The Revelatory Histories of City on the Edge
Searching for the grave of Demi Lovato's forebearers, and so much more
Under the late summer sun, a little drunk on a single beer (speaking just for myself here), we trudged through the sun-bleached cemetery, pausing at the occasional tombstone, feet sinking ominously into the cloying desert earth. “What do you think the podcast's relationship to death is, Ty?” Mike Smith asked, after admiring the singular font of a headstone. “We're for it,” Ty Bannerman responded as we soldiered along the dusty path, the only three living, as far as I could tell, in Fairview Cemetery.
Ostensibly, we were looking for the grave of one of Demi Lovato's ancestors; perhaps more notably (or maybe not, it depends how you feel about “Cool for the Summer”), that tomb was also the first erected in the massive graveyard that sits squarely between Yale and Columbia in the Southeast Heights. Along the way, Smith and Bannerman pointed out myriad more tombs that belonged to notable figures in Albuquerque's past. It was a veritable walking tour of the city's history, as the two culled stories from the granite and marble slabs that stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the cemetery's grounds. Bannerman and Smith are two historians in their own right, most keenly interested in the ramshackle corners of the city and the weird history of the outlying lands; both have authored books on the area's past—Forgotten Albuquerque is Bannerman's title, Towns of the Sandia Mountains is Smith's—and continuing their work in that field, together the two host City on the Edge, a podcast that delves into the wonder of our high desert home's bygone days.
Prior to roving the cemetery, the three of us sat down at Quarters BBQ in the perfectly round bar area. Bannerman opened the pages of his personal copy of Forgotten Albuquerque (inscribed: “To Me, Best Wishes, Me”) and showed me a black and white photo of a building near the end of the paperback—it was the very same round shape, with less developed surroundings, and, in place of a flat roof, a massive sombrero shaded the structure's walls and windows—it turns out that in a different life, during the heyday of Route 66, Quarters was the Sombrero Cafe. For these two latter-day historians, nearly every corner of the city is imbued with some importance, just as this desolate student ghetto stretch is. I couldn’t stop looking back and forth between the timeworn photograph and the building before me. Revelations like these are what Smith and Bannerman deliver to listeners of their podcast.
“To me it adds another dimension of engagement and enjoyment to the world to know some things about it. I love not living in a blank, being able to walk around and feel connected to something that happened hundreds of years before … it makes me feel like I'm a part of something instead of just drifting,” Smith elaborated. That frequent nodding to the past isn't myopic, but instead, carries weight and context for our lives in the here and now. “We don't want to talk about a thing that happened 120 years ago,” Bannerman said of City on the Edge's aim. “We want to talk about how that relates to where we are now. … These aren't just airtight pieces of history, but things that have repercussions in the present day. … So this happened, but why should anyone care? That's the real challenge.” In the series, the two approach diverse topics and provide insights into how the past has informed them—from police brutality and murder mysteries to The Mother Road. On Friday, Sept. 23, the two will take a different approach to the recording of the podcast. Instead of sitting in Bannerman's living room and drinking, the two will sit down to discuss the secrets of UNM with a live audience at the Tannex (1417 Fourth Street SW) in Barelas.
For these two latter-day historians, nearly every corner of the city is imbued with some importance, just as this desolate student ghetto stretch is.
“[UNM] has a lot of interesting things to say about the Southwest in the 20th century and how it's evolved … it's a microcosm of Albuquerque and the Southwest as a whole,” Bannerman explained before outlining some of the history that will be elucidated over the course of the evening—like the tragic fate of Lobo Louie, the actual wolf that provided a mascot for the university to rally around, the steam tunnels that run underneath the university, once traversed by the Pipe Ridge Bandit (who used them to break into nearly 100 buildings), the legendary figure of professor Frank Hibben (who some believe to have been the original model for Indiana Jones) and a whole lot more that you won't find in the official history. There'll be guest speakers, visuals, opportunities for the audience to chime in and music—including a performance from Merma and Roberta. When I asked them about their particular interest in UNM, they talked about hidden away spots on campus, their tenure as students there and their interest in knowing more about the historical and geographical meaning of the institution. “I also owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars, so I need to get all the dirt on them I can,” Smith added.
With the humor typical of their podcast, and with the self-same gravity, too, we continued the conversation on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery. As we walked, Smith mentioned the sensation, looking out at the hundreds and hundreds of graves there, of feeling like just another link in the chain. Acknowledging the feeling and walking on, we did, indeed, find the final resting place of one Mary Josephine Perea, whose DNA somehow lives on in Demi Lovato. Lingering there, it occurred to me that being acquainted with the histories of the individuals whose names are chiseled into these headstones and getting familiar with the pasts of the remote stretches of the city suffuses those many links with significance, suggesting that we, as another link, have meaning, too. And that's a heartening thought. As Smith said about City on the Edge, shortly before we left the old Sombrero Cafe, “It's not about Albuquerque necessarily. It's about where you are. Inhabiting your present fully … Knowing these things, all of a sudden the city has depth. It's like living in more than three dimensions.”