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I Meet Albuquerque

I had a week to get to know Albuquerque and its environs before beginning my job at the lumber company.  Denver fascinated me when, 18 and thrilled at being on my own for the first time in my life, I hit its streets.  The bliss of first love at age 37 fueled a similar fascination with the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque.  Fortunately, much of what I observed back then still exists today.

Linda’s apartment was located several blocks from Central Avenue.  Before the construction of Interstate 40, Central Avenue was the city’s main east-west artery. Now, it remains a bustling, 16-mile-long segment of the famous U.S. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California.  Rendered obsolete by the gradual construction of America’s interstate highway system, Route 66 effectively ended in the late 1960’s, but its spirit lives on in Central Avenue, which is the longest surviving urban stretch of the highway; Albuquerque’s commercial and cultural interests make much of this fact. 

I’ve mentioned hints of the Southwest during my childhood and youth.  Here was another prominent one: the 1960’s television series Route 66, in which two handsome and seemingly carefree young men named Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock drive in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible all around America (and thus often far beyond the “Route 66” of the title) and have dramatic and enlightening adventures.  Bandleader Nelson Riddle’s theme song for the show, a jazzy instrumental that churns like a Corvette engine and soars like the Western sky, stirs me to this day. 

When one lives in southeast Albuquerque, as Linda and I did when I first arrived in the city, Central Avenue is hard to avoid.  I was drawn to it by its fame as well as its convenience and various goods and services, just as I was drawn to Denver’s Colfax Avenue, a similarly long east-west thoroughfare, as an 18-year-old. 

In February of 1988, Central Avenue consisted of four worn and bumpy lanes lined with often cracked and grimy sidewalks.  Between San Mateo and Tramway boulevards, it was bordered by motels, some obviously decaying; chain fast-food and mom-and-pop restaurants; used-car lots; full- and self-serve car washes; appliance repair shops; an apartment complex set back from the avenue; bars; a supermarket; Indian jewelry stores; an “adult” store; the state fairgrounds; and a considerable number of boarded-up businesses.  What few spindly trees and feeble shrubs there were along the avenue had yet to leaf out; what few patches of grass existed were winter gray.  By day, Central Avenue was a dull, monotonous sight; by night, it was an alternating river of darkness and lurid electric signage.   

Meanwhile, this was New Mexico, not Colorado, and Central Avenue was clearly not Colfax Avenue.  One explanation for this difference was architecture.  The architecture of many of Central Avenue’s businesses, particularly its motels, was what I would soon come to know as pueblo-revival style: generally single-story structures meant to recall the dwellings of adobe brick and mud of the early Pueblo Indian inhabitants of New Mexico’s Rio Grande region.  The businesses’ walls were brown, white, or dark pink and softly rounded at the edges; I doubted that any were actual adobe brick.  Protruding from the upper edges of the walls were logs, some six inches in diameter, meant to recall the supports―or vigas―for the ceilings and roofs of the original dwellings; I suspected many of these logs were full-length and not merely abbreviated simply for effect, although they certainly were not supporting roofs of branches and mud, as in a much earlier time.  Meanwhile, Spanish portals constructed of pine logs occasionally shaded and sheltered the entrances to some of these businesses. 

Very quickly, I realized that pueblo-revival style for businesses and houses was extremely common throughout Albuquerque, with most of the structures likely consisting of cinderblock or wood coated in wire and stucco.  Whether authentic adobe brick or not, whether with corners round or sharp, I liked its echoes, especially amid Central Avenue’s calamity of people and traffic, of a simpler, slower, more Earth-rooted past, and its reminder that this was a land of little rain.  Adobe brick would not last long in Kentucky.

Another explanation for the difference, more profound, to me, than the architecture, were the people who occupied the pavement and sidewalks of Central Avenue.  I wasn’t prepared for the numbers of dark-haired, dark-eyed, and brown-complected people who walked, rode, and drove on the avenue.  I’m referring, once again, to Latinos, who, at the time, made up about a quarter of Denver’s population; however, they comprised over a third of Albuquerque’s. The difference was stunning: At times on Central, I felt like I was on the street of any city in Mexico, among thousands of descendants of the first inhabitants of the Americas.

As in many an American city, this stretch of Central Avenue often included prostitutes and hustlers.    

West of San Mateo Boulevard, as Central Avenue neared the University of New Mexico campus, many businesses on and near the avenue had a smarter and more prosperous look.  Fancier restaurants appeared, as did the businesses─head, clothing, record, video, and copying shops; a sprawling 24-hour eatery; three small art movie houses; two independent bookstores─that catered to the needs, wants, and trivialities of college youth, many of them flush with allowances. 

The UNM campus along Central included an informal athletic field and grassy commons from which grew stately fir and deciduous trees that filled with a remarkable quantity of crows at dusk, and handsome and imposing buildings, including beautifully maintained pueblo-revival structures.  Here on the sidewalks of Central, amid the hurrying students─men and women of all races and ethnicities burdened with textbooks, radiant with youth and idealism─there often shuffled, staggered, or squatted a mentally ill, alcoholic, or homeless person: the wretched and needy of Albuquerque knew where the tolerant, tender-hearted, and generous could be found. 

A little farther west stood downtown Albuquerque.  The city’s commercial and municipal core for most of its history, it covered at the time about 60 square blocks and was thus considerably smaller than Denver’s.  Downtown’s tallest building was a mere 18 floors.  Located downtown were banks, hotels, small restaurants, Indian jewelry and pottery stores, a Woolworth’s, parking garages, shoeshine parlors, barber shops, a post office, a jail, bail bonds businesses, city and county administration buildings, the Kimo Theater with its colorful Pueblo Deco façade, and the grim façade of the decaying El Rey Theater, which hosted rock concerts. 

Along with the public library, my favorite downtown attraction was the Santa Fe Railroad line, which delineated downtown’s eastern boundary.  It was a predominantly single-track line that originated 25 miles southwest of the city, deviating from a main Santa Fe east-west line; beyond Albuquerque, it ran to northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. 

The occasional freight train and the twice-daily Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train that ran on this line through the heart of Albuquerque thrilled me, a train watcher since childhood.  (Every major inner city should have at least one grade crossing requiring rushed and neurotic motorists to pause and contemplate a slow-moving train bearing soothing messages from the remote.)  Squatting beside and slightly below a long platform, a small, decrepit station served the Amtrak passengers.  Albuquerque was a refueling point for the Southwest Chief, whose route, like Route 66’s, ran between Chicago and Los Angeles, so each shining, elegant passenger train paused at the station for some forty minutes before issuing a single blast of its whistle, announcing departure, that echoed off of downtown’s taller structures.  Today, the line continues to operate―although freight traffic on this line to Colorado has all but ceased―and the Southwest Chief continues to serve the city. 

After the glass, steel, and fast pace of boom-and-bust Denver, I liked, both as a motorist and pedestrian, downtown Albuquerque’s smaller size, slower pace, intimate feel, and, frankly, antiquatedness.  Downtown had its slice or two of luxury, but the sight of a stretch limo escorted by a pair of galumphing tumbleweeds as it pulled into the entrance of the handsome La Posada Hotel on a windy February night was yet another reminder that this was a roughhewn city on the edge of a wilderness.       

West of downtown stood Old Town, Albuquerque’s original commercial and residential area.  It consisted of houses―many, not surprisingly, pueblo-revival style─that bordered a plaza that included a handsome gazebo, shops and restaurants catering largely to tourists, and an ancient Catholic church with an attached former convent.  In February, under portals on the east side of the plaza, bundled-up Indians from the nearby pueblos sat with serene, infinite patience on folding chairs or directly on the concrete and flagstones as they displayed their fine jewelry for sale. 

North of Old Town, in a place known as the Sawmill District, stood the headquarters of the lumber company where I was to work.  While the company harvested timber from, and had a number of mills in, rural New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and even Mississippi, I liked the fact that its Albuquerque headquarters also had a mill for processing logs trucked in from northern New Mexico.  Thus, a sweet piney fragrance, a scent of the wilderness in the depths of the city, wafted over the company’s 25-acre property.   


[1] Today, according to the 2020 Census, Latinos make up roughly 47% of New Mexico, making New Mexico the most heavily Latino state in the United States. 

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