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OPINION: Burros and banners raise some Santa Fe issues

Santa Fe’s Historic Districts Review Board voted against allowing installation of this mural in Burro Alley. (Source: City Documents)

Santa Fe’s Historic Districts Review Board made a couple of decisions Tuesday night that touched on topics significant to local culture.

First was a mural of a group of wood-laden burros proposed by a property owner for placement on a nicho, or alcove, in Burro Alley, the historic one-block sidestreet whose history as a wood market is already celebrated by a beloved sculpture of the alley’s namesake pack animal at the intersection with San Francisco Street. Everyone who lives in or visits Santa Fe needs a selfie with that burro.

The H-Board members seemed to be fine with the proposed mural’s image, which has a Wild West style. These burros are posed in front of a saloon with protruding vigas.

The artwork’s medium was the issue. The image would not be painted onto Burro Alley’s adobe and masonry wall. It would instead be created on printed vinyl and adhered to an aluminum composite base, then attached to the wall.

(An image merely attached to a wall apparently can be considered a mural. While not all dictionaries provide the same definition, some include artwork “affixed” to a wall or ceiling when defining what a mural is.)

The H-Board, overruling its staff’s recommendation, rejected the burro artwork – this vinyl version was too modern and shiny for historic Burro Alley, they found. Board members suggested having the burros painted on the wall, but that idea wasn’t what the applicant wanted.

The H-Board sometimes can be overly fussy as it endeavors to protect what Santa Fe has officially accepted as its traditional style, whether that style is in fact true to the past or not.

But this time it made the right call. The historic nature of Burro Alley mandates at least that traditional painting be used to decorate its walls. Vinyl is great for hi-fi records, colorful table covers and other uses, but it’s not the right fit for Burro Alley.

The board also took up what at first glance seemed to be a simple, non-controversial proposal – the installation of banners on already-standing posts along the Guadalupe Street business district. The neighborhood merchants association hopes the banners will call attention to its stores and help compensate for the loss of the anchoring Sanbusco Market Center a few years back.

Similar banners are used across the country to designate coherent neighborhoods or important streets, or to call attention to special events like museum exhibits or community celebrations. In Santa Fe, Guadalupe Street had banners noting Santa Fe’s 400th Anniversary a few years back. Twenty-two banners would go up under the association’s proposal.

On a couple of issues, the H-Board went into full fussy mode. Red on the banners was described as too red.

There was also some discussion of whether the “St.” part of “Guadalupe St.” could be misinterpreted as an abbreviation for “saint” instead of “street.”

Another matter was more important. The image on the banners would be a stylized take on Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose large, beautiful and artistic statue outside a nearby church has become a revered Santa Fe icon since its installation a decade ago.

The banner image is simple and respectful. We see mostly a color outline, really – just the back of her head and shoulders covered by her turquoise cloak with yellow stars and a few yellow rays of the light that surrounds her, set against a reddish background.

The H-Board made approval of the banners good for only three months and with the condition that the business association get approval from the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic parish.

Consulting with the parish is a good idea. Depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe wearing a bikini stirred up anguish and anger in the past – not the kind of fight Santa Fe needs over street banners.

While the banner image is pleasing to the eye, and can be seen as honoring both the Virgin Mary and history – the street is named after Our Lady of Guadalupe, after all – the banners also have the intended commercial purpose of promoting a shopping district.

That may be an issue for people who honor Our Lady religiously and as a cultural symbol (although T-shirts and other things depicting Guadalupe are themselves a sizeable commercial industry, supported in many cases by the purchasing power of believers). We have the same kind of debate over the ubiquitous use of the Zia Sun symbol officially and commercially in New Mexico.

The Guadalupe business district and the parish should have a respectful discussion about the banners. Once that happens, the H-Board should OK some form of banners for long-term use and remember that some things, particularly banners that can add some pizzazz to the streetscape, can be colorful in downtown Santa Fe.

Not everything has to be brown.