Fifteen years ago, my best friend visiting Albuquerque for the first time was quickly swayed by Nob Hill. The tight interlacing of the residential and commercial was reminiscent, I guessed, of the vibrant and variegated slice of his native Chicago that triangulates from North Clark Street west to Damen Avenue.
No strip or megamalls, not a Downtown or Old Town vibe, it was a signature neighborhood to him. And the neighborhood had a character like no other; an amalgam of taverns, restaurants as well as uncommon clothing, bling and toy shops mixed in with the utilitarian (cleaners, haircuts, pet grooming)—and best in his view, retail stores filled with used and vintage vinyl. “This is really cool,” he remarked, regarding the section of Central that seemed to lay under a funky and contiguous sun-splashed Southwestern banner.
I’ve been riding my bike or strolling through Nob Hill more than once a week since that time; it’s still a favorite to find a unique birthday or holiday gift, or show off to first time visitors. Last summer; however, after most of the ART construction was finished, noting the departure of Beeps, Larry’s Hats, Hey Jhonny and the appearance, one by one, of nine other empty and locked storefronts within a two block area, I sensed what has now become obvious to many who work in the district.
Restaurants that were consistently full at lunchtime seemed curiously vacant, even during weekends. Wondering what kind of long lasting impact the ART project may have had, I grabbed my notebook and sought to take the pulse of as many of the open businesses along Central—from Girard to Carlisle, new and old—that I could. Without preconceptions but systematically, I hoped to find that all were doing well, and that I didn’t have much of a story to tell Alibi readers.
As was well known by the time ART construction began, nearly every concern verified drastic losses during said construction phase: Some merchants reported injury to the tune of 40 to 60 percent of their gross receipts. One owner recorded $400,000 in diminished revenue during the worst of it. “By the skin of our teeth,” was how a dance studio survived; a few others made it through the thicket because of transfusions from partner operations.
But, what gives now, since the worst is over—including a 2016 fire that burned out the inside of The Carlisle apartment project after all of the discarded nails from that project ironically caused an epidemic of flat tires for area Uber and Lyft drivers?
Are folks coming back in the same kind of numbers as those characteristic of the pre-ART days? The consensus among managers and owners in the area is to report a slight uptick in foot traffic, yet not nearly to levels seen before the implementation of the transit project.
A handful of the most optimistic noted that business was “great.” Kenny, longtime proprietor of Masks y Mas experienced the best October his shop has seen in 10 years. Like many of the destination-shops benefitting from October, Balloon Fiesta and tourism in general, a loyal retinue of customers with a strong sense of—and obligation to—the community, has proven to be a pivotal factor.
Duane, the manager of Yanni’s says the business was lucky enough to have three parking lots behind the restaurant, as access seems to have made a critical difference.
But the majority of vendors chronicled for this briefing indicate that business is still not what it used to be. Confusing street markings, new U-turn lanes, the inability to turn from or across Central along several stretches, increased accidents, vandalism and tripled parking fines are being blamed for the supposition that some city folks are “giving up” on Nob Hill due to the frustrations involved in navigating Central Avenue. For some, business is “stagnant,” as an owner of a favorite restaurant and bar reported to me.
Jamo works in one of the oldest brew pubs in town, an epicenter of Nob Hill that once was full with students and faculty from two of our learning centers, flowing from lunch into the late afternoon. He currently operates with 1 to 4 people working the day shift, down from the usual 5 to 10. “When it does get busy, I can’t accommodate with one waitperson.” Only three tables were occupied at 12:30pm on a cold and gloomy Halloween afternoon when I checked in for lunch.
What solutions might alleviate the stagnation?
“I never opposed ART,” Janiece, working in a jewelry store, told me. A cheerful salesperson, she believes in the power of optimism. “The idea was to get tourists here and people from Downtown. Get the buses back and people will come.”
The most enlightening discussion I had was with Joe of Astro-Zombies, voted the number one comic and toy shop in Albuquerque for the last 16 years. With 19 years of established customer loyalty, he likewise has noted the ubiquitous decline, but also a perceptible and slow swing back to better days and more customers.
Astro-Zombies organizes a sleeping bag drive that takes place every Christmas Eve; customers and friends buy hundreds of new, adult, cold-weather rated sleeping bags to give to those with no other place to spend the night but along—or hidden from—Albuquerque’s cold streets. A pool of prizes is offered that may be drawn from the contributors.
Merchants such as Joe and others who thank the community at large for their survival—along with organizations like new city-supported Block By Block clean up crews providing hospitality, cleanliness and some forms of safety—remind me that Nob Hill transcends an ordinary commercial zone.
What makes it shine—whether it’s home or a new destination for first-timers—is that it may be one of the last vestiges of what true neighborhood means. The nails are swept and gone, people are friendly as ever up and down the street. If you haven’t been in a while, don’t take my word for it, come back to Nob Hill and check it out for yourself.