A onetime aerospace town that's made a soft landing

Times Staff Writer

Downey and aviation go together like Hollywood and motion pictures. The 12.5-square-mile city, now home to 111,000 residents ensconced in orange- and palm tree-lined neighborhoods, was a major hub of the aerospace industry from the 1930s until the end of the 20th century.

Drawing card Safe streets, good schools, a central location and move-up real estate opportunities attract buyers to Downey, located roughly between the 605 and 710 freeways and Telegraph Road and Gardendale Street, 11 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

Longtime residents enjoy enduring friendships with neighbors who, together, rode out the aerospace boom and bust. Many of them continue to work in the industry, in nearby Seal Beach and Lakewood.

That was then The town, named for John G. Downey, the Civil War governor of California and president of a land company, was an agricultural and dairy mecca in the late 1800s. In 1929, E.M. Smith established EMSCO Aircraft Corp. in Downey, where he built an aircraft factory and airstrip. Vultee Aircraft Corp. took over the site in 1936 and produced more than 11,000 military planes during World War II.

North American Aviation, which developed the technology for missile research, became North American Rockwell Corp. in 1967 and was the major contractor for the Apollo space program and the space shuttle. At its peak, the 79-acre facility employed 35,000 workers. Boeing acquired Rockwell in the mid-'90s, then shuttered its Downey site in 1999.

Good news, bad news

Many small Downey homes built in the '40s and '50s on large lots are being converted to larger homes today. "Molly Pitcher" homes — quaint structures with gingerbread woodwork — still stand, while the Orange Estates — prestigious homes that originally were sold with a number of fruit trees on each property — attract upscale buyers. Downey home prices typically range from $315,000 to $1 million.

Residents complain of clogged main traffic arteries and a dearth of excellent restaurants, many of which left with the aerospace industry. Graffiti is a recent nuisance, according to longtime resident Maria Larkin, but residents "call the hotline, tell them where the graffiti is, and the next day it's removed."

Stock report In an area of about 1,081 single-family homes and 107 condominiums, 123 single-family homes were listed for sale at the end of December. The listed prices ranged from $250,000 for a two-bedroom home to $800,000 for a seven-bedroom home.

Report card The Downey Unified School District includes 14 elementary, four middle and two high schools. Scores on the 2003 Academic Performance Index ranged from 671 to 799, out of a possible 1,000, at the elementary schools; 670 to 721 at the middle schools; and 649 and 675, respectively, at Downey and Warren high schools.

Historical values

Single-family detached resales:

Year...Median Price 1990...$220,000





*through November

Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; Downey Historical Society; Maria Larkin, Advantage Real Estate in Downey; Downey Unified School District; Downey Police Dept.; Downey Assn. of Realtors; http://www.aerospacelegacyfoundation.org ; http://www.downeyca.org ; downeyca.com/hist.htm.

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