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Downey in the Past, Present, and Future

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Last week's column took a look back at Downey's past, from the agriculture of the 19th Century, through the war years, and the rise of the aerospace industry. This week L.A. Letters spotlights the changes that have happened in Downey over the last 30 years, along with what the city has become and will be in the near future.

The changes that occurred in Downey during the 1980s and 1990s mirror the wider regional changes that occurred across not only Los Angeles, but all of California and the nation. As widespread layoffs in the aerospace and manufacturing industries began to shift the established makeup of the region, cities like Downey became much more culturally diverse.

For many, Downey's location can be praised for of its central placement in Southern California between L.A., Long Beach, and Orange County. Lena Kim, who grew up in Downey, says, "I felt very lucky growing up in a city where it was in between the OC and L.A. If my friends and I wanted to go to the beach or hang out on in L.A., it only seemed like a 30 minute drive away. I felt I had the best of two worlds."

Marisa Urretia Gedney, who works as an educator at 826LA in Echo Park, corroborates with these sentiments. "Because Downey is a hub between Los Angeles and the greater L.A. County of the southeast, it's not suburban in a way that feels isolating or devoid of culture," she says. "Instead it's a place where people can bring their own version of L.A. to life with lots of green space, whether that's at a park or a backyard. Downey has easy access to bike paths and freeways too, so it's easy to leave when you feel like you just need more."

Forty one year-old Ignacio Gonzalez has lived most of his life in nearby Bell Gardens, and for over the last decade in Downey. Gonzalez has watched the city change a great deal over his lifetime. "In the '70s and '80s, Bell Gardens was majority Latino, while Downey was overwhelmingly white. Our group of friends and I rode our bikes into Downey from time to time, and most of the time Downey PD was sure to escort back across the bridge into BG." Gonzalez told me that he has seen homes in North Downey listed at over $2.5 Million. "A few years back I had heard the famous Mexican Ranchera balladeer Pepe Aguilar lived in that area," he says.

When I was in junior high in 1987, I marched in the Downey Christmas Parade with my class from Haskell Middle School. We came over from a few miles south in Cerritos. As we marched down Firestone Boulevard past the 1950s storefront facades, I remember thinking that Downey seemed a little older and more All American than Cerritos.

Cuban and Greek Populations

By the mid-1980s, Downey was known for having sizable Greek and Cuban populations. Nunez recalls that "Downey has always been such an ethnically diverse city with large Cuban, Greek, Korean, and Indian populations among many others. For a kid coming from Colombia it was amazing to suddenly have friends from all over the world!" The Cuban population remains stronger than ever in Downey, with eateries like Porto's Bakery, the Tropicana Bakery, and Cuban Café. The Greek population in Downey still holds strong at eateries like Café Opa, which is where I recently ate with Gonzalez.

One of the most vibrant pockets of the local Cuban community is an adult basketball league for men over 30. Known as the Cuban American Basketball League (CABA), they have approximately 100 members, many of whom play every Thursday night at the Apollo Park Gymnasium. I briefly spoke to the League Commissioner David Gonzalez via email. Gonzalez started the league with three other longtime Downey locals, Anthony Zamora, Alex Duran, and Alex Saab. Saab is Downey's Mayor Pro Tem. Each of the co-founders are second generation Cuban Americans, and have lived in Downey for almost four decades each. The owner of the popular Tropicana Cuban Café and Bakery, Mel Madrazo, also plays in CABA.

The league began just over a year ago, and it has grown quickly from 35 members to the 100 players they have now. Gonzalez told me that although their founding members are Cuban, "we embrace all members of our diverse community no matter what race or ethnicity." They are currently about 50% Cuban, but they have a full Greek and Mexican team, as well as other existing members from Colombia, Central America, and South America. They are proud to have a strong league that continues to become more popular around Downey. "Our mission and mantra is to actively promote good sportsmanship, camaraderie, fellowship, and healthy activity in our community through Basketball," Gonzalez told me. "We are a diverse group of men who aim and strive to be active, reputable and contributing partners in our community."

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Wilderness Park in Downey | Photo: Paul Vincent/Flickr/Creative Commons

Jose Nunez is a first generation American that moved to Downey from Colombia when he was 12. Now 41 years-old, he is grateful that his parents chose to move there for the lifelong friends he made. He recalls the time of the mid-1980s: "During that era Downey was a city a lot of Hispanics aspired to live in. It was the crown jewel in that area of Southeast L.A.," Nunez says. "Downey is the only city in the area with its own school district, and many families from the neighboring cities would figure out a way to get their kids registered in Downey schools." Nunez went to Warren High School and has many fond memories of his teachers and the friends he made.

One of Jose Nunez's classmates at Warren, Korean-American Lena Kim, remembers her school experience slightly different than Nunez. "There wasn't much diversity in my school at the time. Mostly Caucasian and then some Latin, with a very small percentage of Asian and Black," she says. Kim was a cheerleader during junior high and high school, and was also a big fan of the KROQ music scene. She says, "I only attended games because I was cheering or performing with my squad. Although I do have to admit, rivalry week in Downey was so much fun. It's the time when our team would be playing Griffith Middle School in junior high and Downey High School in high school. The whole city felt electric with anticipation for the game." Kim's favorite site in the city was Middle Earth Records, which I'll discuss in a few paragraphs.

Marisa Urrutia Gedney went to Warren a decade after Nunez and Kim. She says, "I grew up with a very diverse group of friends who were either first generation or third generation like myself, from places like Egypt and Serbia, and other Mexican-Americans." She recently went back to Warren to give a personal statement workshop to 200 parents and students. "It was astounding to see such a full library of people from my community," she says. "It was an honor to be able to give back and share my knowledge to support college access."

By all accounts, growing up in Downey was a very middle class existence. "Most of us had swimming pools so we would go swimming all the time, and rode our bikes everywhere," says Kim. "But as soon as we got our cars at 16 we were out of here and drove all over the place, to Westwood, Knott's Berry Farm, Venice, Melrose." Gedney shares these feelings as well: "When I was young I spent a lot of my time wanting to leave Downey," she says. "In high school I was in L.A. most weekend nights, going to all ages shows and exploring neighborhoods like Los Feliz, Little Tokyo, and Echo Park. I wanted to experience more than what a suburb had to offer. But when I went away to college at UCSB, I enjoyed summers in Downey because it gave me time and space to write, to paint, and still see old friends, most of whom stayed in Downey."

Over the last two decades Downey has gradually transitioned into being a city with a majority Latino population. "Downey is one community that disproves the myth that an increasingly Latino population would bring down property values and the quality of life," says Ignacio Gonzalez. "The city has experienced increasing development and broader city services over the last 20 years -- even with the demise of the Rockwell and the aerospace industry."

Stox Restaurant in Downey | Photo: Downey Conservancy
Stox Restaurant in Downey | Photo: Downey Conservancy

Stox, Dixie Belle, Skate-o-Rama and Stonewood Mall

Downey has had many old restaurants, dating back to the 1950s and '60s. One that still stands is Stox Bakery. Established in 1962 on Imperial Highway in the eastern section of the city, this vintage eatery is one of the few places in Downey that has not changed over the years, still serving their legendary breakfast after all these years. The same cannot be said for the Dixie Belle.

The Dixie Belle was a restaurant where old Downey locals hung out. "The whole place was a smoky backroom, back when smoking was allowed," says Gonzalez. "My Dad Ignacio Sr. and the dishwasher Fidel were among the few non-whites in the establishment, but they felt welcomed there. It is now called The Hully Gully, and hosts '80s Nights with Morrissey cover bands." Marisa Urretia Gedney has recent memories of seeing shows in the space as the Hully Gully.

Skate-o-Rama on Woodruff Avenue was a roller skating rink, now closed. Gonzalez remembers it as "One of the few (if not only) occasions that a large number of Latino kids from Bell Gardens were allowed in Downey. These were usually school-sponsored events."

The Stonewood Mall was also one of the city's most famous locations. During the 1990s and 2000s it was remodeled and many new stores were added. "During the 90's and 2000's we welcomed the changes," says Lena Kim, "however, now when I think back, I miss the old Stonewood Mall because it was an open air mall and the best part of it was Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor."

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Middle Earth Records and Downey Musical History

Middle Earth Records was located in Downey for over a generation until it closed in 2007. Forty five year-old Karl Gardea, born in nearby Norwalk and whose parents owned a dentistry in Downey for over 40 years, only bought music at Middle Earth, for over 25 years. "Middle Earth Records in Downey was a real place where the 'Independent' label could be heard playing," Gardea says. "A place where you could listen before you bought, a place where the owner and employees knew their music and yours."

Originally opened in 1969, Middle Earth was the only record store for miles around where you could find punk, new wave, or other rare titles during the 1980s. It would often be mentioned on KROQ during the station's glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I bought my first Smiths record there in the late 1980s. The only other option for music fans looking for these kids of records was to drive to Melrose or Aron's Records -- it would be years until Amoeba opened in L.A. in 2001. Lena Kim says, "This record store was one of the coolest spots in Downey and unfortunately that's gone too. It was a place where you can find rare bootleg concert videos of your favorite bands. It was like the store Hot Topic before Hot Topic ever existed."

One more note must be said about the several famous musicians who have come from Downey. It's well known that the Carpenters grew up in Downey, but so did the lead singer of Metallica, James Hetfield, and the famous punk and rockabilly musicians Dave and Phil Alvin. Kerry King, the guitarist and co-founder of Slayer, also did as well. Weird Al Yankovic grew up in nearby Lynnwood, and was born in Downey.

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Flyer for Middle Earth Records | Image: Middle Earth Records Memorial Facebook Page

Redevelopment of Downtown Downey

In 2001, the city of Downey decided to redevelop its original main street, Downey Avenue. From the city's earliest days, the intersection of Downey and Firestone was one of the main hubs of the city. Similar to so many cities across America and Southern California, the old downtown district and main drag was largely vacant and quiet by the mid-1990s. Slowly but surely, the city started to lure new businesses in, and now in 2015 Downey Avenue is a vibrant corridor.

Nineteen year-old Benjamin Garcia attended Downey High School a few blocks away, and he recently told me, "Downey Avenue is the place to be." A new mural was painted on Downey Avenue on December 31, 2014, and it is titled, "Downey Doodle-Icious." It's dedicated to celebrating a mix of the city's icons from the past and present. The mural contains images and the names of a few dozens of the most iconic places in Downey. A short list of some of the places mentioned includes: El Taco, Del Rio Bowl, All American Home Center, Middle Earth Records, Stox, Downey Studios, the Apollo Space program, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Johnnie's Broiler, the Blasters and the Avenue Theater. The mural also includes new Downey icons like Porto's and the Downey Arts Coalition. The city's motto, "Future Unlimited," is on the top of the piece.

In recent years several new bars and eateries have opened up near the nexus of Downey and Firestone. A new project called the Downey Gateway is one of the epicenters. The most famous new location in Downey is undoubtedly Porto's Bakery on Firestone. The celebrated Cuban bakery is already famous for their Burbank and Glendale locations, but they recently opened in Downey and there is always a long line. A Dunkin Donuts also opened in 2014, located a few blocks east and equally popular. "When Porto's and Dunkin Donuts opened, people went nuts here," says Lena Kim. "My parents actually waited in line for both when they first opened, and they said it was fun and exciting to do so. Now we just need a Trader Joe's and everyone would be highly satisfied!" Longtime spots like the bar Kelley's Tavern are also still flourishing along Firestone, a block west of the new businesses.

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Downtown Downey | Photo: Pam Lane/Flickr/Creative Commons

Downey Arts Coalition

There has always been a strong arts presence in Downey. For over 57 years the city has had its own Symphony and its own art museum, located in Furman Park. The Downey Art Museum was forced to close a few years ago, but they still have an outstanding collection, and are doing their best to find a new site. In the meantime, to fill the void, a new group of young artists have come to rise and have formed the Downey Arts Coalition. Stay Gallery is a new creative space on Downey Avenue that holds art shows, poetry readings, and also works with local schools.

Marisa Urrutia Gedney is on the board of the Downey Arts Coalition. She tells me, "Andrew and Lana Joy Walhquist worked hard to start the Downey Arts Coalition because everyone who grows up here craves more and sees the potential, and they wanted a way to showcase all the talent and ideas the community had, while trying to utilize existing and underused spaces like the Downey Civic Theatre and the old Avenue Theatre." To this end, they have been organizing rooftop art shows with artists like Carolina and Jorge Del Toro, and Carol Kearns, who writes for the Downey newspaper, organized a music festival called "Make Music Downey," bringing in bands like Las Cafeteras and Chicano Batman. Furthermore, poet Frank Kearns has his own press and helps to produce a monthly reading series called "Poetry Matters." All the arts organizations in Downey work closely together," says Gedney.

Conclusion

Like so many cities in Southern California and across America, Downey is in the midst of reinventing itself. Nonetheless, it has such a strong foundation that its future will inevitably be as great as its past. Karl Gardea says, "[We] can no longer shop at All American Hardware or Neil's Stationers or eat at Sambis, but there are still some spots that are alive in the past. Arthurs is a must for Breakfast and Lunch! Ever had a Pastrami Pizza? No, well go visit the Downey Pizza Company."

Jayson Quimby, who has taught in Downey for 17 years at Griffiths Middle School, says, "Downey has its own award-winning school district, police, and fire departments. This gives it a refreshing autonomy not found in many cities in Southern California. Downey is also a safe city, with great neighborhoods filled with nice homes, great schools, and wonderful places to shop, eat, and be entertained."

I was recently on Downey Avenue and there was a brisk pedestrian presence. The city's combination of great history and new developments, does indeed make its' future unlimited. Salute to Downey for being a seminal cornerstone in the topography of L.A. Letters.

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