Where All the Lights Aren't Bright
Our man on the street—er, mall—spends the day in downtown Las Cruces, a place still struggling to find itself, nearly 40 years after urban renewal.
By Jeff Berg
Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell
I used to keep a little travelogue of my adventures, and this was my first impression of Las Cruces when I came through here in the fall of 1992: ". . . drive from El Paso to Las Cruces is ugly. . . got off Interstate and took nice side road (Hwy. 28) from La Mesa to Mesilla. Nice plaza with a great little bookstore. Difficult lunch at El Patio. Las Cruces is disappointing, and bigger than I thought, but not bad all in all. Stayed at La Quinta, had lunch at Saladworks, next to the Inbreeding Cousins Club Meeting."
Las Cruces' pedestrian mall, bereft of pedestrians.
A further translation of this includes some vivid memories. The El Patio meal was difficult because we (my then-wife and I) ran into a case of "mañana" service. (The El Patio is now only a bar. So there!) The "meeting" mentioned was an observation because of the unbelievable behavior of the people seated near us. I won't go into detail, but my IQ has never fully recovered after it partially melted away at that meal. I've not been back to that eatery, either.
What I barely mentioned in my notes was my first encounter with downtown Las Cruces, that oft-maligned, oft-beset with new plans and ideas, area of the city that some wags still think would be great for a bowling alley.
We walked through downtown Las Cruces in 1992 and, of course, found nothing much to do.
Upon moving to Las Cruces (don't ask) in 2001, I found the same thing. Nothing much to do.
In 2007, downtown Las Cruces, in general, has become a "deliberate" place to go for people who do not work there or own one of the several small businesses that have toughed it out over the years. Most of the fine shops are art-gallery related, with the exception of White's Music Box and the world renowned COAS My Books. That means not many people will make the trip unless attending one of the planned events designed to bring people downtown for a gallery stroll (Downtown Ramble, first Friday of each month), the farmer's market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, a visit to one of the museums (soon to include the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History, which will be relocating from its current residency in the Mesilla Valley Mall), or a play at the Black Box Theatre or Las Cruces Community Theatre.
Hardly anybody goes downtown in Las Cruces without a specific reason.
So, my idea was to just "hang out" in downtown Las Cruces—for part of a morning, part of an afternoon, and part of an evening. Note please that this journal purposely does not include the Farmers and Crafts Market, which I did visit on a Saturday, and found to be greatly expanded and much better attended than previous visits. I wanted to see what was doing downtown when nothing special was happening to draw people there.
Here is what I discovered about the slow-beating heart of New Mexico's second-largest community:
In previous forays to downtown Las Cruces over the years, parking was generally easy to find and keep. No one has dared to suggest installing those evil pillars of coin theft, parking meters, here, since there were a number of spacious lots and free street parking.
Lately, that has changed. With the building of several new castles of government, construction in downtown is heavy and many employees of the various government offices located here have taken over the previously empty lots. This is a concern for downtown business owners, which we'll discuss later.
But today, my special secret parking spot with 24-hour shade-tree protection is available, and handy.
Grabbing my notebook, agua bottle, and ever-present gas-station burrito for sustenance, I stroll over to sit on one of the pleasant shaded benches in the pedestrian mall.
It is a beautiful cool summer morning, around 8:30, and if I look straight up, I can see the moon staring at me like Father Coyote's big white eye.
Looking up and down the mall, there is not another biped in sight. The traffic going up and down Las Cruces Avenue, which more or less bisects the plaza is steady but not heavy. (Trivia question: What is the official name of Las Cruces' downtown mall/plaza?) The new stop sign that requires drivers to at least consider hitting the brakes is in place at the end of the newest attempt at revitalizing downtown. This project includes tearing out the plaza part and constructing a narrow, 15-mile-an-hour, two-way street for drivers. It is pleasantly decorated, but at this point, I am wondering why they would want cars driving through here? (The plan is to tear out all of the current mall and allow for traffic on an actual "Main" Street again.)
I take notes, munch my burrito and wait for people to happen by. The first two things continue to occur as the morning wears on; the last mostly does not. During the hour or so that I rest on my laurels under a big, beautiful cottonwood tree, only six people happen by, unless you count the steady stream at the juvenile probation center a block or so away. I decide that I would rather not think about that.
And, oddly, none of the six people acknowledges my being.
Finally, a gentleman I assume to be a city employee points out the beauty of the day as he saunters down the street with his cleaning equipment.
I have time to reminisce about the downtowns of other places I have lived, and recall that without exception, all of them, whether they were in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, or California, had thriving downtown areas.
I feel a momentary sadness when I think of the potential of this area, and notice that nowhere in Las Cruces can one see a real window display. (I am not counting the Mesilla Valley--too sterile and filled with weirdo's and kids just hanging out.)
A couple of the people whom I see are going to work in some of the non-retail businesses that dot the plaza, but other than that, 'tis just I!
A wonderful Zen-type feeling comes over me. What a great place this is. This isn't the dull and dead place I have always thought it was; it is one of the quietest, most peaceful and nicely appointed areas of the city. No screaming kids, no blaring car stereos, no gaggles of gigglers. Just the trees and me. It is like an urban wilderness, sans concrete towers.
I am impressed and pleased with my "discovery."
Alas, it is time to go. I have an appointment with Heather Pollard, the dynamo executive director of Las Cruces Downtown Alive. Pollard is, at least for the moment, the driving force behind Las Cruces' downtown revitalization efforts.
"We are following the master plan so far," Pollard tells me. "So far, it is as good as it was when it was written five years ago."
Heather Pollard has been involved in several major salvation efforts required by various things in Las Cruces over the years. The long-time director of the Do¤a Ana Arts Council, Pollard supervised that group for many years, including the period that it was trying to fund raise to restore the Rio Grande Theater (see the September 2005 Desert Exposure). Despite that successful restoration, the theater still sits vacant far too often.
Pollard tells me that the next phase for the completion of the civic plaza is almost through the negotiation stage, and that the Las Cruces Downtown Revitalization Committee is working with a bank for funding. Senator Pete Domenici has earmarked $4.2 million for the street and plaza, she adds.
The first part of the project opened about two blocks for traffic to go from nowhere to anywhere, really, at least for now.
"The Museum of Natural History will be moving downtown and some local restaurants have started looking at locating here," Pollard says. "The new street has brought more interest."
And a new wrinkle has appeared.
"There is an interest in 'work force' housing," she says. "It is not the same as affordable housing, but with tax credits and other financial benefits, it is possible for people such as teachers and police officers to afford these kinds of homes. There are 400 units, which would bring about 1,000 more people down here to live. There is a market analysis underway, with the city, NMSU and the local hospitals looking at it. But we are being very cautious with that."
Pollard says that there is no set date for the next phase of construction, but hopes that the street will soon be open from Las Cruces Avenue, where it now stops, to the new city hall that is being built just north of downtown.
"This will be a cultural corridor and destination point," Pollard states confidently.
The last thing I address with her is the status of the big trees that have been shading my visits with pen and burrito.
"That has not been addressed yet," she replies. "In the center section [the part with the new street] there were 12 trees that were removed, and nine survived. We haven't designed that phase yet, but we want be good stewards, and the mandate for the Main Street committee says that we need to follow the values of historic preservation."
It is hard for a layman such as myself to imagine all of the time, energy and money that has gone into correcting a boondoggle of more than 30 years ago. (So-called "urban renewal" first attacked downtown Las Cruces in 1968, with the mall being completed in 1974.) Nonetheless, I have gained a deep respect for what Pollard and the others are trying to do with this project.
It is around lunchtime when I do my "afternoon downtown sit." Armed once again with an all-day burrito, I find a shady spot on the plaza and settle in. Human traffic is a bit heavier than during my morning visit. During the hour or so that I am present, 26 people wander by, but as I found on my morning visit, no one even looks at me—well, not directly, anyway. I have even changed my shirt and taken at least one bath since my morning visit of several days ago. Finally, frustration seeps in, and I verbally accost a group of five people who look like tourists.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea
Las Cruces was far from the only city in the 1970s that closed its main street to traffic and installed a "downtown mall" to compete with the enclosed shopping malls that were bleeding away customers. More than a hundred places from coast to coast turned their main streets into pedestrian plazas.
Most places that did so, however, have since wished they could turn back the clock. In a 2005 >New York Times article about Las Cruces' downtown revitalization efforts, Amanda West, assistant director of community revitalization networks for the National Trust Main Street Center, who has written several articles on pedestrian malls, said, "Pedestrian malls really haven't worked well in many cases and most of them have been replaced. The important lesson that communities learned from the wave of pedestrian malls in the 1970s is that you can't have a cookie-cutter approach to revitalization."
That Times story noted that before Las Cruces' pedestrian mall, a six-block stretch of Main Street was home to some 160 admittedly struggling businesses. Within three years of the mall's completion, that count had dropped to 90; by 2005, the number was down to fewer than 10. The Las Cruces mall construction leveled more than 200 buildings—sparing fewer than 70 historic structures—and cut off two historic residential neighborhoods from downtown and each other. By designating the mall as a city park, Las Cruces effectively banned bicycles as well as outdoor serving of alcohol by restaurants.
Christopher B. Leinberger, a real estate developer who consulted on the Las Cruces master plan to revitalize its downtown, is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he wrote an article entitled, "Turning Around Downtowns: 12 Steps to Revitalization." Speaking about Las Cruces, he told the Times in 2005: "If they can maintain their civic and political focus over the next five years, they can make it happen. There is a market for it. You have to get it to the point of critical mass and then the market will take over, but you have to have the leadership and you have to start with the intention."
It is a hot and buggy afternoon, but these folks are meandering through the mall/plaza, looking at the empty stores and stopping to look at the windows of those that aren't.
That is another curious observation. Except at COAS, I don't see a single person patronize any of the other small businesses that are located here, but of course I can't see all that might be going on.
Anyway, it turns out that these folks I accost are from northern California. (Don't get your panties in a knot—they are not looking to retire here, they were visiting just for vacation. Besides, those of you who think that the influx of Californians to New Mexico is a problem, had better do some research on just who is moving here, and from where.)
I ask the woman who stops to talk (three of the five don't stop to talk to me) what she thinks of Las Cruces and of downtown.
"It's more diverse than I expected in terms of population and variety of stores," she replies. "I kind of like it."
Her male companion is not as impressed. He says of downtown, "It's wasted space, and could be a great parking lot."
Our conversation yields a couple of more pleasantries, but nothing of substance, and they move on to check out Phillip's Fine Art Gallery on the corner.
Soon, a US Postal Service vehicle turns off Las Cruces Avenue and onto the plaza. The plaza is designed for service vehicles, and several city trucks utilize the area as I sit there. Even the mail carrier, a former comrade at arms (I once worked for the USPS), has nothing to say to me. I am pretty surprised that the USPS allows a vehicle for this route. Most downtown routes are all walking routes, and often considered "plum" assignments because of the small number of delivery stops they usually have.
The postal worker drives away after a couple of stops and I am alone again, naturally.
I note the nice sculptured pieces that dot the area, and decide to walk down to the north end of the plaza. I had thought that there would be some foot traffic at lunchtime, but I thought wrong. A small Mexican cafe on the plaza, Antonio's, sits open but completely empty at 12:30.
The north end of the plaza has occupants such as the Black Box, the occasionally open Christian Science Reading Room, and the Mastery of Life Center. None is open at this time of day, so I go into the Las Cruces Museum of Art. No one is available to talk to me there except the sleepy-looking guard, who can't find anyone to answer my questions since the rest of the staff is at lunch. A new exhibit is being prepared, and the place is awash in renovations to accommodate it. I look at the guest book as I leave, and note that no one has signed it in two days.
I walk back toward my bench, and notice that one of the ghost buildings has glass doors with "Woolworth's" stamped on the steel handles.
I decide to visit with several of the independent business owners who still stick it out here. A more dedicated group of business people would be hard to find.
Jim Turrentine, who was born and raised in Las Cruces, opened The Big Picture/Main St. Gallery with former co-owner Steve Welch three years ago. He bought out Welch about a year earlier, and Turrentine readily admits his apprehension about keeping the place going.
"We had a nine-year lease with three, three-year options, and I have just decided to sign the papers for the next option," Turrentine tells me.
"Steve wanted to be downtown when we decided to try this, and I was not aware of the revitalization effort [the latest one to allow vehicle traffic] when we did that," he goes on. "I lived in Boulder, Colo., for many years after I left here, and that city has a vital and lively downtown mall."
And Turrentine is right on with that statement. My last several visits to that city have led me directly to Boulder's downtown plaza, which is thriving day and night with activities and shoppers. Street performers do everything from card tricks to fire eating, the stores are busy and eclectic, and the food selection is varied and most yummy.
Turrentine says of his downtown Las Cruces spot, "I looked at it, and wanted to make things happen here. I liked what they did up the street—" the new traffic-friendly first phase "—but am concerned about how that will affect me when they continue it."
The Big Picture, which has recently gone from a photo gallery to more of an art gallery, has only a front entrance. Most of the neighboring businesses with front and rear entrances will benefit from the massive parking lots on the east side of the downtown area—assuming the lots are not filled with government employees during the current building frenzy. The city has taken on this projected problem and roughly paved an enormous empty lot a few blocks away, providing a shuttle service from there. This lot is also within (gasp!) walking distance of everything in the mall area. Three trips by the lot during the course of this article, and not one car was parked there.
Nonetheless, Turrentine is gently optimistic about his future in beautiful downtown Las Cruces. He points out the increased number of galleries in the area, although careful observation of the map will note that most are connected to city entities, or have extremely limited hours, since they are housed in places like the Black Box and the Southwest Environmental Center.
He notes, however, "No matter where you are, things change."
A visit to the Unravel Yarn Shop and Gallery reveals somewhat different plans. Cynthia Clark and Gail Mestas own Unravel, one of the newer shops in the area.
Business has been good for this specialty store—so good, in fact, that they are expanding to include a quilting service.
"This will be a destination point for fiber artists," Mestas tells me. "There will soon be a quilt shop."
Fiber artists will also be pleased to note that the state is creating the New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail (nmfiberarts.org), which will have stops in various towns and villages around the state, including downtown Las Cruces.
Mestas also had concerns about the upcoming parking situation, but has followed up on that and been reassured by the city that officials, too, are keeping an eye on the situation.
"The road needs to go through to bring life down here," Mestas feels.
While I was sitting on the shady bench for the previous hour, only one car turned onto the "new" street, and I heard a cell-phone conversation as it echoed from nearly a block away.
My final sit takes place early on a Saturday evening. It is a miserably humid and hot evening, but I take a bench seat, burrito-less, and begin to relax after a long and grueling day. It is now 6.30 PM.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going on—except at the open doors of the Las Cruces Community Theater (LCCT).
Nearly driven nuttier by the squadrons of bugs that buzz around and land everywhere, mostly in my ears, I wander over to the ancient lobby of the former movie theater. The theater can hold nearly 200 patrons.
They are in the second weekend of their production of Anything Goes, the old musical, and tonight's performance is nearly sold out. The staff, all volunteers, have the tickets laid out neatly in rows, and the soundtrack from the production is playing on the sound system.
A brief visit with vice president of membership (and cast member) Joe Pfeiffer and some of the other volunteers reveals that they feel the thing that downtown Las Cruces needs is a restaurant. The two nearby Mexican-menu places close up by 7 p.m., and Day's Hamburgers closes at 6 p.m. or so. The next closest place is My Brother's Place, just a block or so south of the mall area, which I confess has never appealed to me.
There is also a good amount of grumbling by the theater staff about the impending flow of traffic. Pfeiffer says, "Our patrons go outside during intermission. Where are 150 people going to go when there are cars going up and down the street, even at 15 miles an hour?"
A good point indeed. With a speed limit like that, it sounds like it is custom made for any number of low-rider cruises.
Another suspicion is also confirmed. During my involvement with movie programming in Las Cruces, I have noted three things: Las Crucens are more apt to attend something if it is a comedy or something uplifting. Hispanics rarely come to non-mainstream movies. And NMSU students are never at non-mainstream movies, unless it is something that is marketed to students. Well, the folks at LCCT have the same issues, and aren't quite sure how to solve them. LCCT recently revived The Glass Menagerie, with poor results.
I head back for my bench, but only last a few more minutes, until the bugs become unbearable. (I am easily annoyed.) No one has walked by during the 45 minutes I have been here, unless they are going to the theater. This time it is just me, the pigeons, doves, blowing trash (a first), and the damnable bugs. Anything Goes, including me.
So, what is going to happen to Las Cruces' "Mainstreet Downtown," an area that is supposed to be the heart of any city?
There is a lot of help being offered and interest in bringing things back to life. Certainly there is potential here, and a lot of wealthy risk takers are probably the key. As mentioned, there is seldom reason for anyone to go to downtown Las Cruces, unless it is for a planned event. The core area, which is roughly eight blocks long and two wide, is also not surrounded by anything interesting—a couple of office buildings, some older houses, the Branigan Library that needs a facelift so badly. Gangs hover in the nearby Mesquite Historical District.
Personally, I am not an optimist on the new plan to bring cars through the area. If one looks at the uncontrolled growth of Las Cruces, that sprawl will keep bringing in more people who will live in subdivision faux-adobe houses and shop at the strip malls and big-box stores that have the placement and budgets to keep downtown down.
With that follows the idea gently presented in the arts audiences of Las Cruces: A small number of people strongly support the arts here, and it is too much of a burden to rely only upon only them.
Las Cruces is just a "place," not a destination. An article that I did last summer for a lesser publication pointed out that there is little for people in Las Cruces to do within the city proper. Mesilla is not Las Cruces, the Organ Mountains are nice to look at and hike in, but are not "in" Las Cruces, and White Sands is not annexed into the city limits (or it wasn't the last time I looked). Las Cruces offers its smattering of museums, a plethora of bad or dull restaurants, and little that a visitor couldn't find in his or her own backyard.
People move here, retirees in particular, because of the alleged cheaper prices (new houses are not, gasoline has been more expensive here than in Santa Fe on and off in recent months, and groceries are not cheap, either). They buy their retirement rancho and head for the El Paso airport for adventures abroad.
With that in mind, I'd leave downtown alone, support what is there, and for the rest of the time, it is a great place to meditate and relax, except for the damn desert bugs.
For information on Las Cruces Downtown Alive, see www.lascrucesdowntown.org or call 525-1955.
Senior writer Jeff Berg is a skeptic at heart, but if you buy him the right burrito, he will meet you under a cool shade tree in downtown Las Cruces for some pleasantries. This is where the "Santa Teresa Plaza"—yes, that's the plaza/mall's official name—is located. Look for the broken "s" in "Santa."