A little farther west stands downtown Albuquerque. The city’s commercial and municipal core for most of its history, it covered at the time about sixty square blocks and was thus considerably smaller than Denver’s. Downtown’s tallest building was a mere eighteen 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 deviated twenty-five miles southwest of the city from a main line of the Santa Fe and ran to northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. The occasional freight train and the twice-daily Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train that ran through the heart of Albuquerque thrilled me, a train watcher since childhood. (Every major inner city should have at least one grade crossing requiring anxious and neurotic motorists to pause and contemplate a slow-moving train bearing soothing messages from the remote.) Squatting beside and slightly below two long and empty platforms, a small, decrepit downtown railroad station served the Amtrak passengers. Albuquerque remains a refueling point for the Southwest Chief, whose route, like Route 66’s, runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, so each shining, elegant passenger train pauses at the station for thirty to forty delicious minutes before issuing a single blast of its whistle, announcing departure, that echoes off of downtown’s taller structures.
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 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 is a roughhewn city on the edge of a wilderness.