Standing in the middle of Central Ave., blocked off as it was last Friday for Art Walk, it all seemed so tantalizingly possible.
Hundreds of people—maybe even thousands—had taken to the streets to check out all manner of interesting creations at the table-lined sidewalks. Here was a mariachi band, there was a DJ, and everywhere a practically giddy spirit. It is spring, after all, and we humans have always celebrated the end of the cold season. That counts double when marking what we hope is the end of a long pandemic winter.
But it counts triple for Downtown, which has been hit especially hard in the last year. The area’s lifeblood—a combination of commuters, tourists, conventioneers and nightlife revelers—has all but disappeared. And on one horrible night last summer, a window-smashing mob worked its way through, leaving in its wake graffiti, dozens of boarded-up buildings and scary images likely to repel potential visitors.
The darkest hour, as the old optimistic saw goes, is right before the dawn. Then again, the pessimistic wags counter, the darkest hour is also when things get completely dark.
To walk the Downtown Albuquerque beat in the spring of 2021 is to wonder which of those clichés will prove out. There is at once a buzzing energy about the place, teeming as it is with innovative and fascinating people perfectly willing to work like the devil and risk their fortunes to make their artistic or culinary or communitarian visions a reality. You could close your eyes and easily imagine this bunch launching Downtown out of its pandemic funk, making it more vital and relevant than ever in the coming years.
But there is also a sense of foreboding: Will the underlying economic forces that made possible Downtown as we knew it be there after the virus recedes? Will commuting still be a thing? Will people still organize conventions in an era of Zoom? Will the city’s ongoing problems with housing and homelessness—already a heavy anchor—get worse? These are the sort of known unknowns that Downtowners will be sweating in the months ahead, even as we celebrate the new energy, the investment and the exciting possibilities.
If there is to be a post-pandemic Downtown renaissance, it seems likely to revolve around food, art and larger-than-life characters with an uncanny knack for moving mountains even as a virus rages.
Take the case of Jesús Muñoz. He’s a flamenco dancer and teacher with an international reputation who, for the last several years, has been operating Flamenco Works, a studio located near 10th and Coal.
But more recently, he persuaded the owners of an abandoned Central storefront to give (give!) him the entire building, proving conclusively that fancy footwork need not always happen on the dance floor.
“It seemed like an ideal new life for 506 Central,” said Laurie Tarbell, the now-former owner who, with her husband Jared, also runs the Levitated Toy Factory at Silver and Seventh.
Flamenco Works is primarily a school offering classes to children, but the move to Central—and the extra 1,500 square feet of space that comes with it—will allow for more and bigger performances open to the public, possibly even through the KiMo Theatre.
Or take the case of Bale Sisneros. He used to run his business, Por Vida Tattoo, out of a small storefront near 10th and Central. Even early on it was clearly more than the sum of its parts. Customers were so enthusiastic that they took to stopping by just to say hello. So Sisneros started an in-house coffee shop to make them feel more at home while they were at it.
Fast forward to last year when Sisneros bought the massive Appliance City Building at the southeast corner of Fourth and Coal. There, a gym and barbershop will join the coffee shop and tattoo parlor.
“You think of a community center [and] you think of kids and basketball,” Sisneros told me. But this is, “I guess, a community center for adults.”
We could go on. Oni, a noodle restaurant, opened at Sixth and Central during the height of last spring’s lockdown—and yet has managed to develop a cult following, mostly by doing takeout through a walk-up window. One block to the west, Nazario Sandoval, the artist known by the handle Wemfer, recently corralled dozens of colleagues into putting up the positively epic “Church of Music” mural behind El Rey Theater. Victoria Van Dame, the head of the OT Circus Gallery, is pressing ahead with work to turn the historic Kress Building (416 Central Ave. SW) and NEDA Building (718 Central Ave. SW) into art and food hubs. The Barelas Community Coalition is launching a combination food hall, community center and business incubator in the new Zocalo Building at Fourth and Coal. In recent years, Zendo Coffee, the Turquoise Museum and Sidetrack Brewing have all breathed new life into their stretch of Second Street.
And in perhaps the most dramatic development of the last 12 months, the architect Mark Baker opened the 505 Central Food Hall, increasing the street’s restaurant census by 50 percent at a stroke.
Such is the impressive state of Downtown’s informal booster club. By sheer resourcefulness and force of personality, they conjure up great works of art, build successful businesses and sometimes persuade people to hand over the deeds to their buildings. They have their own individual motivations for doing all this, but the aggregate effect is to lift up the entire area and inspire optimism that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday. If Team Downtown is with us, you might reasonably wonder, who the hell can be against us?
The Shoes That May Drop
If the future of Downtown were entirely up to Downtowners, we could safely upgrade the level of optimism from “tentative” to “hearty.” But more so than most neighborhoods, our fate is only partially up to us.
That is because Downtown lives off a tourism economy in at least four different respects. Traditional tourists—the ones on a long-weekend trek from Phoenix or Denver who come to visit family or just see the sights—have long been found here, of course. But then there are conventions, short bursts of intense activity that are especially good at filling area hotels and restaurants with the nametag-clad traveling masses.
And don’t forget the commuting class, a kind of obligatory tourism—but one that still managed to support a group of restaurants, coffee shops, banks and other services that would not otherwise be here.
Finally, we have intra-city tourism: People from the Westside or the Heights who, at the end of a long day, come Downtown to unwind. Traditionally, that has been the purview of the bar and nightclub scene; but the pre-COVID hope was always to expand on it, and the 505 Central Food Hall is perhaps our best chance for doing so. Places like that tend to create their own economic weather, after all, and sometimes the positive knock-on effects help the surrounding area, too.
This is especially important because not many people actually live Downtown. The 87102 zip code, which is roughly I-40 to Gibson and 12th to I-25, has only 19,000 residents—some 3.3 percent of the city’s population and roughly equal to the size of Gallup.
The big question these days is whether that broadly-defined tourism economy pulled out from under us will come back. And if not, what the extent of the damage is. People will still travel for pleasure, of course. But will they do so as much as before? Travelers will doubtless still gather for conventions as well. But now that we’ve all had a year of practice with Zoom-everything, will some of those future gatherings now be relegated to virtual spaces?
Intra-city tourism is likewise in a holding pattern. Last Friday’s Art Walk was an encouraging sign, but the bars and nightclubs are still generally closed on account of pandemic restrictions. Some are still literally boarded up 10 months after the unrest that led to all the broken windows.
And what about those commuters, now perfectly well accustomed to doing their jobs in the comfort of their pajamas?
“I think it’s going to be the wave of the future for people to work at home,” said Steve Vatoseow, the owner of Lindy’s, a stalwart diner at Fifth and Central. That’s one reason “it’s kind of a scary time to be down here.”
For all the new energy, plenty of places have closed their doors in the last year. Simms Fitness, the Mother Road Hostel, the Garcia’s Fourth and Mountain location, the Peoples Flowers Downtown location, Bank of Albuquerque’s Downtown location, Tricklock Performance Laboratory and Last Call are all gone. (Firestone and Filling Philly’s also closed, though it’s not clear if that was connected to the pandemic.)
Then there is the not-so-trifling matter of homelessness. Property values and rents are rising across the city, which is great news if you’re looking to sell a house or become a landlord. If it turns out that the increases are driven—as some anecdotes hold—by platoons of newly-liberated coastal desk jockeys moving here to remote-work, you might also be celebrating the infusion of new blood and new money.
But if the hot real estate market is more than just a passing phase, it could also mean very bad news for Downtown. The cost of housing is the best predictor of homelessness, and it’s a good bet that we will continue to shoulder more than our fair share of the burden if the already-large population increases further. Mayor Tim Keller plans to build a few hundred emergency shelter beds in the coming years, but a sudden increase in demand could overwhelm the new capacity. For a Downtown district that depends on attracting people from elsewhere and showing them a good time, that is an alarming prospect indeed.
Life in 2021 is an uncertain business for everybody. The pandemic’s story is unfolding too fast for the data geeks and academics to get a proper handle on it. So we are left with anecdotes, whispers of trends and speculation alternately rosy and grave. With a little luck, the vaccines will work like a charm, and people will adjust back to a more normal day-to-day life over the course of the year. Only then will we begin to find out if and how Downtown fits into the new normal and whether our post-COVID world feels more like a renaissance or a multi-year hangover.
Peter Rice is the editor of Downtown Albuquerque News. Contact him through downtownalbuquerquenews.com.