Alibi V.13 No.25 • June 17-23, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

The Specter of Santa Feication

Another take on East Downtown's urban renewal efforts

I was amazed at the reaction I got to my recent piece suggesting gentrification (in the form of the East of Downtown Development just approved by the Planning Commission) might be a blessing for some neighborhoods, not a curse.

Not since I had the temerity to opine that spending public money on a velodrome might not be a smashing good idea for our city have I gotten as angry a response to anything I've written. The difference is that this time many of the people angry at me are friends ... not guys in weird little spandex shorts and aerodynamic helmets.

When people whose opinion I have come to respect called up to say I'd hurt them with what I'd written, it made me go back and re-read the column in question. After sitting down and talking with some critics about the issues involved and after a lot of additional thinking about what's happening, I'll risk another try at addressing this crucial issue.

What sparked this revisiting of the topic was something Margy Hernandez said as she tried to explain to me what she and other neighborhood activists in Barelas and other communities near Downtown are afraid of. "We don't want to turn into another Santa Fe," she emphasized. "Do you know what I mean?"

I do. Oh brother, I do know.

I left Santa Fe, my hometown, almost 30 years ago precisely because that community had clearly chosen its path, one which produced an irrevocable downward spiral into chic. The average home sold in Santa Fe this year will cost well in excess of half a million dollars. It is no longer possible for most native Santa Feans to anticipate being able to live in that lovely place because of the enormous discrepancy between the cost of living there and the salaries that local jobs provide.

Only the independently wealthy can aspire to a future in Santa Fe. It is painful to visit the neighborhoods I lived in when I was a kid. They are gorgeous now, of course, far more elegant than they were half a century before. And they are populated by people far more sophisticated than we were. The place reeks of wealth and refinement these days ... but few Santa Feans remain.

The children of most of the families I knew live in Albuquerque now—a city that is affordable. A city where there are jobs. And a city where the neighborhoods near Downtown are growing concerned about the same process possibly happening here.

So, the specter of Santa Feication is hanging over the heads of the historic neighborhoods here. It is part of what is spurring opposition to the EDO plan. I can understand that, and I can sympathize with the fear.

But for every call I got about my column accusing me of betrayal, I got two from neighborhood residents thanking me for the views I'd expressed. What is clearer to me than ever is that there is no single unified opinion in these neighborhoods on the direction that their future should take.

For every person who spoke to me in lurid detail about the dangers of permitting the sale of alcohol in the EDO, there was someone who favored creating more urban options and amenities in this area. "Why should I have to get in my car and drive miles away in order to buy a bottle of wine to serve with dinner?" one asked.

For every person who warned menacingly about the traffic and parking problems that EDO's increased density will bring, there was another voice expressing the hope that more people might mean that more services, more shops, more restaurants and more life could be attracted into the area.

For every opinion that this EDO development will lead to a diminished role for neighborhood association input into community planning, there was a countering suggestion that the neighborhood associations' leadership has lost contact with the views of the neighborhood residents themselves and that EDO will be a good thing for the neighborhoods.

The dilemma is real; the conflict between the viewpoints is dramatic. But it is also, I believe, a good thing that there are such strong expressions of opinion on this issue. The days when major changes in the character of the community might be slipped past the residents are long past. People care about what form the renewal of their neighborhood will take because they care about their property and its future. They are invested in the community and that is a very good thing.

I think the Old Albuquerque High project has to be considered a success. It is pumping vitality and energy into a section of town which, six years ago, seemed as dilapidated and sagging as the old brick school buildings themselves were. The challenge for us is how to keep that energy flowing, how to keep attracting private investment into the area—without falling into the Santa Fe pitfall of replacing the original residents with handsomer imported copies.

Somehow, I gotta believe, Albuquerque will find the middle road, neighborhood by neighborhood. Neighborhood activism (and the owners' investment) is ultimately what keeps wine shops from deteriorating into nuisances and Barelas from becoming an imitation Santa Fe.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.