SANTA FE, N.M. — In one of his first acts as our new mayor, Javier Gonzales lit a match to one of the City Different’s eternal tinderboxes by suggesting that vehicle traffic be closed off around the Plaza.
Calling it a “People to the Plaza” initiative, Gonzales said it was a response to comments from locals who said they “didn’t feel like it was a place for them” anymore.
And what makes him think closing off traffic will make more people feel a personal connection to the Plaza?
In fact, why should a local want to go to the Plaza at all?
Hold on a sec – that question isn’t as facetious as it might sound. Let’s take a little historical tour for a few minutes.
Towns like Santa Fe were built up around plazas that were the center of the community. Houses popped up along the periphery. People went about their business, often on foot, encountering and stopping to chat with neighbors as they criss-crossed this community center. Burros carrying wood and people wanting the wood might meet. After Mass at the cathedral or important meetings at the Palace of the Governors, locals might take a stroll.
Over years – or in this case, centuries – major department stores, drug stores, pharmacies, soda fountains, shoe stores and even grocery stores were built along or just down the street from this center for commerce. People came to do their regular shopping and ran into friends and neighbors along the way. Schoolkids on their way home from classes might walk or ride their bikes to the area to pick up some penny candy or other treat.
But over the last century and even more, Santa Fe shifted to a tourist-based economy. Shops that sold basics to locals slowly disappeared, while souvenirs for tourists proliferated. Look around the merchants on the Plaza – not many people have Indian jewelry, lovely though it is, on their weekly shopping lists. And even the tempting scoop of ice cream loses its allure when you can buy a whole pint at the grocery store for less money.
As for the schoolkids – fewer and fewer of them attend classes in the downtown area – those who might want to ride a skateboard or bike through the Plaza, or who might dare to start a game of hacky sack with friends, will be deeply frowned upon.
True, there are still things that keep a local presence, such as local government offices, a library and churches within a few blocks of the Plaza. Some restaurants and bars still draw locals (especially if their activity du jour happens to be tourist-watching). Lunch hours can find area retail and government employees passing through and greeting friends, maybe grabbing a bite from food trucks on nice days.
Without that regular daily proximity, though, the rest of Santa Fe probably needs a pretty good reason to come to the Plaza. The Fourth of July pancakes have given that reason for many years, along with parades and some Fiesta activities.
There are classic car shows, and the free and numerous summer concerts at the Bandstand are a special treat for many (this year the performers will be accompanied by food trucks matching the theme of the music on several nights). Fishing in the Santa Fe River a few blocks away gets a good turnout of kids and parents.
But those are special events, not a regular part of everyday life.
And that everyday life that once made the Plaza the beating heart of Santa Fe exists only in some surviving fragments and in the wispy nostalgia of memory.
We should welcome any move that will truly make locals feel as if the Plaza belongs to them, but one has to wonder how much can be done along those lines as long as the drumbeat of the economy pounds out a call for more visitors.