Downey, California: A new kind of suburban idyll
Pub co-owner Sergio Vasquez remembers the place as “a coffee shop which served Scandinavian food.” But, he says, as the city’s demographics changed, “The population didn’t catch up with it. The only people that really attended were elderly people. They decided to shut it down. And that’s where we came in.”
Today, the five-year-old boutique brewpub buzzes with the sounds of craft beer pouring out of taps, clanking glasses and dishes, and a crowd of patrons that – like the population on the outside – is mostly Latino.
(Jessica Haro and Eric Ibarra sit at a fountain on the corner of Firestone Blvd and Downey Ave on November 9th, 2013.) Photo by Mae Ryan/KPCC
In some ways, the pub’s story reflects the story of Downey, a onetime aerospace hub which, like nearby Whittier and a cluster of other Southern California communities, embodies the latest chapter in the evolution of Latino L.A.
Back in 1980, Downey was mostly non-Latino white, with Latinos representing less than 17 percent of the population.
It was an earlier era’s picture of the suburban idyll: wide green lawns, tidy ranch-style homes,
a Stonewood Shopping mall, a golf course,
an iconic McDonald’s with golden arches that’s still the chain’s oldest surviving outlet.
(Karen and Richard Carpenter grew up in this house in Downey)
The Carpenters, the soft-pop singing duo, once attended Downey High School, the home of the Vikings..
Thousands of residents held good jobs at the sprawling Rockwell aerospace plant, which in its heyday produced Apollo capsules and the Space Shuttle.
But defense cuts began taking their toll in the 1990s.
By the time the plant closed in 1999, the city’s white suburban identity was in a state of flux, with many families moving out.
Left behind was a mix of retirees, languishing businesses,
and – for some Latinos who had been saving their pennies in more modest communities nearby – opportunity.
Like Vasquez, who grew up a short distance to the west in Bell, Latin American immigrants and their descendants gradually began transforming the city.
They started buying up the ranch-style homes and investing in businesses.
Today Downey is 71 percent Latino – and like their predecessors – these newer residents are mostly middle class.
University of Southern California sociologist Jody Vallejo says they represent a growing group of upwardly mobile (Yuppies) Latinos who have chosen to settle in Latino-majority communities that reflect their economic reality. These include Whittier, West Covina, pockets of Orange County, and Downey,
“Which is often referred to by Mexican Americans themselves as the Mexican American Beverly Hills,” Vallejo says.
Okay, so it’s not quite Beverly Hills.
Downey has a mix of more and less affluent neighborhoods, with property values generally higher on the north end of town.
But with a median annual household income of more than $60,000 – and close to 40 percent of its households earning $75,000 or more, according to a Cal State Long Beach analysis – it’s earned its reputation as a middle class Latino stronghold.
The Latino version of the middle-class “ethnoburb” – a term typically associated with Asian American suburbs – is a phenomenon that Vallejo says began in the 1990s but took off in earnest during the last decade.
It coincides with slow but steady gains in educational and career attainment among Latinos as the great, post-1965 wave of immigration from Latin American settles into its second and third generations.
For those who succeed, moving into communities once perceived as out of reach is part of “making it,” Vallejo says.
“Many Latinos who are moving to places like Downey did grow up in places like South Gate or Lynwood, and really saw, or see, Downey as the next step,” Vallejo says.
“Growing up, you thought that’s where all the wealthy or the middle class people lived.”
(Reeves Mansion on Paramount Boulevard, across from the Nordic Fox restaurant.)
Mexico City transplant Elsa Valdez once lived in Maywood. But for her, Downey was the always the place to go.
(The Krikorian Theater)
“This is the city that we were coming to the mall, to the theaters,” Valdez said. “I see the city that it was cleaner than the city that I was living. It is also really close to my community, that is, Latin people in Huntington Park, Maywood, Cudahy and all those cities.”
Valdez bought in Downey in 1995. Now she sells real estate in the area, and says most of her clients are the children of immigrants – entrepreneurs and professionals who can afford homes costing half a million or more.
This latest wave of residents has spawned a new wave of businesses, including upscale Latino-owned ones.
Recently, Valdez took her mother to lunch at Porto’s, L.A.’s famous bakery begun decades ago by a Cuban immigrant family. The $14 million Downey location opened three years ago, drawing long lines of customers who line up at gleaming glass counters to order flawless guava pastries and steaming cups of café con leche brewed on on luxe equipment.
City officials have drawn several chain restaurants and other businesses catering to middle-class tastes, but there’s a homegrown element, too: an art gallery that opened last year and highlights the work of local artists, for example, and a soon-to-open upscale independent steakhouse whose chef has promised a signature mac and cheese spiked with chorizo.
“All one needs to do is look around to see the effects of gentefication,” says Vallejo,
using a coined term that refers to gentrification by Latinos.
There are still a few wants: For example, a specialty grocer. A Facebook campaign by residents to lure a much-coveted Trader Joe’s (Whittier has the nearest) has not yet done so.
Outgoing Downey mayor Mario Guerra says that in some cases, a majority Latino population can still be a hard sell for some retailers.
(New Downey Mayor, Vernando Vasquez was sworn in December 2013)
“There’s certain businesses that look at a certain demographic, and don’t take in the reality and look at the buying power of Latinos,” Guerra says. “And it’s sad for them, because they are missing out on opportunities.”
(At Sambi’s of Tokyo for a Sister City Association Christmas Party with former Mayors Barbara Riley and Joyce Lawrence of Downey.)
But there are others willing to cash in on that buying power.
(The Abortion Clinic on Firestone was open six days a week. Right-to-Lifers were picketing out front)
Guerra and other city officials broke ground recently at the old Rockwell site, making way for a new development that will host theaters, restaurants and a pedestrian shopping village.
(As we drive out of Downey on Firestone Boulevard, we wish you well.)
After being sworn in, Mayor Fernando Vasquez said “Only in America can a son of immigrant parents with a 1st grade education earn a college education and become the Mayor of Downey. Thank you Downey for allowing me to serve as your 46th Mayor!”
Leslie Berestein Rojas, Immigration and Emerging Communities Reporter
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- Fernando Vasquez, center, was sworn-in as Downey mayor Tuesday. He is pictured with finance commissioners Jason Valle and Ricardo Perez.
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Vasquez becomes Downey’s 46th mayor
DOWNEY – With more than 100 community leaders, city officials, and residents looking on, Councilman Fernando Vasquez was sworn-in as the 46th mayor of Downey on Tuesday night December 10.
The 34-year-old councilman, who was elected in 2010, was administered the oath of office by his fiance’ Donna Noushkam.
Echoing themes of economic growth, quality of life, and community engagement, Vasquez reaffirmed the city’s commitment to the Healthy Downey initiative by introducing an array of new 2014 community events, including a “Tour de Downey” bicycle race.
“Folks, we’re going to have a big Downey bike day with a 30-mile route for experienced cyclists and a five-mile route for those who want something smaller,” he said. “But we want to promote active living and encourage people to spend time in Downtown Downey.”
Vasquez said he will also advocate a bicycle-sharing program modeled after a similar system in Denver. The program will allow users to pick up and drop off bicycles as often as they like at designated stations throughout the downtown area using their credit cards as currency.
The incoming mayor also said he hopes to host a FIFA World Cup viewing party for the community on June 22 when the United States soccer team faces Portugal.
“Soccer is very popular in our community — and I see a lot of communities come together for these games,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that the U.S. plays Portugal on a Saturday at noon.”
Vasquez’s other community-building events include an international food festival, highlighting Downey’s strong Mexican, Cuban, Greek, Lebanese, Argentine and Brazilian communities, summer sunset rooftop events, such as movie screenings, and a music and arts festival.
“We want to rebrand the city as a regional hub for arts and culture. There’s been a huge push for the arts, it’s one of the city’s strengths,” Vasquez said. “Cities like Long Beach and Santa Monica are known for their arts communities, but in Downey, we have a lot of talent. We need to support them.”
In addition to the new events, Vasquez said he plans to hand out Mayor’s Healthy Heart awards to local hospitals, nursing facilities, doctors, coaches, teachers, and trainers who are making a difference in the community.
Vasquez also pledged to embrace new technologies such as solar power on public facilities, online water bill payment options, and social media for means of community engagement.
“Managing city funds responsibly, business and economic growth, running city operations smoothly, maintaining a high quality of life, and engaging our citizens…anything proposed [by the council] has to meet these priorities,” said Vasquez. “We will continue to have a balanced budget and a healthy reserve so we can weather any storm in the future.”
Citing it as a quality of service issue, Vasquez also strongly reaffirmed his commitment to maintain the Downey Fire Department.
Before Vasquez’s swearing-in ceremony, outgoing mayor Mario Guerra gave a final address, highlighting the accomplishments of the Healthy Downey initiative, which motivated him to lose 84 pounds over the course of 2013.
During his tenure, Guerra facilitated Walking Wednesdays, Walk to School Day, National Night Out, and Dia De Los Muertos, which was attended by 4,000 people.
In 2013, Downey became an All-America City and a sister city to Roscommon County, Ireland, the birthplace of the city’s namesake Governor John Gately Downey.
Guerra also touted the groundbreaking ceremonies for The View apartment complex, the Downey Gateway food court, and the Promenade at Downey, which will create 1,500 permanent jobs once completed.
“I’m looking forward to working with Mayor Vasquez. When I leave, I do get a different office,” Guerra said drawing laughs. “But we’re in good hands — Fernando has a great vision.”
Wow! Thanks I went to high school in Downey. If Downey is now 71% Latino, that is really a difference from when I lived there! In my junior high school (Griffiths, named after our principal who died) there was only one Mexican-American boy that I remember. There was a thriving Jewish population, and the rest were WASPs. There were no Black people at all. Segregated.
Will be visiting this summer with my French wife. Actually looking for an AirB&B. Wish there were some! (I do have a couple of friends who still live in Downey, but they have yet to offer 🙂
Thanks for the history!
All the best