Nob Hill is one of those neighborhoods where you can feel the energy as soon as you arrive. This jewel on Route 66 gives you that immediate sense of place—one which attracts people from all walks of life. That’s what gives this destination neighborhood its charm: people and place.
Gary Eyster, the current president of the Nob Hill Neighborhood Association, is one of those people. You know how sometimes you meet someone for the first time and you feel like you can immediately soak in the glow of their wisdom? That’s Gary. Having fallen in love with the area’s architecture, which makes sense given that he is a homebuilder and contractor, he has become a wealth of knowledge. The Paper. sat down for an interview to discuss Albuquerque’s quirkiest neighborhood.
The Paper.: There are a lot of historic neighborhoods in Albuquerque. What makes Nob Hill special among other areas of town with generational heritage?
Eyster: I think you break that down into the the two parts: Nob Hill’s commercial district and the residential districts. So, the commercial district grew starting in 1937 when Route 66 came through what we now call Central Avenue. Route 66 had been in existence for 10 years, but it did not come through Nob Hill. A local group was able to wrangle to get Rt. 66 re-routed, cutting 100 miles off and bringing the highway down Central, rather than down Fourth Street.
In the late 1930s construction began to bloom—homes and shopping districts were erected by 1937. In fact, during Nob Hill’s recent oral history project, we heard stories. So between Christmas and New Years, kids would come down and just watch [tourists] roll by, depending on who won the Big Ten [college athletic conference]. All the people from Michigan, all the people from Ohio, all the people from Wisconsin, whatever. And then after New Year’s, you’d come down, and you’d see thousands of cars going the other direction. So, it was really heavy duty, Route 66. That’s why the commercial district is historic. A lot of the buildings of that time still exist, like the one we’re sitting in here. [The interviewer lives in a Nob Hill area home.] This was built right after World War II. And thanks to some serendipity and some responsible owners stewards, it’s a very well preserved piece of historic architecture.
As far as residential Nob Hill, It’s somewhat related. It’s mainly related to the development of the automobile-oriented suburbs on the East Mesa. With the coming of the university in 1889 and then the tuberculosis surge of people coming here to chase the cure, developers started to develop up on the East Mesa. And of course they came straight out Central Avenue. And that was about the only way to get up on the mesa was on Central Avenue. And so they started to develop some of the early [neighborhoods] down lower, like Silver Hill by Presbyterian Hospital and Spruce Park down on the other side of University.
And so these were automobile-oriented suburbs. And people could come up here, and for $3,000 they could buy a lot and get a pretty nice house—you know, maybe 1,000 square feet, two bedroom, one bath. And they would be up here in the clear air; move out of the low zone into the ozone. Because the valley was filled with smoke and cold smoke in those days.
Things look the way they do architecturally because in the ’20s and the ’30s builders were responding to desires from these customers. The customers were in love with the regional architectural styles, so that the builders were building revivals of these regional styles.
Why do people love Nob Hill so much?
Well, one thing is, if you buy or rent in this area, you must have some kind of sympathy, feeling the vibes in your head. So, maybe you get a kind of a kindred sort of a spirit among the people who come here to live.
I grew up in Hoffmantown [neighborhood], and I really didn’t know this area existed. Then when I started to university in 1970, I started coming down Lomas, and I would go south on Hermosa or Solano, and I said, “Damn, this is nice. This is really a neat area. I didn’t know there were areas like this.” So, you know, I could identify there was [a] really nice sense of place. I found it very attractive. I didn’t know why. But then, when I got older, I got into the neighborhood and owning property and living in the neighborhood.
What does Nob Hill offer locals and visitors alike?
Well, for the longest time, this place has just resonated for a lot of people. They didn’t know why—maybe like I didn’t know why when I just started college. And then maybe they start to learn. But they see that one thing: a sense of place, I think people really value a feeling, like, I’m in a particular place. I’m not in St. Louis or Pittsburgh or anywhere else. I’m in Nob Hill, Albuquerque, and that’s what I want.
One thing locals love is the walkability. It’s just that you can step out your door and be to shopping and dining and even a little bit of drinking maybe.
What is the area’s biggest challenge?
Well, I know that the neighborhood prizes this commercial district. We’re one of the few neighborhoods in the state where you can actually walk into a vibrant commercial district from your house. In two or four or six minutes. And so, you know, we have places to eat, we have tap rooms. Those are really nice. We love those retail [spaces]; but it is a tough one now, because Amazon has pretty much crucified retail. Twenty years ago, rents were low and Nob Hill was the greatest place for artists.
One of our main focus areas is public safety. This is a constant concern for every community, even Albuquerque Uptown—or Coronado, I guess. And police can’t be on every street every second. But this is something that we’re constantly thinking about when we’re talking with our friends in [Nob Hill] Main Street [Program], we’re talking to our [police] commander in the southeast areas: How people can make it safer.
Some people call you the Mayor of Nob Hill. Why do you think that is?
Oh, you know, I’ve been in love with Nob Hill for 30 years. I’m a Nob Hill-aholic. We talked about its walkability and its sense of place. We didn’t talk yet about its people. The people here enchant me. I love the diversity. I love the creativity. There’s a lot of kindness in Nob Hill. Those are the things that make me love it. I see myself as a servant and a steward, so some people consider that a mayor or an ambassador, I guess. But I don’t do it alone. The Neighborhood Association has some amazing board members and wonderful volunteers who all care about helping Nob Hill continue to thrive.