MEADOW LAKE – It was beautiful here once.
Meadow Lake was never much of a meadow. It was too wild, too wide, its sage-studded plains golden with buffalo grass and endless sunshine spilling, sparkling toward the blue shadows of the Manzano Mountains to the east.
But there had been a lake.
In 1967, the lake – fed by eight wells and stocked with trout, bluegill and catfish – had been the focal point of a 1,700-acre community planned by Albuquerque developer D.W. Falls. In those days, the 7-acre lake, the largest fishing hole in the Albuquerque area, was an exclusive perk for residents who bought in to the Meadow Lake Sportsman’s Club. The community – 20 miles east of Los Lunas and accessible only by a two-lane rutted road – also boasted riding stables, cheap land and an incomparable view.
“We feel that it is about time that someone develop a subdivision designed as a haven from the pressures of modern society,” Falls said in a 1967 Journal interview.
By the 1980s, other subdivisions were blossoming in Meadow Lake, many catering to mobile home dwellers who could plunk down 10 percent of $6,000 for a quarter-acre lot.
“These people are going to build their dreams,” Steve Silan, a real estate agent and one of the first residents of Meadow Lake, told the Journal in 1986.
By 1991, however, the promise of Meadow Lake had yet to be fulfilled. Mobile homes outnumbered permanent dwellings. The lake was no longer exclusive. Resident Bruce Sullivan had a plan to revitalize the lake area with summer concerts, paddle boat rentals, beach volleyball, overnight camping, even a faux frontier town with mock gunfights.
It’s unclear what happened to those plans. The glowing coverage of Meadow Lake in both Albuquerque newspapers ended about then. No news articles reported how or why the lake was drained and turned into a dry-bed dumping ground, how or why the community of golden plains and mountain views fell into disrepair.
Whenever Meadow Lake makes the newspaper now, it’s for the latest murder, the latest escapee, gangs, meth, animal hoarding, crime.
In February, Meadow Lake was the dateline for the bludgeoning death of Alex Madrid, 12, whose body was found under a mattress in a field.
Days later, Meadow Lake was where Valencia County sheriff’s deputies found Aaron Wozniak, the suspect in a car chase that severely injured a Corrales police officer.
Drive out to Meadow Lake today, and it’s hard not to notice its remoteness, its blight and its despair. Abandoned homes, some burned, some skeletal after years of vandalism, are pervasive in the otherwise modest neighborhood. Here, trash gathers in the rusted fences, in the fields, in the yards of discarded mobile homes. Packs of feral dogs roam the roadways. Wary eyes peek through sheet-covered windows.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17.5 percent of Meadow Lake’s 4,708 residents are unemployed. Its poverty rate is a whopping 33.3 percent.
I drove out recently to look for Rosemary and Bill Lebrecht, a couple the Journal featured in 2006 who fought back against the community’s crime and chaotic decay.
But Bill had passed away a couple of years before and Rosemary had moved to Colorado after that, said Sol Bustillos, whose family now owns the Lebrechts’ beloved ranch-style home, still one of the few nicely kept properties around.
“We keep to ourselves,” Bustillos said. “It’s a little scary.”
But things are changing in Meadow Lake, one rancid junk heap at a time. Down the street from the Bustillos, Selena Fox wages a battle against the broken-down homes and the wild dogs. She’s a regular at the Valencia County offices of the zoning commission and animal control, arming herself with photos of the debris and the dogs and demanding help to clean up the community.
“I moved here in 1996, and I’m going to tell you we barely had the type of riffraff we have now,” said Fox, who makes it no secret that she packs a pistol should that riffraff come after her. “There’s a lot of houses and mobile homes that are just abandoned here. No one knows who owns them. It’s like a trash dump. There’s a house across from me that was burned Christmas Eve a year and a half ago, and it’s still there. But I keep pushing the county. They tell me they’re short-staffed. But I keep pushing.”
Last year, a Valencia County task force began ridding Meadow Lake of some of its worst abandoned homes, identifying 80 such homes and clearing about 40, said Jacobo Martinez, director of the county’s community Planning and Zoning Department.
“It’s a daunting task,” he said. “But it’s not impossible.”
Jim Lane is another resident who is fighting back, though his focus is on revitalizing the lake into a series of ponds, biking trails and recreational areas for picnics, hiking, family events and bonfires.
“We’re doing some really good stuff out here,” said Lane, a resident for 35 years and the head of the Meadow Lake Parks Area Association, a nonprofit with about 55 members who pay $35 a year for a key to the fenced-in lake site. “It’s a beautiful area, a gorgeous area. Other people besides myself have started to speak out. I feel we’ve stopped the downward spiral. I can see it starting to lift up.”
There’s plenty more to be done, of course. But in the eyes and the efforts of neighbors like Fox and Lane, Meadow Lake can be saved. It can be beautiful and golden again.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.