Travel: In Search Of Albuquerque’s 300-year-old Past—and Its Neon-lit Present

PrintPrintEmailEmailLast April, when i mentioned that I was flying to Albuquerque, several people assumed I was headed on to Santa Fe and seemed surprised that I wasn’t. “What’s there?” someone asked. I said I’d tell him when I got back. Now I know.

In 1706 New Mexico’s provisional governor, Francisco Cuervo y Valdes, petitioned the king of Spain to charter a town (known as a villa ) in a region along the Rio Grande that had been sparsely occupied since the 1600s. To conform to the mother country’s requirements, Cuervo claimed (falsely) 252 inhabitants, a plaza, a church, and several official structures. Stretching the truth worked, the charter came through, and today’s sprawling, lively city of about 500,000 proves his faith was well placed. On the weekend of my visit Albuquerque was about to launch its 300th anniversary celebrations.

It makes sense to start a first visit in Old Town, where it all began. The twoand three-story adobe structures are crammed with the requisite shops, restaurants, and galleries, but their appeal transcends the commercial.

Dominating the central plaza, from which all Old Town life flows, is the majestic Church of San Felipe de Neri, built in 1793. Its towers, added in the mid-nineteenth century, provide an incongruous Victorian touch. This structure replaced one on the west side of the square that dated from 1706 and disintegrated after about 85 years but allows the church to claim, in a sign near the front door, that it has served without interruption since Albuquerque’s founding.

A guided walking tour of Old Town sets off most mornings from the near-by Albuquerque Museum, and for those who don’t make that, there is a pamphlet pointing out some of the significant buildings. Still, the place could use more detailed markers affixed to the buildings, because the few I came upon were fascinating. One, on a structure called the Charles Mann Barn (now a shop), reads like a CNN crawl: “In 1903 a corner stone was found: August 31, 1864. Fourth year of the American Civil War. General Grant trying to take Petersburg and Richmond. Gold at 260%. Indians on the Santa Fe road to the United States very hostile. We built this house and the steam mill in Ranch. Sec. at the same time. Signed F. & C. Huning.”

Much of what one now sees in Old Town is the result of restoration mostly starting in the 1950s, yet the tree-shaded central plaza and its festive bandstand and the web of alleys that lead to serene courtyards and trickling fountains give a sense that the dust of the ages has settled most agreeably on Old Town.

The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, a block away, is a wonderful place to explore the city’s past and near present. A fine gathering of works by some of New Mexico’s greatest painters is called the Albuquerque High School Collection because, starting in 1942, that school’s forward-looking principal encouraged the study and purchase of New Mexico artists. The museum acquired the collection in 1986.

A terrific documentary film that regularly plays in the museum’s theater traces the city’s growth from the mid-nineteenth-century railroad boom and reveals another more surprising growth spurt in the 1920s and 1930s, when tuberculosis sufferers, known as “lungers,” arrived. Many of the patients survived to help fuel the city’s fortunes. A second film, devoted to the post–World War II years, has refreshingly candid moments, taking on problems faced by cities everywhere, including flight from downtown, loss of historic buildings, and racial issues. Out of the brew of Albuquerque’s cultures has come not only a true appreciation of its diversity but the working out of ways to display it.

Central Avenue, home to Route 66.

A case in point is the National Hispanic Culture Center of New Mexico, located in the neighborhood that held the original repair shops and roundhouses of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The center opened in 2000 on a 22-acre site along the Rio Grande that has since more than doubled in size and enterprise. Today it promotes the study of the many Latino cultures, mounts art exhibits on a grand scale, and houses three state-of-the-art performance spaces. The center also shows Spanish-language movies and holds writers’ conferences.

In a 45-foot cylindrical tower, a monumental project has been under way since 2002. Taking shape on the tower’s interior walls is a fresco that will depict centuries of Latino history and culture. The artist, Frederico Vigil, is assisted by local students; he learned the technique from aged disciples of Diego Rivera.