A City Can'T Be All New

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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There's been another piece chipped out of Albuquerque's soul in recent weeks and even if its loss hasn't drawn notice, we are all a little diminished by it.

The thing is, a city is more than an accumulation of shiny new buildings. If it is a living, breathing community, there is a blend of the old and the new, a healthy mix of history and cutting edge technology. It is the presence of our ancestors just as much as it is our attempt to entice newcomers.

That's why you should take with a grain of salt all the talk being ginned up by those who should know better that Rio Rancho will soon rival Albuquerque as the economic center of the state.

Chamber of Commerce types have been saying that the sprawling bedroom suburb on the mesa, which has in recent weeks broken ground for a new civic arena and a new “City Center” for its local government, could one day be the Dallas to Albuquerque's quaint, stodgy old Fort Worth; the Minneapolis to Burque's St. Paul.

Don't believe it. The television cameras that covered the Rio Rancho groundbreakings made sure to include a wide-angle shot of Albuquerque's skyline in the distance for a reason. There's nothing in Rio Rancho except the Intel plant's expanse of characterless fabrication facilities to take a picture of that says, “This is Rio Rancho!”

When the land salesmen, the development promoters and the get-rich-quick strip mall specialists who are rankled over Albuquerque's new Planned Growth Strategy issue their glowing predictions for Rio Rancho's rosy future and contrast it with Albuquerque's supposedly slow decline, we all need to read between the lines. They have an agenda, and it is not the creation of a sustainable city.

So there was something very sad for me when, just about the time that Albuquerque began its civic orgy of Tricentennial celebrating (i.e., 290 years before Rio Rancho declared itself a city), we allowed a significant piece of our history to be bulldozed without at least a moment of silence, if not a tear or two, to mark its passing.

I suppose on the grand scale of civic destruction, the loss of Baxter's Sunset Inn on West Central near Old Town does not rank up there with the Alvarado Hotel's demise or with the Franciscan Hotel's eradication, earlier thumbs to the eye of history in this town.

At least the Manzano Day School, the organization that brought the grand old ballroom down in a heap of rubble, has some new structure underway to replace it—a major improvement over the 50 years that the Alvarado property grew weeds and collected debris. Meanwhile, the vacant expanse of parking places that now occupies the Franciscan's old locale on Copper at Sixth has sat idly at our city's center for decades.

Still, it is worrisome that a tile like the Sunset Inn could fall from our community's mosaic and not even draw mention. So I want to issue a weak chirp of protest, although months too late to do any good and probably years after the threat to the landmark was first issued but slipped past my notice. I hope, however, that it's still in time to register in our collective consciousness so that we become more vigilant about these losses in the future.

The city planning department, when contacted about the sudden eradication of the old adobe dance hall that contained so many memories for generations of Albuquerqueans, professed bewilderment. “It wasn't a landmark; it hadn't been plagued; we didn't know anyone would care.”

The official city view seems to be that something that old should be replaced with a shiny, new, vastly more functional structure, perhaps of the sort that Rio Rancho seems to specialize in. One of those slap-'em-up-for-20-years and then toss-'em-out-when-fully-amortized structures you find in Bakersfield, Plano and any of a dozen Atlanta or Houston suburbs.

Our Downtown neighborhood association was probably asleep at the wheel when this project zipped past the city's approval process. Someone should have blown a whistle about it months ago. Someone should have prepared an article for the newspapers on all the wonderful memories the old place held. The romances that blossomed there, the rivalries, business deals and friendships that were cemented there ought to have been documented.

We should have been told what we were about to lose.

But we weren't and now it's gone, another tiny chink of our history removed forever, fast-tracked into oblivion.

There is so much more that goes into making a collection of people a city than new buildings. Rio Rancho can't be a city until it has a history. Albuquerque mustn't forget that a city's real history is much more than banners, parades and statuary every 50 years or so. Our real history deserves more than that sort of lip service.

What sets us apart from a thousand indistinguishable agglomerations of disposable buildings elsewhere in the country is how we weave together the old and the new, how we preserve aspects of the past and incorporate them into our future, how we blend our memories with our dreams.

That was what we were supposed to have learned from the sad history of the Alvarado and the Franciscan. Maybe the Sunset Inn's loss will etch the lesson more deeply. If not, we run the risk of losing our community's soul. Then we really will be a rival for Rio Rancho.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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