This is part of a series of profiles on each of our Spirit of Downtown honorees, being recognized at this year’s Celebrate Downtown event on February 25. For more information, click here.
Don Darnauer is what one can call a very patient and persistent man—by all means of the definitions.
In 1978, Darnauer was in Washington DC serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and sitting extremely close to retirement. As him and his wife pondered their next move, they ultimately arrived at the fact that they hadn’t been to Southern California.
“And we thought, ‘Why not?’” Darnauer said.
That one question brought him to Long Beach, where he has lived ever since. First, he and his wife graced the beaches of Alamitos while he worked at the Union Bank building in Downtown, where the Long Beach offices of the Coast Guard were, until 1980. Come just over a decade later, the Darnauers headed to DTLB during one of it’s more tumultuous times in the year of 1991.
“Those were the years of the RDA, where there was this constant publicity surrounding Downtown,” Darnauer said. “‘Let’s move! Let’s help the city progress!’ That was the whole mantra behind it all and we were—and always have been—supporters of that.”
And move he did. Settling at 8th and Pine, Darnauer immediately delved into what was being asked of him: to help the city become the place it hoped to be. A place that was safe, explorable, entertaining…
Joining the Redevelopment Advisory Board—or what was then called the Central Project Area Committee—and the DLBA Board, he opted to become involved. This sounds like a given, a common piece of the idea of what we all should do. But of course, this is easier said than done; it is much easier to point a wagging finger at others and direct blame on stagnant development and progression rather than tackling issues head on.
“When I first started, all of us were discouraged—not just me,” Darnauer said. “You’d think there were these moments of progress but it’d be a back-and-forth between two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back or vice versa… Most of the supporters I knew of left, making me even more discouraged. But I couldn’t just give up—I’d see a new development and at that moment, I would think, ‘Okay, more people coming in means more help to get things done.’”
At the time, Downtown’s neighborhoods were massively disconnected and there was a point of opportunity—or, as Darnauer viewed it, “I looked at residents because they’re our bread-and-butter for business.” Willmore City Heritage Association was focused on preservation of its historic homes while the East Village had very few residents at the time, leaving a large contingency of Downtowners with little to no voice when it came to public policy and planning. And ORCA? Or what about PARA, to represent potential new residents on the Promenade? North Pine? Non-existent at the time.
Helping create what was then known as the West End Community Assn (WECA) —a massive bloc of residents that stretched from the east side of the 710 to Long Beach Blvd. and 10th Street down to Seaside Way—Darnauer knew that a key contingency of voters was untapped and he was able to not only foster community improvements but drive change from a policy level. Next, he helped motivate the creation of the North Pine Neighborhood Alliance (NPNA) and the Ocean Residents Community Assn (ORCA). From there he continued the momentum by helping establish the Downtown Residential Council (DRC), an umbrella group comprised of representatives from leaders now functioning, from of all six neighborhoods.
“There’s a relationship between the City and its people, residents and businesses—and I always believed that if we just try to retain everyone’s interest, only success will come. I like to think I contributed to that.”
When looking at the stretch of Darnauer’s dedication to DTLB, it is easy to see that “Downtown Don” has become an active witness to what is arguably Downtown’s largest transformation: from the downfall of Long Beach’s most famed intersection, Pine and Ocean, to the rise of a whole new Downtown culture and pride, Darnauer’s seemingly endless patience and persistence has finally paid off.
“These new people, here in Downtown, the new people who are so dedicated… I sometimes get emotional about it,” Darnauer said. “Because these people are just so good. Sometimes—too much—I just couldn’t get people to stand up in the past. I couldn’t get people to understand that small businesses give hope to us all, that we can’t lose traction… Now, for the first time, I’m witnessing a momentum that isn’t stopping.”