Should you become lost, just remember: The mountains are to the east.
For the truly new-to-Albuquerque, some explanation of how this town is laid out is necessary. While I was doing my research, I found there’s not a whole lot of information out there on the Trumbull and La Mesa neighborhoods, an area that’s been rebranded the “International District” in recent years. Locals once referred to it as the “Warzone.” I used to deliver pizzas in the neighborhood and never had a problem, so I’m sentimental about it and understand why residents of these neighborhoods resent the label. Of course, only the truly sub-moronic criminal element would mess with the pizza man, and here’s why: Pizza joints comp the local police with free pies. Anyone who screws with the pizza guy also screws with the boys in blue.
Albuquerque is divided into four quadrants: Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest. The quadrants are divided by east-west running Central Avenue and the north-south spanning railroad tracks, which run through the North and South Valley. It’s good to familiarize yourself with Central Avenue, as it is a hotbed of (mostly legit) activity from the Mesa to the Foothills. Downtown between about First and 10th Streets is a center of the city’s nightlife. East of that is the University Area, and to the west is the aptly named “West Central.” Further east from the University is Nob Hill, which features some very fine eating and shopping. Beyond that is East Central for miles and miles. Some of it is nice; some not so nice. I have spent many a pleasant Sunday afternoon in a flea market near Juan Tabo and Central. I’ve been mugged twice in upscale Nob Hill.
Housing has been expanding in this quadrant since the late ’40s when Nob Hill was suburban. The quadrant has expanded all the way to the base of the Sandia Mountains that form the eastern boundary of the city. It runs from Central Avenue and the Downtown railroad tracks north to the Sandias, both mountain and Pueblo. It’s the largest quadrant with the highest population. “The Heights” is a vague label for Eastside neighborhoods both north and south and away from the University area. The Northeast quadrant is home to much of the shopping-mall consumerism in Albuquerque. ABQ Uptown offers a wide variety of chain stores. Coronado Mall and the remnants of Winrock Mall are across the street. Though it has the most suburban vibe of Albuquerque, you can still find pretty much anything you’re looking for. A good percentage of Albuquerque’s Middle Eastern joints lie up there.
This quadrant is a mix of residential and light industrial developments. It contains historic Old Town, a favorite of tourists, which dates back to the early 1700s. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a quick jaunt to the north. Near the river is the largest section of Downtown, the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park and the Bosque, historic Martineztown and the North Valley, which still maintains a semi-rural feel. On the west side of the river, vast suburbs spread to the edge of Petroglyph National Monument. As a child out there in Taylor Ranch, my brother and I played among the petroglyphs. Hard to reconcile that “Westside” with the suburban sprawl that now stretches from below Central up around and beyond Rio Rancho. The North Valley has many New Mexican restaurant institutions and probably has the most Spanish Colonial vibe to it, if that’s what you’re looking for. Cottonwood Mall lies on the north end of the Westside, right before Rio Rancho.
Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories, the Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) main campus, the Albuquerque International Sunport, University Stadium, Isotopes Park and The Pit are located in this quadrant. Neighborhoods nearest to Downtown tell the clearest story of Albuquerque’s transition from old to new town. Huning Highland (redubbed EDo, short for East Downtown) straddles Central Avenue, the border between the Southeast and Northeast quadrants. The old railroad buildings along Second Street are all that remains of the industry around which this neighborhood was established, and small worker houses and substantial management houses are within blocks of each other. Farther east are the young and diverse University and Nob Hill areas. Both are good places to go hunting for variety.
Continue east up Central and find the International District, so called because of its large immigrant populations. The quadrant has an excellent selection of Mexican eateries (the barbacoa at Mexico Lindo is to die for) as well as Southeast Asian cuisine.
That pretty stretch of green you see swinging around south of town (avert your eyes from the ugly industry along South Broadway) is the South Valley. Just as Albuquerque runs up against Sandia Pueblo to the north, the South Valley hits Isleta to the south and may eventually be stopped by Laguna to the west. Many generations of South Valley families have lived in the old communities of Atrisco, Los Padillas, Kinney, Westgate, Mountain View and Pajarito. The south end of Downtown Albuquerque and the Bosque, Barelas, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Rio Grande Zoo (which is part of the Albuquerque Biological Park) and Tingley Beach are also located here. The South Valley is more rural than the rest of Albuquerque and has tried to secede on a few occasions. The area has always seemed separate from the rest of the city. Both the North and South Valley could be considered the most culturally Hispanic part of town, as the original colonists settled near the river the city later expanding outward. West Central, which separates the Northwest and Southwest quadrants, has a definite Old World vibe and is home to carnicerias and other small markets.