Archive for the ‘Albuquerque’ Category

Volcano on West Mesa from North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Valle del Norte Community Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Big, Elaborate House in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Valley High School, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Sign for Candelaria Village, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Big Houses on Acequia in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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).

Sign for Los Griegos Neighborhood, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Lock on Acequia in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.

Bridge over Acequia in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico


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Albuquerque: The Term Paper

Central Avenue in Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico

As promised, here is the paper I wrote on the history and geography of Albuquerque.  Due to the constraints of the assignment, I wasn’t able to go into nearly as much detail about the history as I would have liked, and I may do some more posts on the subject in the future.  Anyway, enjoy!

Statues at Albuquerque Plaza Building, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, with a municipal population estimated at approximately 500,000 people and a metropolitan area population estimated at approximately 800,000. Since the whole state of New Mexico has slightly less than two million people, this gives the Albuquerque area nearly half of the state population.

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque thus has a very prominent place within the local hierarchy of cities and serves as the main economic and cultural center for the state of New Mexico. It is, however, one of the smaller cities in the southwestern US, and many highly specialized goods and services associated with large cities are not available in Albuquerque and must be sought in Denver or Phoenix, both of which are much larger.

Sign for Rio Grande Nature Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico

A strategic location has been one factor in Albuquerque’s rise to prominence. It lies in the valley of the Rio Grande, which flows south through the center of New Mexico to El Paso, Texas, where it curves to the southeast and continues to the Gulf of Mexico. The Middle Rio Grande Valley, as the portion of the river in central New Mexico is called, is a fertile agricultural area that has been used for irrigated farming for hundreds of years. On both sides of the valley rise flat mesas, which on the east side gradually slope up to the foothills of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains.

Sandia Mountains from Tent Rocks National Monument

The Rio Grande Valley forms a natural transportation corridor from north to south. The Middle Valley in particular is centrally located within the state and is conveniently close to many basins and mountain ranges which contain significant mineral resources. Albuquerque sits directly west of a major pass through the Sandia Mountains, known as Tijeras Canyon, which provides a connection between the Rio Grande and the Great Plains to the east and makes it a key node in the regional transportation system. Many theories of city location based on transportation networks and proximity to resources would easily predict the development of a major city in the Middle Valley.

Main Library, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The specific location of Albuquerque within the valley, however, is harder to account for by reference to theoretical considerations. To explain the details of the history of Albuquerque it is necessary to appeal to a series of contingent historical factors that ended up directing economic growth to Albuquerque rather than to other communities in the state or region.

Rio Grande Boulevard, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque was founded in 1706 by the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico, Francisco Cuervo y Valdés. Governor Cuervo named his new town Alburquerque (note the extra r) in honor of the viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, Duke of Alburquerque, the top Spanish official in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The viceroy’s title came from the small village of Alburquerque, in western Spain very close to the Portuguese border. Several of the dukes of Alburquerque played important roles in both the Spanish and Portuguese empires. The name of the village came originally from the Latin albus quercus, meaning “white oak.”

Cottonwood on Griegos Lateral Irrigation Ditch, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Governor Cuervo likely chose the name to ingratiate himself with the viceroy. He had been appointed by the viceroy after the death of the previous governor in 1704, but he had not been confirmed in that position by the king. While he awaited confirmation as governor, Cuervo worked hard to do as much as he could to burnish his credentials and ensure his position. (This was ultimately unsuccessful, as it turned out that the king had already sold the governorship to a wealthy nobleman, and Cuervo returned to Mexico City in 1707.)

Agricultural Field in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

When Governor Cuervo established the villa or chartered town of Alburquerque in 1706, it was only the third in the whole colony. Farmers in New Mexico tended to spread out along the rivers rather than congregating in towns or villages. The colonial government, however, preferred a more concentrated settlement pattern, both for defensive purposes and to keep an eye on the colonists.

"Horse Crossing Ahead" Sign on Rio Grande Boulevard, Albuquerque, New Mexico

In his official dispatches to the viceroy and king, Governor Cuervo was claimed that he had followed all the regulations in establishing the new town. He said that he collected thirty-five families, representing 252 people, and gathered them together around a newly marked out plaza and streets, where they soon constructed houses and a church and began construction of government offices. He also reported that he had ordered ten soldiers from the Santa Fe presidio to be stationed at the new town, which was vulnerable to raids by the Navajos and Apaches.

Los Candelarias Chapel, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Little of this was true. It is clear that something happened at the site of what is now Old Town Albuquerque in 1706, but evidence from later investigations shows that it bore little resemblance to what the governor described. Interviews with area residents just a few years later indicated that there were no more than nineteen families involved, totaling about 100 people, and that far from building new houses along streets radiating out from a marked and surveyed plaza, they were simply granted lots in the general area. Cuervo did send the ten soldiers, and they may have been the main factor in inducing the new settlers to come to the fertile but relatively vulnerable Middle Valley. There was some sort of ceremony and swearing of oaths on the part of the new settlers, and construction of a new church probably did begin, but there is no evidence that any surveying of a plaza, streets, or town boundaries was done. The town was established on paper, and given a name, but the actual settlement pattern was still rural and agricultural, as was standard throughout New Mexico. Alburquerque only developed into a relatively aggregated town around a central plaza very slowly over the course of the eighteenth century.

Sheep Grazing in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

In the early nineteenth century Alburquerque remained overwhelmingly agricultural, with an economy based on irrigated subsistence farming in the valley and grazing of livestock, especially sheep, on the mesas. It was located within a bend where the river curves to the west before curving back east and continuing on its southerly path. It was also along the Camino Real, the main road through the Rio Grande Valley connecting Santa Fe to Mexico City. As a result, everything and everyone that traveled between Mexico and northern New Mexico passed through Alburquerque. The plaza and church gradually acquired the set of streets and surrounding houses called for in the official plan for a villa.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Under Spanish rule New Mexico was very poor and isolated, as royal policy forbade any trade with rival colonial empires and required New Mexican farmers to sell their products only in Mexico, which had to be reached by the long and arduous journey down the Camino Real. Manufactured goods were very expensive. Alburquerque’s strategic position on the river and on the Camino Real did it little good, since the volume of trade was so small.

Sandia Mountains from North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

That changed in 1821, when the Viceroyalty of New Spain declared independence and became the Republic of Mexico. The new republic immediately repealed the old restrictions on trade. This led to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail by American traders who led mule trains from St. Louis to Santa Fe, where they found a huge pent-up demand for manufactured goods and were able to make large profits, first within New Mexico itself, then in the much larger and wealthier markets of Mexico proper, which they could reach from Santa Fe by following the Camino Real. Alburquerque finally got to take advantage of its strategic position and soon began to prosper, although it remained a very small town. A census conducted in 1822 showed 2,302 inhabitants for the whole Alburquerque district, consisting of most of the Middle Valley in addition to the town itself.

Civic Plaza, Albuquerque, New Mexico

In the 1840s came war between the US and Mexico. New Mexico was conquered without significant resistance by the US Army in 1846. More and more Anglos from other parts of the US began to migrate into the territory, but they were still vastly outnumbered by the local Hispanic population.

Adobe Wall around House in North Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The major turning point in the history of Albuquerque came in 1880 when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived. The small but ambitious Anglo population in the territory had long been pushing for the railroad to come, seeing it as a path to growth and prosperity.

Viaduct on Coal Avenue over Railroad Tracks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Once the tracks reached the Middle Valley the plan was to split into two branches. One would continue down the valley to El Paso, and the other would cross the river and head west across western New Mexico and Arizona to California. The decision of where to put the junction depended on the best location for a bridge. The best physical location for a bridge was at Bernalillo, a few miles upstream from Alburquerque, but the railroad was unable to negotiate an acceptable price for the land it needed. The next best location was a few miles south of Alburquerque. The main choice was whether to put the facilities there or to put them in the vicinity of Alburquerque. The civic boosters in Alburquerque managed to persuade the AT&SF to put its depot and yards at a location about two miles east of the plaza. The railroad was unwilling to run tracks to the existing town, preferring the straighter path along the eastern side of the valley, but the town was willing to go along with this in the expectation that the new town that developed near the tracks would develop in tandem with the older area around the plaza, with subsequent development soon filling in the space in between and the ultimate result being a sort of “bi-polar” city. With all these arrangements made, the tracks arrived at the depot site on April 5, 1880.

Victorian House in Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico

Once the railroad arrived and what soon became known as “New Town” (in contrast to “Old Town” around the plaza) was platted, Albuquerque, now consistently spelled with only one r as a result of the Anglo population’s trouble pronouncing it, grew rapidly. New Town was laid out in a grid pattern and the massive influx of Anglos from the East and Midwest soon resulted in a boom in commercial and residential development which mimicked the styles of architecture common elsewhere in the country rather than the traditional adobe style found in Old Town. Prominent local businessmen soon began to speculate in land, which resulted in numerous additions to the original townsite around the depot.

Insurance Building, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Meanwhile, Old Town stagnated. The bi-polar city never really materialized; all the growth went to New Town, and the area in between Old and New Towns along Railroad (later renamed Central) Avenue filled in very slowly. The two parts of town were connected by a streetcar system, initially mule-drawn, later drawn by horses, and starting in 1904 electrified. The owners of the streetcar company tried to capitalize on the rising land values from proximity to new streetcar lines to speculate in real estate, but they were not very successful at this, and by the 1920s the company was struggling to compete with the newly popular automobile. The city government refused to either subsidize it or take it over, so it went out of business in 1928.

Central Avenue near UNM Campus, Albuquerque, New Mexico

One of the most important factors in the growth of Albuquerque was the US government’s decision during World War II to build an air force base and many other facilities in the area. In the post-1945 era sprawling middle-class auto-oriented subdivisions spread out across the East Mesa all the way to the foothills of the mountains, and began to spread over the West Mesa as well. The land occupied by these subdivisions had been totally uninhabited rangeland, which the city annexed as development spread, so the vast majority of the metropolitan area now lies within the city limits.

Post-War Suburban-Style House, Albuquerque, New Mexico

By the late twentieth century, the building of Interstates 25 and 40 right through the center of the city further encouraged the sprawl of residential subdivisions and contributed to the decline of Downtown (as the original New Town came to be known). Misguided urban renewal projects that put up big concrete plazas and towers did not help. In recent years, however, an aggressive effort at Downtown revitalization has been successful in attracting new development. A state effort to establish a commuter rail system on the old AT&SF tracks has been quite successful as well.

Bas-Relief Mural at Main Fire Station, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The internal development of Albuquerque mostly occurred very rapidly, and it does not closely fit the predictions of any of the varies theories of urban development based on older industrial cities in the East and Midwest. Concentric zone theory does in a general way apply in the sense that development generally proceeded out from the Downtown area, especially to the east but to some extent to the west as well, with the wealthiest moving the furthest. Sectoral theories have more limited relevance, although patterns of development on the East Mesa have tended to take after New Town while development in the valley has been more like Old Town. Overall, while some theories of urban structure and location do shed light on the history of Albuquerque, contingent historical factors have had more influence on the development of the city’s built environment over its long history.

San Ignacio Church in Martineztown, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Skyscrapers in Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico

One of my papers this semester was on the history of Albuquerque, specifically in relation to theories of city location and form drawn from urban geography.  I’ll post the full paper later, but for now I just want to say a bit about the main source I used, which was Marc Simmons’s book Albuquerque: A Narrative History.  Simmons is one of the most prominent historians of New Mexico, and the book is a very good summary of the whole sweep of Albuquerque’s long history.  As the subtitle implies, the focus is narrative, and rather than a long, dry list of decisions made by developers and politicians the book is mainly a series of interesting stories that shed light on what life was really like in Albuquerque during various periods.  Simmons is something of an old-fashioned historian, not given to theorizing, so there is very little attempt to put any of this into an explicit explanatory framework.  That’s okay, though, because the information is presented clearly enough that it could easily be used to evaluate its fit with a variety of theoretical approaches.

House near University of New Mexico Campus, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Simmons is a specialist in the Spanish colonial period, and his coverage of Albuquerque’s history is therefore more detailed and focused for the early period, from the establishment of the city in 1706 to the coming of the railroad in 1880.  The documentation of this period is pretty scanty, but Simmons makes excellent use of it.  One of his major claims to fame as a New Mexico historian is his discovery that Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdés cut a lot of corners when he founded Albuquerque, though he claimed to have followed all the applicable laws to the letter when he wrote his dispatches to his superiors.  Before Simmons, historians had generally taken him at his word, since his letters were pretty much the only source available on the matter.  Simmons, however, discovered records of an investigation into Governor Cuervo’s various claims about his accomplishments that shed new light on this and other issues.  Conducted just a few years after he left office, the investigation involved extensive interviews with Albuquerque residents who said that the founding of the town basically consistent of a few families being granted land in the area and ten soldiers being sent to protect them.  This is in stark contrast to the way a town was supposed to be founded, and the way Cuervo claimed to have founded this one.  A plaza, streets, and boundaries were supposed to be surveyed, and the people were supposed to build and live in houses along those streets, near a church facing on the plaza.  The church does seem to have been built, but aside from that not much else happened to change the Albuquerque area from a rural agricultural valley to a town of any sort.

Fruit Basket, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Simmons describes these events in great detail, and this is probably the most interesting part of the book.  As he gets to the later periods, he seems to rely very heavily on newspapers as primary sources, which gives him a lot of interesting stories to tell but doesn’t do much to place them in context.  He kind of rushes through the whole twentieth century at breakneck speed after lingering for a while on the period between 1880 and 1900, when the new Anglo railroad town around the train station began to outshine the old town around the plaza.  For my specific purposes in writing this paper it would perhaps have been better for the book to have paid more detailed attention to the period after World War II, when the city grew enormously and changed into the sprawling monstrosity it is today, but it’s not like I’m the only potential audience.  One issue is that the book was written in 1982, and while not a whole lot has changed since then in the grand scheme of things, it would be interesting to see an updated account putting more recent events into perspective.

Intersection of Central Avenue and Fourth Street, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Anyway, despite those small quibbles, this is a very good introduction to the history of Albuquerque, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Frontier Restaurant, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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