How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Downey: A new kind of suburban idyll

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The etched-glass door of the Downey Brewing Company still reads "Foxy's" -- all that's left of the restaurant that occupied the space for decades, catering to a long-gone crowd.

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.

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 shopping mall, a golf course, an iconic McDonald's with golden arches that's still the chain's oldest surviving outlet. The Carpenters, the soft-pop singing duo, once attended Downey High.

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 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.”

Mexico City transplant Elsa Valdez once lived in Maywood. But for her, Downey was the always the place to go.

“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.

Downey mayor Mario Guerra says that in some cases, a majority Latino population can still be a hard sell for some retailers.

“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.”

But there are others willing to cash in on that buying power.  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.

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