10 an acre. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the mid-1870s gradually accelerated the development, but by all accounts, Downey still remained largely rural, with orchards, dairy farms, ranches, dirt roads, and small homes well into the 20th Century.

John G. Downey is also considered one of the first to realize the great potential of the citrus industry in Southern California. He imported a number of different varieties of oranges into his settlement, and by the 1880s there were many acres of orange groves in the areas adjacent to Downey. The land was also conducive for dairy farming and sugar beets; numerous citrus groves, dairies, and sugar beet farms remained in the area until the rapid construction of tract housing following World War II.

Though Downey was settled in 1873, it did not become an official incorporated city until 1956. Two smaller settlements, Gallatin and College Settlement in the northern end of Downey, eventually merged to form the larger city. In the early years, it was considered an "orange-grove town"; though the orange groves have gone and the city is now much more developed, many of the homes still have orange trees in their backyard.

Flooded street in Downey, 1954 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Flooded street in Downey, 1954 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Downey's Geography

Similar to Montebello and many other Southern California cities, the boundaries of Downey are very much delineated by local rivers and freeways. Considering the freeways were built along the paths of the rivers and during the late 1950s and 1960s, it is easy to see how the planners and engineers who envisioned the freeways followed these roads that were already in use. Downey's western border, with the exception of one small fragment in the northwest quadrant of the city called "Treasure Island," is marked by the Rio Hondo River. The northern border is Telegraph Road, but for all and intents and purposes, it is essentially Interstate 5, because Telegraph runs just north of the interstate.

These same parameters are essentially true for the southern and eastern borders as well. The San Gabriel River and the 605 Freeway line the city's eastern edge; the paths of both the river and the freeway run from the mountains all the way to Seal Beach. The southern border of Downey is Gardendale Avenue, directly adjacent to the 105 Freeway. Essentially, Downey is surrounded by freeways on three sides. The city is about 12.5 square miles and the population is now over 110,000.

In South Gate near Imperial Highway, just west of Downey city limits, is where the Rio Hondo River merges with the Los Angeles River. As any river historian knows, there were many floods in the area prior to the concretization of the rivers in the late 1930s, and the nearby city of Paramount was originally called Clearwater for this reason. Further influence of the waterway in the area can be seen in the name of one of Downey's major roads, Old River School Road.

The Rise of Modern Downey and the Aerospace Industry

Rapid industrialization and suburbanization occurred across Downey and Southern California because of World War II. The city's population more than tripled between 1940 and 1960, with the phenomenal growth of the aerospace industry during the war being one of the biggest driving forces. After the war, hundreds of homes were built for the emerging factory workers. Historian Larry Latimer reports that aviation pioneer Jerry Vultee bought E.M. Smith's old Downey airstrip in 1936, and started his airplane production plant there in the following years. Vultee was one of the nation's largest producers of military aircraft -- the plant built 13,000 airplanes in Downey during World War II -- and was also known as a pioneer for using women employees in their factories.

Vultee was a pioneer for using women employees in the factories | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Vultee Aircraft became North American Aviation, and then eventually North American Rockwell, which was eventually bought by Boeing. The Downey location, located on the eastern side of Lakewood Boulevard stretching from near Imperial Highway to Firestone, is where much of the United States space technology was developed from the 1950s, well into the early 1990s. During the 1950s, the Downey site transitioned from aircraft to missile technology. Over 25,000 employees worked in Downey on the Apollo Space Program.

For over 40 years, thousands of engineers, mechanics, and factory workers were employed on the premises until massive layoffs afflicted the aerospace industry during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1999, the famed site where so much of the American space program had begun, was no longer in operation. For over 10 years following the closing of the Boeing site, the large aircraft hangars became the Downey Studios. Films like "Spider Man," "The Italian Job," and "Iron Man" were shot there until the studios were demolished in late 2012.

An organization called "The Aerospace Legacy Foundation" still exists in Downey, and they have done ample research and archiving to preserve the rich aerospace history of the city. According to the Foundation, many writers and historians refer to the city as the "Cradle of the Cosmic Age."

The Columbia Memorial Space Center

The former Boeing site is so large that a number of new developments have come to rise on its land. There's a new Kaiser Permanente Hospital, the Downey Landing Shopping Complex, a new park, and the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is a 20,000 square foot interactive learning center that opened in 2009 to commemorate the aerospace history of the area. Located a half block east of Lakewood Boulevard and a block north of Imperial Highway, this hands-on site not only celebrates the history of the Apollo Space Program, NASA, and the Space Shuttle, it also includes two floors of exhibits and laboratories for local students to engage in science learning and technology. A program allows students to design their own airplane, and test their design on the center's airplane launcher. There is also a memorial dedicated to the astronauts lost in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

On the day when I was there, two full school buses from the Montebello Unified School District were visiting. The robot laboratory and shuttle simulator were surrounded by dozens of students. A large chart showed the evolution of the space program over the 20th Century, from the earliest rockets, all the way up to the space shuttle. My favorite exhibit was the huge projected satellite images of Earth that were shot from outer space. This center, located on the site of where both the Apollo and Space Shuttle space craft were designed and built, is a treasure trove for aerospace aficionados and local school children, and is definitely one of Downey's crown jewels.

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'Suited for Space' exhibit at Columbia Memorial Space Center | Photo: Pam Lane/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Downtown Historical Society

Located in the southwestern quadrant of the city, Apollo Park is home to the Downey Historical Society. Apollo Park was once called Imperial Park, and the name was changed over a generation ago to commemorate Downey's influential role in the Apollo Space Program. When I went to the historical society, I met their president, Bob Thompson, an alumni of Downey High School who has lived his entire life in Downey and worked in the aerospace industry for 42 years. Thompson's childhood home in the southern part of the city was among the hundreds of Downey homes demolished for the construction of the 105 Freeway over four decades ago.

The museum not only honors the obvious city history, like the Carpenter's and the Apollo Space program, it is also filled with historic photos, maps, memorabilia, and countless objects reflecting over 120-plus years. A small historic house from 1887, called "The Dismukes House," is also on the premises. Thompson showed me shelves of yearbooks from Downey High School that dated back to before 1910; they also have all of the yearbooks from Warren High School since its opening in 1955.

One of Thompson's own projects is compiling a record of all the planes that were built in Downey. The boxes and boxes of archives on site are his source materials. One of their rooms is filled with newspaper clippings and thousands of articles and historical documents related to the city. In 2010, historian Larry Latimer collaborated with the Historical Society to create a Downey book for Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. Thompson told me that they have enough material to create a second edition.

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Downey was once called "Little Beverly Hills," according to Thompson. There are many mansions in Downey that look similar to those in San Marino and Hancock Park. For this reason, Downey has always had many great restaurants, and has even had its own Symphony and Art Museum for over 50 years. Many of these homes were owned by engineers from the aerospace industry, as well as many doctors and other wealthy individuals. After the Carpenter's made their money in the music industry, they returned to Downey to buy one of the large homes on the city's north-side.

Directly across from the Historical Society is the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. Known as one of the largest rehabilitation hospitals in the United States, it has been there over 125 years. The Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services considers it one of the most important medical sites in all of Southern California. Though a large part of the site has become essentially an abandoned ghost town, the operating facilities still offer a wide array of services in stroke, spinal cord injury, brain injury, pediatrics, orthopedics and diabetes care, pressure ulcer management, limb preservation and post-amputation care.

Rancho Los Amigos | Photo: Hadley Meares

Googie Architecture in Downey

Considering the city's connection to the space program and that much of Downey was built during the 1950s, it is no surprise that the city is filled with Mid-Century Googie architecture. Perhaps the most famous of these is the former Johnie's Broiler on Firestone that is now a Bob's Big Boy. Tom Wolfe wrote about this site during the 1960s in his book, "The Pump House Gang." Johnnie's closed in 2001 and was used for many years as a filming location. Ignacio Gonzalez, who has lived most of his life in nearby Bell Gardens, and for over the last decade in Downey, told me about the local efforts a few years back to save Johnnie's from the wrecking ball after it had temporarily became a used car lot. "When the car lot went under," Gonzalez recalls, "it sat unused for some time. I passed by late one Sunday evening and I saw that they were demolishing the place. A group of local residents gathered to protest. The protest worked because the demolition stopped and it is now a Bob's Big Boy."

Another famous historic architectural site in Downey is the oldest standing McDonald's still in operation. Located on the corner of Lakewood and Florence, this McDonald's was built in 1953, with the iconic golden arches that are much bigger than the ones seen in newer versions of their franchise. Similar to the Johnie's Broiler, this location was closed following the Northridge earthquake of 1994, but protests by preservationists eventually led to it being restored. There is now an adjacent museum and gift shop on the premises. The first Taco Bell was also built in Downey, on Firestone close to Johnie's Broiler. The building still stands, but it is vacant and has not been a Taco Bell for years. The last time the building was open, according to Gonzalez, was when an eatery called Raul's Tacos operated there.

The End of an Era

Downey is an era of redevelopment and shaping its future. The preservation of the historic architecture is one way of commemorating the city's past. New developments like the Columbia Memorial Space Center are also paying tribute to the past but the educational component within the center also helps look to the future.

Next week I will spotlight the changes that have happened in Downey over the last 30 years, through conversations with locals. In the meantime, salute to Downey's legacy of orange groves, aerospace development and googie architecture. These dynamic touchstones solidify Downey's place as an iconic city in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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