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Santa Fe (mostly) on a path to renewal

SANTA FE, N.M. — New wave rock fans may remember “Walking in LA,” the 1982 ditty by the band Missing Persons. The refrain to the song, delivered to a pulsating beat, was “Nobody walks in LA.”

Not many people walk in Santa Fe, either, unless they’re tourists staying at one of the downtown hotels or in an Airbnb near the Plaza. Those folks disappeared after the coronavirus shutdown began in mid-March.

When I moved back to New Mexico in late 2015, I decided to go car-free. I grew up in Albuquerque during the 1970s, when students could drive their Mustangs and Camaros to high school, and cruise to McDonald’s during lunch. But years of sitting in traffic for hours on the East Coast cured me of my car habit.

Between the transportation options afforded by ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, Santa Fe Trails bus service, the Railrunner and walking, it seemed to me I could live without wheels of my own in the City Different.

However, that belief has been shaken recently. Walking to my office (journalism is considered an essential service) each day wearing a mask, and taking breaks to savor the sun and flowering fruit trees exposed me to things I’d never seen before in Santa Fe.

This jewel of a colonial town took a beating during the coronavirus shutdown. I saw my first evidence of this in early April when I was walking home at night and noticed a lovely French door (probably called a Spanish door in New Mexico), torn off its hinges in the beautiful building occupied by Descartes Labs, a geospatial data mapping company on the corner of Guadalupe and West Alameda streets.

I was tempted to call Descartes CEO Phil Fraher’s voicemail, but it was close to midnight. That seemed intrusive and would cause more worry than needed because there was still another set of doors intact on the other side of the foyer.

Instead, I called the non-emergency number of the Santa Fe Police Department (505-428-3710) and reported the vandalism. It’s a number I’ve called numerous times over the past few weeks. I’ve started to feel as if one of the dispatchers, Marisol, has become a friend.

I normally try not to strain the resources of law enforcement with seemingly petty complaints, but I couldn’t help myself. On Holy Thursday, my neighborhood, which is a series of dead-end streets abutted by Paseo de Peralta on one side and by West Alameda Street on the other, was being assaulted by the sounds of drag racers, cars with noisy mufflers and motorcyclists all through the night.

The only respite from the noise came on Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day, when I presume the riders were home with their families.

Another reason for my calls: graffiti that sprouted overnight like weeds. I’m a fan of folk and street art, but the tagging that appeared on places such as the fence surrounding the future Vladem Contemporary art museum on Guadalupe and on the back of the St. Vincent de Paul Society buildings on Early Street was anything but artistic. It was pure vandalism.

The graffiti was depressing me so much that I called up former Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick. What did he think about the problem? “Graffiti is like wildfire. You’ve got to cover it up immediately or it starts multiplying,” said Pick.

It took the city of Santa Fe a couple of weeks to get going on graffiti removal, but by April, most of the tagging on my travels between home, work and Trader Joe’s was covered up. However, the fence surrounding the Vladem on Guadalupe has been hit again.

Rick Martinez, member at large with Keep Santa Fe Beautiful, added heart hands to the red caboose at the Railyard. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Another person I reached out to was Rick Martinez, member at large of “Keep Santa Fe Beautiful.” During the shutdown, Martinez added heart hands to the red caboose that sits at the corner of St. Francis and Cerrillos.

Martinez, who likes to walk the rail trail with his wife, said he noticed that more dog walkers weren’t cleaning up their pup’s poop and that there was a lot more trash on the ground.

Like me, he thinks that people were expressing their frustration at being kept indoors by littering and committing small acts of civil disobedience.

The departure of the tourists was quickly followed by the exodus of professional panhandlers who frequent such corners as St. Francis and Cordova, despite new signs from the city of Santa Fe discouraging motorists from handing out money through their car windows.

The only people left roaming were the truly needy and the mentally ill. One evening after shopping at Trader Joe’s, as I walked down the street to the No. 2 bus stop in front of McDonald’s, I watched a man make a manic circuit of trash cans in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Domino’s in an attempt to find something to eat.

I couldn’t help but hand him a few dollars. It’s not something I can afford to do every day. But I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy my dinner knowing this poor soul was hungry. After I put the bills in his hand, I watched the man as he went into Speedway and emerged with a Budweiser tall boy. OK, maybe he was thirsty, not hungry.

In any event, my travels on foot during the shutdown opened up my eyes to those who normally stay hidden in the shadows or who get lost in the crowd among the tourists.

But as the weeks passed, I started to see signs of renewal. Even as stores moved out, including my favorite thrifting haunt, Look What the Cat Dragged In 2, on Cordova Street, the owner of the Rio Bravo Trading Company on Guadalupe used the shutdown as an opportunity to restore his floor.

Meanwhile, my neighbors are planting flowers, installing new fences and refurbishing their roofs. In addition to hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer, Santa Feans are regularly cleaning out the flower department at Sprout’s in DeVargas, as well as the potting soil and topsoil inventory at Market Street, formerly Albertson’s, around the corner.

The other day, as I was standing at my familiar bus stop in front of McDonald’s, I looked up and noticed a mural in honor of the New Mexico School for the Deaf Roadrunners on the side of the school’s gymnasium. Maybe it had always been there, but I never noticed it before. The paint looked fresh.

No, I won’t cave and buy a car after all. I don’t want to miss any detail of this precious town’s resurrection.