First-time tourists from outside the States fly into Albuquerque thinking that it’s Santa Fe—picturesque, a place of ancient adobe with handsome ranchers and ancient Indians adding to the general confirmation of your stereotypes, and of course it’s not. It’s mostly small lots with slightly Southwesternized touches added to the ranch houses, in sprawling neighborhoods that ring a downtown that’s a mixture of postmodern skyscraper boom and ‘20s railroad town. The Old Town is part tourist trap, part museum, part remnant. Some days, one or the other dominates and the plaza crackles with the sound of stiffly starched white dresses for a Quinceañera, but most of the time it’s full of disappointed tourists. Or it’s simply empty—empty of meaning, resonance, tradition, even if the discount souvenir shop is full.
Downtown, too, has none of the energy you’d expect from the density of the buildings and the implicit size of the workforce inside. Lately, the tall buildings are emptier than they should be, and that contributes to the sense of abandonment and inactivity. In fact, though, Albuquerque’s downtown isn’t any more troubled than most Southwestern city centers, like Dallas, say, or Phoenix. The mirror-glass skyscrapers built in the last twenty or thirty years were designed to be vertical cities in themselves, with restaurants, dry cleaners, coffee shops, travel agencies (now mostly defunct thanks to the internet), and even hotels. They’re attached to subterranean parking garages accessed by elevators leading down to subterranean depths, or to multistory facilities linked by enclosed and often air-conditioned bridges over the streets. In Houston, the save-the-city leftists called them honky tubes, on the contention that their real function as to protect affluent white professionals from contact with the black and Hispanic street life. That may well have been part of the attraction, but in Houston at least, it was primarily the promise of an entirely air-conditioned environment—house to garage to car to parking structure to connecting bridge to elevator lobby to office. As early as the late ‘70s, there was a documented syndrome called “barbeque heart attack,” which struck when the ill-conditioned businessman decided to take his clients out for an authentic lunch, swung through the rotating doors, hit the heat and humidity, and made it a block or so before collapsing.
Visitors think Albuquerque’s in the mountains, the cool, pine-scented mountains they saw in the tourist brochures. It’s really a desert town, and you can tell that by the common sight of desert coolers on the roofs of houses built even as recently as the ‘70s. Desert coolers are a whole lot cheaper than air conditioners, to buy and to run, but the outside air has to be bone-dry for them to do the job of maintaining a comfortable home. Even in Austin, Texas, where I lived in the ‘70s, desert coolers didn’t keep you cool-- the humid air racing up from the Gulf of Mexico withered and surrendered to the arid zones north of the city, about halfway up to Dallas on the interstate. In Albuquerque, those beige, slightly rusty boxes atop the flat-roof houses work extremely well during the hottest months, which are also the driest.
Flat, brown, dry, sprawling, Albuquerque hardly shows its history as a railroad town. There’s little left of the downtown rail hub; the Santa Fe Railroad tore down the fabulous Alvarado Hotel and the adjacent train station in 1970, removing one of the most important Mary Colter-designed Harvey hotels in a dispute with the city over the price of its purchase. In place of that ornate palace, the Santa Fe put up a sad little wooden structure, more like a shanty, at least by comparison with its predecessor. That station burned down in 1993, and today Amtrak shares a small ersatz Southwestern style structure with the more bustling Greyhound bus terminal. Beyond it, there’s an attempt at a hip warehouse district, but it’s too sprawled out for any sense of street action. The best spot, the Pop’n’Taco, is a drive-thru—a garishly off-Southwestern orange-and-yellow modified A-frame with a single table in front.In Albuquerque, if you don't drive, you're a bum.
The neighborhoods, too, aren’t particularly welcoming to visitors-- tourists or bums. For one thing, the communal activity tends to take place early in the morning or in the evening, when it’s cooler. And the locales offer a complex cluster of common identities—working class Anglo, down-at-heel student, middle-management Hispano—with little identifiable differences in the houses or lots. What might look to an outsider to be a scruffy, ill-kempt yard indicating poverty or neglect, could very well be a “desert lawn” carefully managed according to ecologically correct owners, who are painstakingly nurturing native cacti and scrub. A lush green carpet of lawn, however, does probably identify the owner as a relocated emigrant from colder, wetter places—Minneapolis, or Toledo, or Chicago.
There are those who came down for the dry, hot, winterless weather, carrying their nostalgia for the old climate with them. And then there are those who fully embrace the new land—embrace it so tightly, so enthusiastically, that they pretty much squeeze the authenticity right out of it. Most of them have well-worn copies of Tony Hillerman’s atmospheric mystery novels in the guest room, and when you come to visit them from the old place, they take you to see the dances at the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center; they’re not yet ready to admit how hot it is in the ersatz plaza or how excruciatingly boring are the performances. That’s the trouble with living in between; the Puebloan dancers, too, are struggling to negotiate between the rhythm and pace that’s theirs, and the manifest incomprehension of their audience.
And then there are those for whom Albuquerque is just fine as it is. They’re locals. Probably they speak Spanish and English; they don’t pay much attention to the Route 66 memorabilia; their usual spot is Mary and Tito’s, but on those occasions when it gets a write-up in a national food magazine and it’s suddenly crowded with tourists, they have nothing against Garcia’s, though they don’t go to the one on Central—they head for the one that’s way out 4th Street or one of the others that are convenient to the neighborhood. When they go to the Plaza it’s to take mass or go to a wedding at San Felipe. They don’t look for the lowriders to cruise the Plaza any more—they head out to Los Altos Park in September for the Viejetos reunions or the Labor Day picnic, where the cars come all the way from Valencia, California and Chicago. The tire-hop contests are wild, as the pneumatic systems spectacularly fail, or as spectacularly drive the cars into paroxysms of latin-jazz dance-steps across the blacktop. If you don't have a tattoo somewhere on you, preferably one in Spanish, you're going to be on the outside circles, welcomed, but not exactly welcome.
J.B. Jackson wasn't a lowrider. He rode his motorcycle, a BMW, and when he did he wore the leathers of a man who had never hung out in a Harley bar or gone to Sturges for the annual gathering of the tribes. He didn’t live in Albuquerque, either. He had a place—a ranch, actually—that he’d inherited from an uncle; it was in La Cienega, just outside of Santa Fe. But Jackson knew this city well, and he’d written about it. His close observations of alleys and garages, of pocket parks and the scruffy lands where no one put anything, or where someone tended an impromptu garden on what was probably city land, but wasn’t treated as such: these were gospel to those of us who chose to think about, and write about, the American landscape. Jackson didn’t particularly care about weighing in on controversial trends like sprawl, or even historic preservation. He was interested in what was here, and now. He died some fifteen years ago; he missed the housing boom, and the bust, so he didn’t write about McMansions and their Great Rooms and the vast swaths of lawn that surrounded them and, these days, grow unkempt and untended years into their reversion to Bank of America. The unplanned hayfields bowing and swelling in the summer winds of Connecticut and Orange County, New York; the hard, inadvertent adobe of the unwatered acres off the cul-de-sacs in Phoenix and Scottsdale; the lush jungles taking over whole subdivisions in Florida: these would have engaged him. Now it is up to us to drive, to examine, to ask around, to go through the clippings at the local branch of the local library, sifting, staring, teasing out the rich interlocutions between places and people, places and places, and the places in between.