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Downtown, public arts scene helps ABQ top Sunset Magazine’s list of best places to live

The KiMo Theatre’s neon sign. Downtown Albuquerque was named as a reason the city topped the list of a destination. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Albuquerque is known for many good things.

A burgeoning film industry.

An arts scene that grows exponentially each year.

Dozens of nature trails.

And what’s not to love about more than 300 days of sunshine annually?

All of these examples were noted by Sunset Magazine in its list of “20 Game-Changers That Are Redefining the West” in the February issue.

The city ranked at the No. 1 spot beating out Taos, Flagstaff and Tempe, Ariz. for the honor in the Southwest.

“The West was founded by pioneers and continues to evolve thanks to that same pioneering spirit as forward-thinking opportunity seekers transform cities and towns into hubs of innovation, big and small,” said Irene Edwards, Sunset editor-in-chief. “This year’s best places to live list celebrates the places that are thinking smart about their futures, from innovative community leaders to futuristic tech and small business incubators.”

Karla Koch center and her son Kadroma Saari, 4, head south on the North Diversion Channel Trail after stopping at a Bike to Work stop for coffee snacks trail maps and other swag in May 2017. (Marla Brose/Journal)

In the article, editors said “ABQ, as it’s often called, doesn’t like to brag, so you might only know it as the high-desert setting of ‘Breaking Bad.’ But get it talking, and soon it’ll come out that Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft here in 1975, and that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories calls it home. And later in 2018, in Los Lunas, Facebook is set to open a huge data center that will bring with it more jobs.”

The article goes on to mention that with all the tech comes the reinvigoration of Central Avenue in Downtown — which was once a shabby stretch of boarded-up warehouses and tagged railroad cars.

Add to that the city’s investment in new public transportation lines and sprucing up of Civic Plaza, and the 12-block corridor of today has become a place where locals gather all days of the week.

“Coffee roasters, restaurants, and food trucks are launching to keep up, many of them focused on local, organic produce, especially New Mexico’s beloved green chile. Yet beneath these changes lies Albuquerque’s south-of-the-border roots: the historic Old Town, the Rio Grande, the majority Hispanic population’s rich culture, and the fact that 23 percent of residents are bilingual. Considering the strong public-art program, miles of hiking trails, and 310 annual days of sunshine, it’s no wonder the locals don’t boast. They’re too busy living,” the editors went on to write.

The city of Albuquerque’s public art program boasts pieces in the hundreds across town.

516 Arts, an independent, non-profit art space in the middle of Downtown, often collaborates with the city on public art.

Suzanne Sbarge, 516 executive director, said 516 Arts has helped add to the landscape of murals in Downtown.

“The public art program in Albuquerque is unique and fantastic,” Sbarge said. “516 works in a different freedom because we’re independent. What we’ve done in Downtown is try to mix up the local, national and international artists represented.”

The organization finished its first mural in 2010.

Since then it has completed a total of 22 murals, though a few were temporary.

“We have 12 on view,” Sbarge said. “I know the murals are a destination around town. People are seeing things on social media and makes them want to visit. There’s something about street art that is accessible to everyone.”

Lauren Ladoceour, Sunset executive editor, said each year the magazine embarks on a search for the best places in the West.

“This year our search began by identifying maverick towns and cities beyond perennial centers of change such as Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Ladoceour said. “Once we found the towns and cities investing in tomorrowland industries, community models, and ideas, we crunched the numbers, like census data, housing prices, and jobs, to determine value and livability. Our final step is to dig into the soul of a place by asking community leaders and families who’ve recently moved there: What makes your town the best?”

Other winners included Sacramento and Carlsbad for northern and southern California, respectively. Salida, Colo. and Tacoma, Wash., were winners in the mountain and northwest category as well.

“Cruising San Mateo I” by Barbara Grygutis at San Mateo and Gibson is popularly known as “Chevy on a Stick” and was funded by the City of Albuquerque’s 1 Percent for the Arts. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

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