My sister, Lisa, and I were puzzling a question Saturday – why isn’t there an Albuquerque “Summerfest” event on East Central? We were eating our usual Saturday breakfast at Kap’s Diner, at the corner of Alvarado and Central a couple of blocks east of San Mateo. To the west is the Tewa Lodge, one of the old Route 66 motor courts. To the south is an O’Reilly Auto Parts store. It’s an economically bedraggled neighborhood, but very much alive in a way that Albuquerque’s richer spaces are not.
Albuquerque’s had a couple of simultaneous political kerfuffles that triggered interesting conversation among the Better Burque Brain Trust (BBBT™). As you know Scot’s away in France, but he left the keys to Better Burque with me (John Fleck), and this probably can’t wait until his return, so here I am.
The first kerfuffle was the letter to the City of Albuquerque by economic development darling Lavu, a software startup headquartered in the heart of our downtown, threatening to leave because of a wave of crime centered on the Alvarado Transportation Center, the community’s transit hub. The Lavu letter triggered a thoughtful Facebook essay from Gene Grant, a significant Albuquerque public intellectual who lives downtown:
I’ve basically stopped taking busses because of this area. It’s where I board and depart to walk home and it’s flat out anarchy at this point.
Waiting for a bus you can virtually listen in as the recently released hanging around are in smash and grab pre game mode from being dumped on the street broke, desperate and having nowhere to go.
In an era where fewer of us are carrying cash, the art of the panhandle is a whole new deal.
Desperation drives decisions like smashing car windows for something valuable enough to get a meal when cash in the palm isn’t happening.
The second kerfuffle involves our “Summerfest“, an annual moving street festival held Saturday evenings in summer. They’ve held one in recent years in the Nob Hill neighborhood near the University of New Mexico, but this year ongoing bus route construction has restricted the scope of the festivities.
Both of kerfuffles include one of the classic characteristics of a “wicked problem“:
At the heart of each, it seems to me, is an unarticulated argument about the question of what public space is for, and for whom?
If we assume that the public space of downtown Albuquerque, the sidewalks and fountained plaza area of the Alvarado Transportation Center, should work in service of a growing economy that will thrive by attracting the tech geeks of the likes of Lavu, then we are led to a more specific definition of the problem we are trying to solve. The space is not working well now for those people, and absent government intervention (social services? police?), Lavu and those like it will leave. As Grant points out, this version of the problem has been going on for a while, and others have already left.
Downtown, at least this corner of it, appears to be failing the urbanist Jane Jacobs’ basic test:
I often ride my bike through downtown early on Sunday mornings on my way to the river, and this Sunday I zigged a few blocks out of my way to see what the Alvarado neighborhood looked like at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Bus service on the main Route 66 lines starts between 6 and 7 Sundays, and by 8 there were already a bunch of people at the Transportation Center either waiting for buses or just hanging out. For those people, meeting those needs, I wonder if the Alvarado Transportation Center is a successful public space? If I was doing journalism I would stop and talk to them, ask them if they feel “personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers,” but I am shy and on a Sunday bike ride and so I roll along.
In Kap’s Saturday, Lisa asked the owner if she’d like to have a Summerfest up on her end of Central. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of the same characteristics of the Alvarado – pedestrians who are pedestrians not because of some new urbanist vision of walkable cities but because walking and taking the bus is what you do when you can’t afford a car. This is the heart of an issue Scot writes about here at Better Burque a lot – streets designed for cars that are horrible public spaces for those that don’t have them or choose not to use them.
The great thing about Summerfest in Nob Hill is the way it for an evening reclaims the street for people, not cars. Why not, I’m puzzling, do that out on East Central where the claiming could mean far more? Why not bring street music and food carts to that part of town, not just the affluent Nob Hill neighborhood?
I’m on dangerous ground here, because what we need here is a process that asks the denizens of East Central, or the folks who use the Alvarado Transportation Center, what they want and need out of their public spaces. Summerfest on East Central is obviously not the answer to the root causes of Albuquerque’s issues. I guess what I’m asking is how we can find a way to include those people in this conversation.