Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, is not the capital of New Mexico, but it is much larger than Santa Fe, which is the capital. It lies just west of the Sandia Mountains, a minor mountain range roughly 10,000 feet high. Albuquerque proper averages around 5000 feet above sea level; the actual figure depends on how close to the Rio Grande you are.

The population of Albuquerque is around 500,000, making it easily the biggest city in the region. That doesn't say much for the region, but I digress. It is home to Sandia National Laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base, and Intel's big chip-fabrication plant is just a few miles away, across the river in Rio Rancho. The University of New Mexico, the largest in the state, is in Albuquerque. It has well over 30,000 students. Supposedly the anthropology and engineering programs are quite good, and in 2000 it was the fastest-growing academic research institution in the country.

Albuquerque's climate is typical of high desert - Summer is hot (around 100 degees F), Autumn is mild and pleasant (perfect weather for motorcycling), Winter is fairly cold, with a few days of snow, and Spring is unpleasantly windy. There is very little precipitation, most of which seems to fall in late summer during those famous afternoon thunderstorms.

The history of the central New Mexico region is quite long, especially taking into account the native American presence, but somebody else can write about that.

Albuquerque is actually a small town of 500,000 people

You might think I'm kidding, but I'm not.

Albuquerque is the biggest small town I've ever been in. You've heard about that 6 degrees of separation thing? In Albuquerque, it's only 2 degrees.

On the other hand, Albuquerque is the smallest big city I've ever been in. All those big city problems you care to think of - pollution, murder, poverty, lousy schools, nearly anything you can think of - Albuquerque's got it and bad. And in addition, being such a small big city, we don't get the benefit of good public transportation, a good public library system, or any other big city plusses.

Not to mention, we have to put up with the reputation those lousy Santa Fe folks give New Mexico.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA


Albuquerque is located in the center of the State of New Mexico, in the Southwestern United States. The region is mountainous, with semi-arid high-altitude plains between the mountain ranges. Most of the city is at an elevation of 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level, but a mountain range running along the east side of the city, the Sandia Crest, has a summit at 10,678 feet (3,254 m).

Weather is generally clear and sunny. Night-time temperatures fall below 32° F (0° C) during the winter. (Giant Saguaro cactus, typical of the Sonoran desert, cannot survive sub-freezing temperatures and thus do not grow in Albuquerque). Light snowfall is not unusual. Summers begin hot and dry, but in July and August a monsoon pattern carries moisture up from Mexico and the Pacific, causing regular afternoon thundershowers which keep day time high temperatures from exceeding 95° F (35° C).

A long river, the Rio Grande, runs from the mountains to the north, and from Albuquerque runs south, marks the border between Texas and Mexico, and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. While the Rio Grande is shallow and unimpressive at any given point along its 1,885 mile (3,033 km) length, it is vital to the economy and ecology of the region. The underground aquifer created by the river supports a strip of forests and agricultural land, a natural highway for birds migrating between Canada and Mexico, and an oasis for humans travelling and living in the desert.


In 2000, Albuquerque itself was home to 450,000 people, with another 150,000 living in surrounding suburbs. About half the population is non-Hispanic white, around 40% is Hispanic, and the remaining 10% consists of Asians, Blacks and Native Americans (there are two pueblo reservations in the metropolitan area). Domestic U.S. and international immigration (the latter mostly from Mexico) adds to the population each year, and the entire Metropolitan Statistical Area will probably exceed 1 million by 2010.

The largest employers in Albuquerque are all government institutions, led by Kirtland Airforce Base, followed by the state university and city school districts, then Sandia National Laboratories, which performs basic scientific research with an emphasis on military applications. Various civilian high-tech employers have flourished here over the years as spinoffs from the military-industrial complex. A General Electric jet engine factory (now defunct) was typical of late-Twentieth Century industry, whereas today, Intel maintains large chip fabrication facility in neighboring Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

Prehistoric Albuquerque

Some of the earliest evidence of human activity in North America, consisting of flint weapons and the bones of Ice Age mega-fauna (mastodons, great bison, and giant deer) was found by archeologists in dry gullies out in the semi-arid plains of eastern New Mexico, near the towns of Clovis and Folsom. These towns have given their names to a distinctive style of stone spear points. Since the plains could not support such large herd mammals today, this suggests that the climate was much wetter after the Ice Age, and a tall-grass prairie extended all the way to the Rockies. The evidence they left suggests that Clovis-era hunters followed the big animals from settlements thousands of miles to the east, and camped in caves in the Sandia Mountains, a fault-block mountain range which towers over present-day Albuquerque. (Sandia means "watermelon": with its horizontal layers of dark and light colored rock, the Sandias look like a five-thousand foot high melon lying on its side). If the Clovis-era hunters ever climbed up through the gap between the Sandias and the Manzano Moutains (where Interstate 40 now runs) they might have seen a great, forested valley. Glaciers hugged the mountains around Santa Fe (where there are now many alpine lakes) and during the spring run-off, fed a raging torrent.

Over the millenia, however, the climate became considerably hotter and drier. The grassy plains disappeared, and the mega-fauna became extinct. The forest receded up into the mountains and down to the river bottom, leaving a scrubby semi-arid desert in between. Today, the lower slopes of the mountains are sparsely dotted with diminutive piñon and juniper bushes, and the flood plains of the river are covered with cottonwood trees. To survive and flourish in these conditions took a high degree of cultural organization and at least minimal agricultural technology: pottery and irrigation. The first people in the area to master this life-style, the Mogollon Culture, flourished between 500-1300 C.E., mostly in areas hundreds of miles to the south of Albuquerque, in the basin-and-range country on the northern edges of the Chihuahua Desert. To moderate the extreme temperature differences between the frigid desert night and the blistering hot noon-day sun, they lived in "pit houses" dug out of the earth. Some traces of this earliest culture persist in the modern Pueblo Indians' ceremonial kiva, a round pit house accessible only by a ladder in the roof.

Later, to the east and north of Albuquerque, there arose the Anasazi civilization, which at its height built a great ceremonial city, now known as Chaco Canyon, with roads extending out to settlements in the mountains across the Four Corners region of what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Anasazi dwellings were built above the ground, with thick walls of stone and adobe (sun-dried mud brick), usually clustered together in giant semi-circle facing the south, sometimes several stories high. Around 1300 C.E., for reasons which remain mysterious, the Chaco civilization collapsed. At first, the people retreated to cliff dwellings in the mountains, the ruins of which can be seen today at Mesa Verde in Colorado, Bandelier in New Mexico, or Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Later, the cliff dwellings were abandoned in favor of settlements on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Albuquerque: "Land of Entrapment"

New Mexico calls itself the "Land of Enchantment". New Mexico has many breath-takingly beautiful places, awe-inspiring places, intriguiging places, and even just quaint and charming places. Albuquerque is not one of those places, unfortunately, and its best function has always been facilitating travel to other places. Cynics attracted to the city and then unable to leave, due to its narrow economic base, have dubbed it the "Land of Entrapment". As the city approaches its three hundreth anniversary, it is worth noting that, from the very beginning, the image Albuquerque projected to promote itself was usually misleading, and often just damn lies.

Royal "Villa" founded by Governor Cuervo

On April 23, 1706, Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, provisional governor of New Mexico, wrote to his superior, the Viceroy of New Spain:

"I certify to the king, our lord, and to the most excellent señor viceroy (the Duque de Alburquerque), that I founded a villa on the banks and in the valley of the Río del Norte (the Rio Grande) in a good place as regards land, water, pasture and firewood, I gave it as patron saint the glorious apostle of the Indies, San Francisco Xavier, and called it the Villa of Alburquerque."

In fact, there were several problems with Governor Cuervo's announcement. First, he had failed to ask permission to found a new city, second, he had given it the wrong patron saint: the royal government in Madrid had recently decreed that the patron saint of any new settlement in New Mexico would be San Felipe, patron of Spain's new king, Felipe V. (There was some confusion over this until the 1770s, when the community finally chose San Felipe de Neri over San Francisco Xavier as its patron. Also, in the mid-1800s, the city dropped the first "r" and became Albuquerque.)

In fact, Cuervo really didn't have the people or the resources to found a city. Settlers consisted of only 19 families, when Spanish law required at least 30 families for the founding of a royal villa. He hadn't performed the necessary cermonies, laid out the city plaza, or granted the four square leagues of land (about 17 square miles) required by Spanish law. As of 1712, a plaza and streets still had not been laid out. A census taken in 1822, after the Mexican Revolution, revealed the royal villa had grown to only about 2,000 people.

Still, Cuervo's effort was good enough for the exceedingly remote backwater which New Mexico was at that time. Cuervo himself had written, in a letter to the King in 1705, "I have never seen so much want, misery and backwardness in my life. I suspect this land was better off before the Spaniards came."

Thus began Albuquerque's grand and glorious tradition of the hype exceeding reality. With exaggerated American Civil War battles, outselling other towns to have the railroad set up shop here, the creation of a Southwestern tourism and faux-Indian art industry out of virtually nothing, the supposedly curative effects of desert air for tuberculosis, the neon lights of seedy motels on Route 66, and the miles of desert laid out with dusty roads for subdivisions which still have not been constructed, Albuquerque has always promised more than it can deliver.

The "Land of Entrapment" in the Pueblo Era

In 1536, a Spanish explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain after years of wandering around the North American interior. Cabeza de Vaca told stories and rumors of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, legendary cities filled with gold located somewhere to the north of New Spain. C. de Vaca's stories were supposedly corroborated by the 1539 expedition of Franciscan missionary Marcos de Niza up through Arizona into New Mexico, to a city he called Cibola and we now call Zuni Pueblo. (Some historians doubt that Friar Marcos actually made it to Zuni Pueblo, and may have just been reporting rumors related to him by Native Americans in the Sonora Desert in Arizona, and Marcos himself claims he didn't actually enter the city).

The stories of cities of gold inspired an expedition led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540-1542. Upon arriving at Zuni, Coronado was disappointed to discover that the stories of gold were mere fables. Coronado found villages of mud-brick, not cities of gold, and called the native settlements "pueblos" (Spanish for village). He continued down the Rio Grande to the area which is now Albuquerque, which was then called Tigeux. Short on suppplies he ordered the Tiwa-speaking villagers to provide them with shelter, grain and blankets. The Indians rebelled and two villages were demolished by the Spanish. When news of this conduct reached Spain, Coronado was prosecuted for mistreating the Indians. (Spanish policy called for enslaving and/or converting the Indians to Christianity, not killing them or driving them out.) Coronado was acquitted of these charges, but his reputation was ruined.

Despite being a financial disaster, Coronado's expedition came back with solid geographic and ethnographic information about the region. The next expedition came for settlement, not plunder. Juan de Oñate, New Mexico's first governor, led some 600 persons north from the frontier settlement of Santa Bárbara in southern Chihuahua. They crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso and claimed the territory for the King of Spain on May 4, 1598. They continued several hundred miles north, along the river, to establish Spain's first settlement at San Juan de los Caballeros (near Española, New Mexico). The path they travelled from El Paso became known as the Camino Real, the Royal Road, the link between New Mexico and Mexico City in New Spain. Oñate was a better explorer than colonial administrator, and like Coronado before him, killed, enslaved and maimed any Indians who got in his way. He conquered the fortress city of Acoma, west of Albuquerque, and sentenced seventy surviving warriors to have one foot amputed. (This is the story behind "Why Oñate's statue is missing a foot".)

In 1607, Oñate resigned as governor and in 1610, Pedro de Peralta was named governor of the colony and established the city of Santa Fe as its new capital. From then until about 1675 the Spanish and the Indians managed to coexist, but then the Franciscans persuaded the governor to try and wipe out the native religions, which the missionaries regarded as "witchcraft". The governor went about this in the usual Spanish fashion: hanging several Indians and publicly whipping dozens more in the plaza in Santa Fe. In 1680, a revolt led by a Taos spiritual leader, named Popé, spread through the northern Pueblos and succeeded in getting the Spanish to evacuate Santa Fe and flee down the Camino Real to El Paso. In 1690, Diego de Vargas Zapata Lujan Ponce de Leon was appointed Governor. He marched a relatively small band of soldiers up to Santa Fe and persuaded the Indians fortified in the former Spanish settlement to surrender, swear allegiance to the King and become Christians. Apparently, while the Spanish were gone, Popé and his supporters had been just as despotic as the Spanish ever were, but were not as effective in protecting the Pueblos from raids by nomadic Apache warriors. (Indeed, one hundred and fifty years later, Apache raids were still such a problem that when the United States invaded New Mexico, the inhabitants were more than happy to surrender to the United States Army, because looked like it would be better protection than the dwindling military resources of the government of Mexico).

Throughout this period and until 1706, there was no Spanish settlement in the area called "Tigeux" which is now the sprawling city of Albuqerque. The Spanish preferred the northern part of the territory, which was greener and had better timber for building and pastures for grazing. Two pueblos still exist in Albuquerque: the Sandia Pueblo on the north side of the city, and the Isleta Pueblo on the south side. (After the American occupation in the 1840s, Sandia and Isleta land became Indian Reservations and assumed the status of small sovereign nations within the United States.)

Life in New Mexico during the Spanish Colonial times was like being in some sort of Iberian Brigadoon. The cultural influences which shaped Mexico and Latin America never quite made it this far up the Rio Grande. The colony was a European island in the middle of a vast sea of savage Indian nations, and communication with the capitol in Mexico City, over the Camino Real, was both arduous and dangerous. As a result, the Spanish spoken today in isolated towns in Northern New Mexico has an old Castillian accent that disappeared in Spain itself over 400 years ago. As late as 1807, when Lt. Zebulon Pike, a U.S. Army Scout "accidently" wandered into New Mexico, he was greeted by soldiers in precisely the same military regalia which the Spanish had brought with them during the New Mexican Reconquista, 200 years before: wearing heavy armor and carrying lances and shields.

Yanqui Imperialism

If the Spanish Empire at its height was unable to protect its remote outposts in North America, the chaotic new nation of Mexico, in 1821, was even less capable. The new Mexican government was, however, open to the idea of trade with the United States. In the Fall of 1821, Captain William Becknell headed out from Missouri to the west to trade with the Indians. After he entered what he thought was Spanish territory, his company was apprehended by soldiers. They expected to be jailed and and then escorted back to the U.S. without his trade goods, but to their surprise, they were told that Mexico had thrown off the shackles of European imperialism (and its stupid colonial trade restrictions) and were invited on to Santa Fe with a military escort. Becknell's company returned to Missouri loaded with silver. They set out again with a big wagon train of goods (dubbed by skeptical and histrionic Missourians as "Becknell's Caravan of Death") which somehow made it over the 800 miles of plains, rivers and mountains to Santa Fe, and back again. The ruts left by Becknell's wagons became known as "the Santa Fe Trail".

In 1846, after the U.S. had seized Texas and ignited war with Mexico, the United States Army under Stephen Watts Kearny followed the Santa Fe Trail out of Kansas to invade New Mexico. The New Mexicans, who were sick to death of being ruled and taxed by Mexico City without any benefit in return, gave up without a fight. (By contrast, when Kearny attempted to occupy Southern California, the Californios fought back). The provinical capital of Santa Fe surrendered on August 19, 1846, and Kearny was named military governor of the new United States Territory. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the people of the New Mexico Territory (which then included what is now the State of Arizona) were given the choice of emigrating to Mexico or, if they stayed, becoming United States citizens. The descendants of the Conquistadors, who still make up the majority of the population of Northern New Mexico, could thereafter claim that they didn't cross the border, the border crossed them.

The Railroad

The history of Albuquerque really begins with the railroad. In the 1870s, railroads were approaching New Mexico from Flagstaff in the west (the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad) and from Colorado in the North. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe had connected St. Louis and points east with Colorado, but could not proceed any further, directly west from Denver.

The locomotives of the day could not handle the grade necessary to go straight through the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains from Denver (like Interstate 70 does today). The first transcontinental route, connecting the Union Pacific Railroad with the Central Pacific Railroad, also had to skirt around the Rockies (on the northern side). Thus the first main transcontinental route through New Mexico did not cut straight through from east to west. Rather, rail came down from the north and up from El Paso, and in the middle, followed the course of the Rio Grande (and the old Spanish trail: Camino Real).

When Cyrus K. Holliday, the great lawyer-promoter-tycoon of the Santa Fe Railroad, planned his route down from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, he needed a place somewhere in the middle to build railroad maintenance yards. Santa Fe, the capital and largest city in the territory, was unsuitable because it was high in the mountains at an elevation of over 7000 feet above sea level, and thus was never on the main route of the Santa Fe Railroad. Any of the sleepy little Spanish villages along the middle Rio Grande would have sufficed, and Holliday’s men originally had their eye on the county seat, Bernalillo, New Mexico. Bernalillo officials gave the railroad men the cold shoulder, however, and they were invited by some far-sighted businessmen to check out an even smaller village to the south: Albuquerque. As a result, today Albuquerque is the 35th largest city in the United States, and Bernalillo is still a little village by the Rio Grande. To add insult to injury, Albuquerque assumed Bernalillo’s status as the county seat of Bernalillo County, and Bernalillo ended up outside the county that bears its name when the county was split up as a result of population growth.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad crossed the Raton Pass from Colorado on November 30, 1878. Track reached Las Vegas, New Mexico on July 4, 1879, Santa Fe on February 9, 1880, and Albuquerque on April 15, 1880.

After the railroad came in, an entirely new city was built around it. The old Spanish city, with its central plaza and streets radiating from the plaza, became just another neighborhood, called “Old Town” (now a tourist trap). “New Town”, more or less where Downtown is today, was built Anglo-American style in a grid pattern, centered on the railroad. The grid eventually spread in all directions, and the City formed into four quadrants, with the railroad as the y-axis and Railroad Avenue (which later became part of Route 66 and now is called Central Avenue) as the x-axis.

Warehouses sprang up along the tracks, because the railroad gave the shepherds of the Rio Grande a better market for their wool. The railroad made possible a wool industry, but also sowed the seeds of its destruction. Shepards now had a way to transport raw wool to processing centers, but immigrants from the United States soon bought up all their communal pastures and fenced them off. Today you have to travel a considerable distance from Albuquerque to see any sheep. The Lincoln County Wars (range wars between cattle and sheep ranchers) and the careers of gunfighters like Billy the Kid and Elfego Baca all happened miles from Albuquerque.

For the Spanish people, the railroad set in motion a steady decline of their centuries-long way of life. “Anglo” immigrants poured in. (In New Mexico, anyone who didn’t speak Spanish was “Anglo”: recent Italian or German immigrants who barely spoke a word of English were “Anglos”, as were Black U.S. cavalry soldiers. Outside of town, the Spanish had little use for “private property”. Only a small portion of the Spanish land grant, for housing and growing crops along the river, was treated like private property. Anglos did not participate in the traditional communal use of grazing lands: they bought grazing land and fenced it as private property. Several old Hispanic villages along the river were engulfed by the city and reduced to “barrios” (ghettos).

Southwest Kitsch

Over the years, the Santa Fe Railroad wasn’t just content to link the Midwest with the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico: it promoted passenger travel and tourism in the Southwest. For most tourists, who never strayed far from the tracks, this meant participating in a faux-Southwestern ambience designed by artists hired by the railroad. In Albuquerque, this was manifest in the Alvarado Hotel. The Santa Fe hired Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter to decorate the Hotel. Colter blended details from Native American buildings and crafts with the sensibilities of the Arts and Crafts movement, creating a model which was then repeated in several more hotels along the Santa Fe’s “Super Chief” passenger route from Chicago to LA. The Alvarado was built in a faux-native New Mexican architectural style: an orange stucco pile of rectangles reminiscent of the Taos Pueblo, decorated with wooden vigas, corbels and bell-towers like the mudbrick Spanish-Pueblo churches in Northern New Mexico. The result was a sort of lumpy, busy style we now call “Pueblo Revival”. You can get a flavor of what the Alvarado was like by visiting La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.

Later, architect John Gaw Meem refined “Pueblo Revival” style with white trim and the brick roof lines of the New Mexico Territorial buildings, which cleaned up the lumpiness and gave the style more dignity. The result was “Santa Fe” style, which in that city is required by law and in the rest of New Mexico is still quite popular.

The railroad thus gave Albuquerque its reason to exist as a city, a grid pattern of streets, and fake-adobe architecture. It also gave us a bunch of immense railroad maintenance buildings which the Santa Fe no longer has any use for, but still loom abandoned and graffiti-covered over Second Street. The main east-west freight line doesn’t run through here, anymore. It goes through a semi-suburban town to the south, Belen, New Mexico, with teams of diesel-electric locomotives pulling miles of cars carrying shipping containers from Asia, loaded straight off freighters in Long Beach, California.

Albuquerque and Tuberculosis

By 1907, the City had spread a considerable distance from the railroad, and the name of the main street was changed from “Railroad Avenue” to “Central Avenue”. In a few years, however, wags dubbed it “TB Avenue”, because of the number of sanitoriums located on for the influx of tuberculosis sufferers.

Throughout the 19th Century, people from the more humid parts of the United States had moved to the Southwest to breathe more freely. “Doc” Holliday, the famous gunfighter of Las Vegas, New Mexico and Tombstone, Arizona, was a typical TB refugee. A lot of sunshine, some nice hot green chile, and the carnival atmosphere of what was then still the Wild and Wooly West, probably did more for depression than the thin mountain air did for tuberculosis, but without antibiotics, that was the best you could do.

Whatever benefits the dry, high altitude air may have had then, it has since been very much degraded. Easterners insisted on planting trees to make Albuquerque look more like Georgia or Pennsylvania, and a lot of the trees they brought also generate choking amounts of pollen: mulberry and “Chinese Elm” being the worst culprits. And of course, now we have a million or so motor vehicles. In the first couple decades of the 20th Century, however, Albuquerque was a bit more refreshing than it is today, and quickly became the TB recovery capital of the world. In 1908, the Presbyterians built their first Sanitorium on Central, at the site of the current sprawling medical complex of Presbyterian Hospital.

Before World War II, Albuquerque’s population growth was fueled by TB immigration. Virtually everyone either had TB or was related to someone with TB. TB brought us the aforementioned architect, John Gaw Meem. In 1910, Clyde Tingley moved from Ohio to Albuquerque, hoping that the climate would help his wife Carrie, a TB patient. Tingley became a dynamic Mayor of Albuquerque and then governor of the State. And of course, following patients come doctors. My HMO, the Lovelace-Presbyterian, was formed from the merger of three large health care systems that grew out of TB clinics.

While the sunshine and dry mountain air probably didn’t really do much for TB sufferers, once aircraft were invented, the climate made for perfect flying weather almost every day. By 1928 there was an airport, and early aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Laura Ingalls, Amelia Earhart, and Roscoe Turner made the Albuquerque Airport a destination and regular stopover. In 1939, with war looming in Europe, the Army Airforce established a pilot training center here (now Kirtland Air Force Base). This set the stage for Albuquerque’s biggest boom ever: post-World War II. Pilots and army personnel who trained or worked in Albuquerque flocked back here after the war, and there was plenty for them to do, gearing up for World War III.

The view from here to Trinity Site

The bulk of the Manhattan Project research in New Mexico was done at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Los Alamos was, however, a small remote town that isn’t easy to get to. That made it perfect for a super-secret research project, but when nuclear weapons went from research project to military-industrial production, Albuquerque was the more sensible place to do it. Albuquerque was already familiar as the staging area for the first atomic bomb test at the Trinity Site. It had rail, highway, an Air Force base, and a whole mountain range —the Manzanos— and a vast desert area —White Sands Missile Range— owned by the federal government, to play around in, build stuff in secret, and blow stuff up. It was a weapons geek’s wet-dream, and still is.

If you picture Sandia National Laboratories as a dinky little lab campus where a handful of scientists mess around with lasers and computers, well, I’m sure the government will be pleased that they’ve done their disinformation job well. Plenty of non-classified and hardly secret information suggests otherwise. Weapons systems from the atomic bomb up through missile systems and “Star Wars” missile defense systems were all designed, assembled and tested here. Contractors proliferated, machining exotic metals and composite materials, crafting new electronics and software, testing new propellants and explosives. Albuquerque’s population swelled from 35,449 in 1940 to 201,189 in 1960, growth fueled almost entirely by the military operations during and after World War II.

Route 66

Contributing to this growth was an interstate highway, dubbed Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. In 1937, planners re-routed the Mother Road away from Santa Fe and straight down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, east to west. In its heyday, Route 66 teemed with neon signs and mimetic architecture, sometimes called "duck architecture" (so-called by Robert Venturi after a famous roadside shed on Long Island shaped like a duck). An ice cream shop was shaped like an iceberg, a giant sombrero served Mexican food, a barrel-shaped building dispensed root beer, and a motel, the "Wigwam Court", had rooms shaped like tee-pees. Most of that is gone now, but there is still a giant lumberjack at Louisiana and Central, where there apparently was once a lumber distributor. He now hoists his axe over the May Cafe, a very fine Vietnamese restaurant.

Aside from these amusing novelties, however, the age of the automobile was an architectural and urban planning disaster for Albuquerque. Most of the public face of Albuquerque is now a hideous urban sprawl constructed in the late 20th century. The Alvarado Hotel was stupidly torn in the 1950s, as part of ill-conceived “urban renewal” (its exterior design has since been replicated in a new downtown bus terminal). Downtown was seen during those days mostly as an impediment to the free flow of traffic. “Renewal” created a bizarre urban landscape with high-rise office towers looming over dusty vacant lots, used for parking. Shopping moved out of downtown to strip malls. Great garish corridors of pavement and plastic signs now criss-cross the City, which ironically make driving across town impossibly tedious, but for the Interstate highways which slashed across the grid, almost as an afterthought.

The Sixties

Following the post-war boom, Albuquerque seems to have had more than its share of American mid-twentieth century angst. Thousands of white suburban kids fled the coasts and tried to live in hippie communes in Northern New Mexico. The Civil Rights Movement radicalized the impoverished and disenfranchised Hispanic underclass.

In Northern New Mexico, Hispanics formed the Alianza Federal de Mercedes. “Mercedes” here meant land grants, the cultural and economic centers of traditional Hispanic colonial life, which had been reduced or taken by Anglos since the United States occupation in 1846. Alianza members believed they were fighting for the stolen land that was their birthright. Under the leadership of Reies Lopez Tijerina, the Alianza conducted protests, including a march from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, and occupied a section of Forest Service land, holding Forest Service rangers at gunpoint for several days. The Alianza was also suspected of numerous incidents of arson in Rio Arriba County, aimed at driving out Anglo landowners. In 1967, the Alianza conducted the “Courthouse Raid” in Tierra Amarilla. The raid freed some imprisoned Alianza members and took two hostages. A state trooper was wounded by gunfire, but amazingly, despite numerous shots fired, no one was killed. The lieutenant governor, reacting to rumors of many deaths and widespread armed insurrection, called out the National Guard, which swept into the area with two hundred military vehicles, including several tanks. Tijerina was captured in Albuquerque after an extensive search. Acquitted of all state charges for the “Raid”, he was imprisoned on federal charges arising out of the occupation of the Forest Service land.

Protests against the Vietnam War began fairly early on, with the arrest of some protesters for “littering” at the Kirtland Airforce Base gates in 1965, but reached a bloody denouement shortly after the shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. The University of New Mexico, like many universities across the country, erupted with huge protests, but the one in New Mexico was met by National Guardsman with fixed bayonet. Eleven students were stabbed with bayonets, fortunately none fatally.

As the body counts climbed in Vietnam, hippies took over entire abandoned mining towns like Madrid, New Mexico (between Santa Fe and Albuquerque). Ken Kesey’s traveling LSD circus, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, took a left turn at Albuquerque and made a tour of the communes. Clandestine marijuana farming joined animal grazing and hunting as an illegal but traditional use of the vast preserves of government land. This resurgence of the Wild Western frontier spirit inevitably attracted, just like the frontier in the 1880’s, a certain “criminal element”, operating both outside and within law enforcement.

In 1971, three Black Panthers hijacked a plane from Albuquerque to Cuba to escape arrest and prosecution for shooting a state trooper. Although there were dozens of similar hijackings during this period, this one received a lot of media attention, because of the race of the perpetrators but perhaps also because of the sheer audacity of their act: emerging from hiding in the desert to storm the airport gate and take over the plane by force. After this, government started treating the counterculture like a communist insurgency.

In 1972, undercover FBI agents, part of the COINTELPRO operation, infiltrated a radical group formed in Albuquerque which called itself the Brown Berets. Spouting the Maoist rhetoric of the “Black Panthers”, and trained in the use of weapons by the U.S. military in Vietnam, the Brown Berets planned to arm themselves for the protection of the Hispanic barrios. The barrios, like Black ghettos on the coasts, were playgrounds for criminals due to lack of significant protection from the white ”Anglo” police. Two members of the Brown Berets, up to that point active primarily as journalists, were persuaded by the FBI operatives to attempt to steal dynamite from a construction project. The two men, armed only with a single antiquated hunting rifle, were ambushed by state, county and Albuquerque police and cut down in a hail of bullets trying to flee the site. (This may the real-life basis for the Judi Bari quip: "The first lesson in activism is that the person that offers to get the dynamite is always the FBI agent.")

Over the last few decades of the Twentieth Century, the counterculture in New Mexico slowly dissolved. Marxists disappeared or were replaced by feminists. The communes split up in petty bickering. Former radicals turned to organic gardening and miscellaneous “spiritual” pursuits, and became lawyers and massage therapists. The drug culture left in its wake a severe heroin epidemic in impoverished rural New Mexico, most visible in Española, New Mexico (ironically not far from the site of the original Hispanic settlement in North America, at San Juan).

The groundwork was laid, however, for a permanent left-liberal political presence in New Mexico, which occasionally still asserts itself as an alternative to the mainstream. In the 1990s, for example, a broad coalition of leftists, Hispanic activists, and environmentalists formed a Green Party which was sometimes actually capable of mustering majority support, for example, the election of Debbie Jaramillo as Green Party mayor of Santa Fe.

Albuquerque Today

Sprawl continues, mostly on the West Side, but there are signs of revitalization within the city. The old railroad district of Downtown is developing into a livable or at least entertaining neighborhood, with old abandoned buildings converted to loft apartments, and so many bars and night clubs on Central Avenue downtown that the police routinely shut down old Route 66 on weekend nights and make it a mall for drunk pedestrians. The ghost of the old Alvarado Hotel reappeared as a city bus terminal, next to a movie theater (the first Downtown theater in decades). The oldest part of the Route 66 neon strip, the “Nob Hill” section by the University, has been reclaimed from the hookers and junkies with chic boutiques, restaurants, and tattoo parlors.

Hispanic poverty continues to rage in the rural parts of New Mexico. With the collapse of extractive industries like lumber, oil and gas, and mining in the 1980s, unemployment in some rural counties exceeds 30% and shows no signs of going down this century, if ever. In Albuquerque, however, the native Hispanics are assertively middle- and upper-class, economically and politically, with recent immigrants from Mexico rushing in to assume the roles of laborers and servants. On the Indian reservations, especially the two pueblos engulfed by the Albuquerque metropolitan sprawl, money from casino gambling floods in. This money has created a very noticeable improvement in Pueblo housing and government services, like schools, and has allowed Sandia Pueblo to turn back and even reverse the city’s encroachment upon the Pueblo by purchasing surrounding lands.

While the Cold War is over, Sandia National Laboratories continues its Faustian pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Supercomputers are regularly built, tested and disassembled, mostly in secret. Every once in a while the veil of secrecy is lifted and we get a glimpse of amazing things, like the Air Force’s Starfire Optical Range, an adaptive optics telescope hidden away on a hilltop in the corner of Kirtland Air Force Base. Starfire uses a laser guide to detect and adjust for atmospheric turbulence by making subtle changes in the primary mirror. The proliferation (and destruction) of spinoff industries continues. The latest and most publicized one is Eclipse Aviation, a company which intends to manufacture business jets constructed entirely of advanced composites.

Impressive as all that is, it doesn’t do much for the local economy. The Los Alamos Study Group has assembled considerable data to show that the billions of federal dollars pumped into New Mexico for nuclear weapons research goes right back out of the state, mostly into the coffers of multinational industry. To me, however, the most important contribution of weapons research to New Mexico has been cultural, not technological or economic. The state attracts a disproportionately high number of highly educated people. Granted, a lot of them are physics geeks working on nuclear weapons, but not all of them. This cadre of brilliant people provide a sort of leaven in the loaf, which manifests itself in subtle ways. New Mexico’s legal system, for example, has the most advanced computer-aided systems in the country, which I can attest from personal experience are more mature, usable and reliable than the systems belatedly adopted in other, bigger and wealthier states.

And of course, Albuquerque is home for many noders, including yours truly.

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