Bringing Back Main Street

Photograph of site of Stay Gallery in the 1890s. Photo Credit: Downey Historical Society

I don’t have a clue why I obsess about this particular little street that many in the world don’t even know exists. I never paid attention to it until I returned home after years of college and traveling. Now, I find myself daydreaming of what Downey Avenue could be.

As the main arterial of ‘downtown Downey’, Downey Avenue also feeds into many different streets that have historically been the commercial and cultural outlets of our town. The development of our main street is key to the overall transformation of our downtown.  

While many see the negative, I envision Downey Avenue full life and vibrancy. I hear the chatter coming from coffee houses, see kids playing around public art installations, hear local bands performing during festivals, revel in a wide choice of local eating options, and see people living right above their main street. Rather than complain about what we lack, I focus on the potential for this avenue.

After finishing my post-graduate studies in urban planning, I knew I wanted to be involved in the development of Downey Avenue. During my studies, I become obsessed with how district branding and creative placemaking initiatives had the capability of turning entire downtown areas into thriving ‘places’. I didn’t truly understand the gravity of what this meant until we opened up Stay Gallery.

My passion for Downey Avenue (named Crawford Street until the 1930s) has not only dictated my professional aspirations, but has planted a vision to revitalize and engage a community in transition. It is my opinion that Downey Avenue needs to be the epicenter that symbolizes who we are as a city. During the last few years, a very interesting conversation began to develop about the future of our main street. To me, this process needs to provide an opportunity for our community to reconnect with the cultural and historic heart of our city.

This is part of the reason why I am so excited for Stay Gallery’s first historical exhibition, “‘The Avenue’: Historical Photographs of Downey Avenue.” (Exhibit opens August 22nd at 8PM @ Stay Gallery and runs until August 31st). I believe that where we came from points us to where we are going. Downey Avenue has gone through many ups and downs but has the complete potential to return a thriving state comprised of many local businesses and cultural amenities. It is important to note that Downey was not only the

commercial hub for our city but for a larger area of southern California. The first LA County Fair was held in Downey, in 1884.

But honestly, Downey Avenue is not all that unique. And that’s ok. It has followed the same development patterns as thousands of other suburban downtowns throughout America.

Early pioneers created the main street as the center of commerce, built around the railroad station, clustering businesses around Firestone and Downey Avenue. Post World War II prosperity brought revitalization to Downey Avenue, and the city began its hyper suburbanization. However, as the process of urban sprawl continued, it began to challenge the economic role of Downey Avenue. By the 1960s, early 70s, families began abandoning this main street because it lacked retail options. Instead, they were being introduced to gigantic shopping malls. Why fight traffic and have to find a parking spot or feed a meter when you could go to a mall with hundreds of free parking spaces and find fresh new stores and an energizing crowd of shoppers? The next 30 years saw many boarded up and empty storefronts as businesses and jobs continued to sprawl outward, leaving behind a dilapidated main street.

However, the last few years have seen a beginning of a renaissance for many American main streets. With sustainability being at the heart of new age development thinking, people want to live, work, and play within close proximity. The creation of districts and creative placemaking initiatives are transforming renewed main streets into unique places and revitalizing entire downtown areas.

Downey Avenue is experiencing similar patterns, and we are beginning to see results. Though these processes take time and often endure growing pains, real progress is being made.

I see a local government reacting to these development trends by setting in motion a Downtown Specific Plan, investing in street improvements, bringing in residential housing and supporting the local arts movement. Slowly, I see sidewalks being re-populated with pedestrians throughout the daytime and into the evening. I see young entrepreneurs opening a variety of innovative businesses. There is a new sense of hope on Downey Avenue.

True, we have a long road in front of us if we are to create a vital downtown district. We still need more creative public spaces, inspiring and interactive public art, more district-wide events, more local restaurant options, bike lanes and bike parking, and a more conducive parking plan to mirror downtown’s growth. We need to get away from the idea that we need to park right in front of the business that we are patronizing and allow for the creation of a walkable district.

Though it has taken a while, the push to bring back main street is alive and kicking.

This isn’t a merely nostalgic return to what Downtown Downey once was. By making it a destination that offers a variety of amenities for all types of people and activities, including restaurants, bars and taverns, entertainment, the arts, public spaces, and sports venues, we could create a new local and unique economic engine suited to our own time: our very own main street, Downey Avenue.

Image of what Downtown Downey could look like if creative placemaking measures are implemented.

Valentin Flores is the Executive Director of Downey Art Vibe, operator of Stay Gallery. Valentin has a BA in History from UC Berkeley and a dual-masters from USC in Urban Planning & Public Administration.