Commercial Flights and a New Rail Link Trigger Debate over a City’s Image
The Wall Street Journal
SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s distinctive adobe architecture is getting an infusion of corrugated metal and loft-style galleries. A flurry of development here has set off a debate about how best to reinvigorate a city that is deeply associated with its 400-year history and distinctive Southwestern architecture.
Santa Fe’s travel infrastructure is poised for a major upgrade. Train service with Albuquerque is slated to begin in December. And at least one commercial airline is seeking approval to fly direct into Santa Fe’s small airport; most visitors now have to fly to Albuquerque, then make the one-hour drive.
The planned upgrades already have led to new development. Two high-end resorts opened in August, unusual for a city with hardly any new luxury hotels in 15 years. Last weekend, a crowd of thousands attended a day of performances, tai chi and outdoor cinema to mark the opening of Santa Fe’s new Railyard district. The renovated train depot is home now to a 10-acre park and several art galleries, and eventually will offer several blocks’ worth of upscale shopping and dining plus an Imax movie theater.
The proposed arrival of commercial jet service from Dallas and Los Angeles also is stirring up controversy (Santa Fe’s small airport is currently serviced by only private planes and charters). In the works for almost two years, plans have been held up by the concerns of local historic-preservation groups. At one point, a Native American pueblo raised questions about whether flight paths would interfere with sacred ceremonies.
At the moment, with the busy summer festival season over, change seems far away. Days are warm and bright, nights are cool. The city is walkable, with most tourist attractions clustered around the historic central plaza. Around lunchtime in the plaza’s park, you can buy $4 chicken fajitas from a pink-and-turquoise cart; arched entryways lead to tree-shaded courtyards and upscale alfresco dining. Tourists wander in and out of shops with names like Yippee Yi Yo that sell silver and turquoise belts, fringed vests and snakeskin cowboy boots. Dozens of single-story adobe art galleries with bright-colored doors line Canyon Road, some with bronze statues of horses and children out front. Inside, many of them sell hand-woven baskets and oil paintings of Western prairie scenes, with prices from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
Southwestern-themed jewelry and folk art are what most people associate with Santa Fe’s 200 galleries. But contemporary and avant garde artwork is at the center of the city’s makeover. “I think there’s an image by and large of Santa Fe being a cowboys and Indian town and the contemporary art scene is largely unknown,” says Keith Toler, executive director of the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau. “We want to change that perception.”
Contemporary art galleries have multiplied in recent years. Among the oldest is the 35-year-old LewAllen Contemporary, a block from the Plaza. The gallery just opened a second branch at the city’s new Encantado Resort this week, and plans to open a third in the Railyard district next year. The gallery currently is exhibiting works by Beverly McIver, an African-American painter whose provocative self-portraits depict her in blackface. Co-owner Robert Gardner says his goal is “to bring to Santa Fe a place with the same kind of art experience you’d find in New York or Chicago.”
Santa Fe tourism began about a century ago, when trains brought visitors to Indian pueblos and the plaza’s shady park. City planners fostered a uniform style of architecture to create an exotic ambiance for tourists, says Chris Wilson, author of “The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition.” Strict rules put in place in the 1950s made sure new construction fit the aesthetic.
Tourism flourished as people bought second homes here in the 1980s and ’90s; recently, growth has slowed. Though Santa Fe real estate hasn’t taken as big a hit as in Phoenix and Las Vegas, home prices have fallen some 20% from two or three years ago, says Bob Chernock, an agent with Santa Fe Realty Partners. Some retailers and gallery directors say summer sales were soft, as high gas prices, air-travel headaches and shaky financial markets dampened art purchasing. At Coady Contemporary gallery, sales are down about 30% from last year, says Judy Coady, the gallery director. “People still come,” she says, “but they treat galleries more like museums.”