We are home to where the Apollo Space Program began its journey to the stars. Downey is where you can find the world's oldest McDonald's restaurant and the site of the first Taco Bell eatery. This is the city where the pop recording artist "The Carpenters" were inspired with many hit records. Today, our city is admired for its strong retail base with quality housing.

Downey is a unique community in the heart of Southern California that combines the best of both large and small. We are an active city of 111,772 with a small town atmosphere. This is a place of pride, history, involvement, and community. We are highly recognized for our centralized location, top medical facilities, quality residential neighborhoods and schools, excellent golf courses, and an unmatched family lifestyle. In fact, Downey has been rated in the top 25% of "100 Best Cities To Do Business in California" by California Business Magazine. Downey's winning formula can be the key to your business success or family lifestyle. Come discover Downey, the place where America began its journey to the stars.

The Origins of the Downey Community

History of Downey Picture
Rancho Santa Gertrudes
By 1784, ten Spanish missions and four pueblos had been established along the California coast. These frontier outposts, a day's journey apart, formed the links to the development of the ranchos when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The institutions of law and order gradually brought the Native Americans, frontiersmen and Spanish settlers into some semblance of peaceful coexistence.

Part of the lands under the jurisdiction of the San Gabriel Mission, established in 1771, was the Los Nietos Grant. Juan Nieto, an ex-solder, was granted provisional use, in 1784, of 300,000 acres of prime Southern California ranch land. In 1834, after the division among the Nieto heirs, a portion of this grant, between the banks of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers, became the Rancho Santa Gertrudes. In 1873, a 96-acre parcel of Rancho Santa Gertrudes became the central district of a community called "Downey City".

The town derived its name from John Gately Downey, an Irish immigrant who had come to California during the Gold Rush, and succeeded to Governor of California. He helped build the economic foundation of Southern California, effecting a transition from open cattle range to an agricultural district of small farms. Downey was among the first to subdivide the vast ranchos into farms.

The population, mostly of Southern origin, had come west in search of new opportunity, fleeing the ravages of the Civil war. By the 1870s the farmers in the Los Nietos Valley had formed small communities. These communities each built a school, a church and a store at a central location. Often the same building or "town hall" served as all three. Two of these communities later became a part of Downey--Gallatin and College Settlement.

Gallatin and College Settlement

Gallatin was the first of the two communities (Paramount Blvd. and Florence Ave. area) to take the lead in commercial enterprise. Its date of origin is sketchy since it developed out of frontier conditions rather than as a real estate promotion. The Silver School District of Los Angeles County, formed in 1867 noted, that Gallatin had a school "for some time."

The naming of the town itself is the subject of two rather colorful tales. One story related that there was a famous racehorse on the East Coast named Gallatin. A local merchant placed a sizable bet on him and won. He was so overjoyed with his victory he named the community Gallatin.

A more plausible explanation of the name originated with Albert Gallatin, President Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of Treasury. Mr. Gallatin's philosophy was to distribute money throughout the country so as to favor the small farmer and merchant. Gallatin's "Jeffersonian Democracy" made him a hero of sorts to the settlers of the Los Nietos area.

College Settlement began in the 1860's when John Ardis purchased a parcel of land in the southwest corner of Rancho Santa Gertrudes. This land was near today's Paramount Blvd. and Alameda St. Paramount Boulevard was initially named College Ave. Ardis opened a private school and in 1869, with the Methodist Church, established the Los Nietos Collegiate Institute.

This school-church centered community attracted settlers who had traveled west hoping to settle and raise families. John Ardis gave up his private school to devote his time to the college and to develop the new community. The sale of lots was not speculative; they were purchased to build homes and commercial buildings. In less than a decade, College Settlement had the economic cornerstone of a thriving community of small farmers, educators and merchants.

The Founding of Downey City

John Downey
John Gately Downey
John Downey and his associates were officially assessed on the tax roll of October 23, 1873, for a parcel of land within the Rancho Santa Gertrudes. The property was called the "Tract of the Downey Land Association". This land, consisting of 96 acres, was valued at $2,940 with improvements of $330. It was located ten miles from the sea and ten miles from Los Angeles.

Much of the city's current development patterns were determined by the expansion of the railroad. It was no coincidence that one of the first buildings in the new town was the Christian Church. Prominent among the early members of the church was Matson Duke Crawford, agent for John G. Downey and attorney for the Downey Land & Improvement Association. Crawford arranged for the church to acquire the lot on the corner of Fourth and New Streets. The construction of the church marked the beginning of the present downtown.

Although development of the new town proceeded slowly, the 1873 tract map established 16 blocks, reserving 10 acres for a railroad station. The dense vegetation had been cleared and some 300 homes in the district had been established. The town continued to grow with a courthouse, post office, schools, churches, businesses and more houses located in the downtown.

The typical Downey home in the 1870s was built entirely of unsurfaced knotty wood. Pieces of tin were nailed over the knotholes. Battens covered the gaps between the boards making the houses more livable. Most were whitewashed inside and out and in various stages of repair. These California "box houses" had an average of two main rooms and a lean-to open-air kitchen. Windows were closed with wooden shutters to keep out the wind and rain. One example in this early tradition is the Dismukes home, which has been preserved at Apollo Park by the Downey Historical Society.

Luxuries were scarce. A single private library was listed in the tax rolls of 1873 belonging to R.L. Latimer. Mrs. W.P. McDonald was the proud owner of a piano, a gift from her father. This instrument was such a curiosity that people came from miles to see and hear the melodious contraption.

Downey as a Commercial Center

From the outset the Downey commercial district did a brisk business in the buying and selling of produce from the local farmers. Further growth in agricultural commodities came after the building of a gristmill. The area was favored as to climate, fertility of the soil and abundant water for irrigation. Cultivated fields of small grain, corn, castor beans, mustard and young deciduous fruit trees were producing excellent yields.

Poultry raising, an industry largely conducted by women, experienced tremendous growth as the railroad furnished access to greater markets. The firm of Baruch & Lowe shipped as many as eight hundred dozen eggs a week to San Francisco alone, having a standing order for two hundred dozen per week.

The map of the Downey Land Association was filed and the sale of lots progressed in a lively manner with Downey and Crawford acting as agents. The promoters of the town built the Central Hotel located at La Reina Avenue and Firestone Boulevard (then Venable and Front Streets). The company hired the hospitable T.J. Carney as innkeeper with John Dolland as clerk. Both of these pioneers had been formerly of College Settlement.

The business center began at the northwest corner of Downey Avenue and Firestone Boulevard (then Crawford and Front Streets). Caleb Crowell was one of the pioneer merchants of this area relocating his general store from College Settlement. By 1888, the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot was completed and was said to have been the finest terminal outside Los Angeles.

Downey's strategic location was an important asset in its economic viability and growth. As early as 1889 when political factions from Santa Ana met with officials from Los Angeles County to discuss the creation of Orange County, Downey was chosen as the obvious meeting place.

By the turn-of-the-century, Downey was the undisputed center of the business and social life of the area. Downtown now contained a Sunkist packing plant, a department store, banks, restaurants and mercantile shops. It was also the site of Downey Union High School and Downey Grammar School. In the 1920s, wooden "Victorian" and "Craftsman" buildings were gradually replaced with Downey's first masonry structures. Unfortunately, only a few of these early buildings are extant.

Downey in the Early 20th Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many Downey pioneers had achieved success in business and politics in Los Angeles County. The years 1900 1917 were perhaps the "Golden Age" of Downey. In this era a citrus cooperative was formed, the Downey Board of Trade (later renamed the Downey Chamber of Commerce) was organized and the streets were lighted with electricity.

World War I brought progress of a different sort. Local interest began to mount in the aviation branches of the military. The fledgling oil industry grew by leaps and bounds stimulated by the demand of the war economy. Downey was about to change its course, though the rocky road of the Depression lay just around the next bend.

By 1929, the "dare devil" period in aviation had ended as the industry began to consolidate in Southern California. Inventor E.M. Smith, whose family had reaped a fortune from a drill bit patent for oil exploration, pioneered aviation in Downey. He purchased the 73-acre Hughan Ranch located about one mile south of the Downey depot. Smith's company, Emsco Aircraft, converted the ranch into an airstrip. Downey had taken its first giant step for mankind.

The people of Downey suffered during the Depression years along with the rest of the nation. Its position as an agricultural center insured that food was available to sustain the local population. Orange groves remained visible in the downtown area with dairies located along the banks of the two rivers.

Downey Today

Downey continued to prosper in the 1970s and 1980s. Civic projects such as the Downey Theatre was completed in 1971, and the Civic Center Complex with a new City Hall and Embassy Suites Hotel in 1984.

However, by the early 1990's, Downey --like much of California-- was hard hit by defense cutbacks and downsizing. Rockwell International, which once had over 30,000 employees during the 1960's, had fewer than 5,000 by 1992. Real estate values and sales tax revenues also declined for the first time.

In 1993, the City Council launched the BRAID (Business Retention Attraction In Downey) Program to help retain and assist existing commercial and industrial businesses. BRAID also assists in attracting new businesses with employment and revenue producing opportunities. The Committee is made up of business leaders, field experts and City officials.

In 1990, a $100 million remodel and expansion at Stonewood Center Mall was completed. Other recent additions to the City include the opening of the Green Line light rail station in 1994, the Gas Company's Energy Resource Center in 1995 and the Krikorian Theatre Complex in 1997. Downey has also taken a lead in creating the Gateway Cities Council of Governments. This action-focused partnership among industries and 27 cities of Southeast Los Angeles County have begun to study and resolve many of the region's challenges. Objectives include improving the region's economy and transportation network.

Today, Downey boosts an outstanding quality of life with 13 parks, two public golf courses, a model city library, live theater, symphony orchestra, historical society and art museum. It also has a wide selection of housing options and an award winning public school district.

Revitalization Efforts in Downtown

Downey remained a small town until the 1950s and 1960s. As the surrounding orange groves were transformed into homes and commercial centers, the downtown experienced progressive decline. The opening of the Stonewood Center Mall one mile east in 1958 continued to draw away many customers and businesses. Strip centers were built throughout the city especially along Firestone Blvd., Imperial Hwy and the Florence Ave./Paramount Blvd. intersection.

One of the first significant investments in redevelopment occurred in 1967 with the widening of Downey Ave. The realignment resulted in several blocks of new store fronts and landscape improvements.

In the 1970s, the city began the first steps to confront the issue of downtown revitalization. In the years since the adoption of the Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy in 1978, several successful projects have been completed. Among these were the Embassy Suites/Mimi's Cafe and the Civic Center complex.

In the 1990s Downey again faced the challenge of revitalizing the downtown area. A "Blue Ribbon Committee" made up of city representatives, business leaders and residents analyzed the downtown area in 1991. The Downey Avenue Street Faire, which was started by the Chamber of Commerce in 1994, now draws over 20,000 people to the downtown area each spring. More recently, a multi-screen theater complex and 400-space public parking structure were completed in 1997. A number of new projects are currently in the planning process. The revitalization of Downtown is the greatest single challenge confronting the City of Downey with the approach of the 21st Century.

The Movement Towards Incorporation

In 1940, population in Downey was 12,000. By 1960 this total had surpassed 86,000. The orange groves had been replaced by light industry and tract homes. Downey was one of the first suburban "planned communities" with quality homes, schools, and retail centers.

The movement toward incorporation escalated with the population explosion of the 1950s. Residents in outlying areas were given the opportunity to vote and become part of the "City of Downey." The Los Angeles County Supervisors set the date of December 4, 1956 for the official vote. The incorporation issue, which had failed in 1954, was approved by a two-to-one margin. The majority realized that the protective and maintenance services were direct benefits of incorporation.

The city-manager form of government was overwhelmingly mandated. The voters chose a council of five. These council members took the new city's reins and steered Downey into its "future unlimited." James L. Stamps served as first Mayor while Oren L. King served as first City Manager.

The first City Council had its work cut out for it. Few cities the size of Downey had started from scratch to form a new city government. The complex services that had been performed by the county would now be transferred over to local government. Within a year, Downey had its own Public Works, Police and Fire Departments. Unlike many other cities that were established during Southern California's population explosion, Downey was a full service city providing its own police, fire, building, planning, public works and community services departments.