The terrain around the city of Albuquerque is divided topographically into two major regions: the valley and the mesas. The valley is the thin strip of land on either side of the Rio Grande, while the mesas rise up from it on either side. The East Mesa continues to rise gently for several miles until it reaches the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, and the West Mesa rises a smaller amount up to a row of extinct volcanoes. The Sandias on the east and the volcanoes on the west form the rough boundaries of the metropolitan area in those directions. The river runs from north to south, so in those directions there are no significant natural barriers to development. There are barriers to development that form edges of the city, at least for now, but they take the very different, and potentially more malleable, form of Indian reservations: Sandia Pueblo to the north and Isleta Pueblo to the south.
Most of the development in Albuquerque since the coming of the railroad in 1880, and there has been a lot of it, has taken place on the mesas. While the grid of streets next to the railroad tracks, known as New Town when it was originally laid out in the late nineteenth century and now known as Downtown, lies in the valley on the east side of the river, and the much older Hispanic settlement known today as Old Town lies to the west of it and even further into the valley, by the early twentieth century it was becoming clear that the mesas were where the action was. The neighborhood known as Huning Highlands, one of the first additions to the original New Town and one of the most successful, starts at the eastern edge of the tracks and extends up to the western edge of the East Mesa. Land speculators platted additions in the empty space between Old Town and New Town along Central Avenue, but they filled slowly while other additions heading east from Huning Highlands thrived.
There are a variety of factors that likely contributed to the growth of the mesas and the stagnation of the area around Old Town. One was the decision, made by the New Mexico territorial legislature in 1889, to put the campus of the University of New Mexico on the East Mesa. The site chosen was at the time quite some distance from the developed parts of Albuquerque, but once classes began development started to follow. Central Avenue extended east from Huning Highlands to form the southern boundary of the campus, and subdivisions began to spring up all along it. A streetcar line followed, easily linking the new developments to the commercial Downtown. The streetcar system, originally intended to link New Town to Old Town and to draw the two together into a single city, ultimately had the opposite effect: it connected the mesa developments to Downtown, but was unable to establish any strong linkages further west. As a result, the mesa boomed while Old Town stagnated. With car-oriented development accompanying the massive investment in the area by the government during World War II, sprawl continued to rapidly expand over the East Mesa, and similar developments began to occur on the West Mesa as well. By the 1980s, the east side of town was almost entirely built-out, and development had shifted mainly to the west side, including the new suburb of Rio Rancho to the north.
The valley, however, experienced a very different trajectory of growth over this same period. While the mesas had consisted almost entirely of empty rangeland before being subdivided and developed, the valley was home to a string of small Hispanic farming villages. Most of these had been founded in the nineteenth century, although a few were much older. Atrisco, on the west side of the Rio Grande, actually predated the founding of Old Town Albuquerque on the east side directly across from it in 1706. Most of these villages grew up around the large landholdings of individual wealthy families, from which they tended to take their names. Thus, the string of villages along the river, extending both north and south of what is now the Albuquerque metropolitan area, included such places as Los Griegos, Los Candelarias, Los Duranes, Los Barelas, and Los Lunas. Not all of the villages were named after families, however, and some had names like Algodones, Los Corrales, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, Pajarito, and Valencia. These villages were predominantly agricultural and Hispanic long after the city of Albuquerque began to sprawl onto the mesas with subdivisions composed of suburban-style ranch houses filled with predominantly Anglo white-collar workers.
Over time, however, development began to reach the valley as well, and here it took a very different form. Instead of the suburban developments modeled after similar neighborhoods being built throughout the country in the postwar era, developments in the valley were based more on local Hispanic architectural and site-planning principles. The houses were often made of adobe, or at least designed to look like they did. Gated communities reminiscent of the old family compounds of the wealthy families after whom the villages were named became much more common than on the mesas, where open subdivisions of tract houses predominated. The very wealthy built huge houses close to the river and the strip of cottonwood forest next to it known as the Bosque. The more middle class began to build on the farmland between the old villages. The city, having already grown accustomed to using its annexation powers to include the mesa developments, began to annex more and more of the valley development too. Some of the old villages, however, managed to incorporate on their own and avoid being swallowed up by the behemoth that Albuquerque was becoming. As these processes continued, the valley began to finally become part of the overall city, and the decline of Old Town began to reverse. Today Old Town is a charming and largely tourist-oriented area with cute shops and several museums, while the residential areas to the north of it have largely become quiet neighborhoods that still retain much of their rural character. There are still a few agricultural fields sprinkled among the gated communities and odd little businesses, and the old network of irrigation ditches known as acequias stills winds through the area.
This increasing development, however, also had the effect of splitting the valley into two very different parts. Development and annexation was largely confined to the area north of Old Town, which became known as the North Valley. The old villages in this area either incorporated and established independent identities (Corrales, Los Ranchos) or were swallowed up entirely by the city and lost whatever identity they had once had (Los Candelarias, Los Griegos).
South of Old Town, however, this didn’t happen. This area, known as the South Valley, saw little development and remained mainly rural, agricultural, Hispanic, poor, and outside the Albuquerque city limits. It remains so to this day, and has a rather bad reputation as a high-crime, low-income area. The old villages have seen a bit of new commercial development, and a few housing developments, but nothing like what has happened further north, and most remain individual communities separated by farmland.
It’s not clear why the North Valley saw so much investment and so many changes while the South Valley, which started out more or less the same, was allowed to stagnate. One possible answer has to do with topography. It just so happens that the North Valley is mostly on the east side of the river, directly adjacent to Old Town and convenient to Downtown, while the South Valley is mostly on the west side, which has seen a lot of recent residential and commercial development but has always been relatively peripheral to the major activities of the city. All the main government functions are concentrated on the east side, as are the major banks and other high-level commercial functions. This topographical oddity occurs because the river happens to run directly along the bluffs forming the eastern edge of the West Mesa for most of the North Valley, then curves to the east (forming the curve in which Old Town lies) to run approximately halfway between the two mesas through the South Valley. Because of the shape of the mesas themselves and the way it interacts with the river channel, there ends up being more land available on the west bank for this stretch. Thus, the South Valley villages were considerably more isolated, especially in the early days when the river could only be crossed by ferry or unreliable pontoon bridge, which may have made it less of an option for developers looking to make a quick buck off of rich people’s desire to combine the charm of old New Mexico country life with the convenience of proximity to the big city.