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Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Spruced-Up Neighborhood Relies on Roots

By John W. Flores
Journal Staff Writer
    It seems that everywhere in the old south Albuquerque barrio of Barelas, history and progress collide, creating a colorful tapestry.
    And "lately we've seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood," said Albuquerque native Tom Sanchez, the owner of B. Ruppe Drugs in the 800 block of Fourth Street in Barelas.
    "Since (the National Hispanic Cultural Center construction) started, there's been a lot of fixing up of streets and buildings in Barelas," he said. "I think the center should help the whole area."
    And Sanchez should know because he's been there awhile.
    He graduated from the University of New Mexico's pharmacy school 51 years ago. Since 1965 he has operated B. Ruppe Drugs, a neighborhood landmark.
    The drugstore was founded at its present site in 1883, and has been in continuous operation since though under three different owners.
    Sanchez and several other local business owners said the cultural center already has had a deep impact on the community, with old businesses sprucing up, new ones moving in and a general sense of rejuvenation.
    Hispano Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Loretta Armenta agrees with them.
    "For the first time in a very, very long time, there's a real sense of ownership" in Barelas, she said. "And there's the opportunity to bring in true economic development ... there are new businesses moving in."
    The Hispano Chamber is, in fact, building its headquarters there, only a few blocks from the cultural center.
    The new building, scheduled to open in January, is a sign of community pride that is continuing to change the face of Barelas, Armenta said.
    Another local resident and the owner of Cristy Records, Marcella Perez, said she has definitely noticed the changes.
    "They've opened a couple of new businesses. Fourth Street itself looks better than it did before. It looks real nice. And we've had new customers come in," Perez said.
    The Barelas record shop has been at the corner of Fourth and Atlanta Streets since the mid-'60s, Perez said.
    Another local business is the Red Ball Cafe a longtime hangout for locals that flourished, off-and-on, for 37 years, from 1942 until 1979. It was brought back to life in March 1998.
    "Business is on an upward trend. The renovations I've done on the business have gotten local, state and federal awards," said Jim Chavez, new owner of the Red Ball. He was born in Barelas. "And we've got the Hispano Chamber of Commerce right next to us. Yeah, that'll help a lot.
    "I'm planning to build a bed-and-breakfast across the street as more businesses move in," he said.
    Two years ago many old buildings in Barelas were empty. But that's changing, he said, adding that the new activity deters vandalism and encourages more police presence in the area.
    Rosemary Gonzales, born and raised in Barelas, agreed.
    "I think the exposure of them (Hispanic Center and Hispano Chamber) being our neighbors is going to continue to help business," Gonzales said. "I think it will put the limelight on friends (new businesses) who have never shacked with us."
    Gonzales has been operating the Ives Flower shop in Barelas for the past 25 years. The shop itself has been in continuous operation for 108 years.
    "It's a one-on-one kind of thing," she said. "Not like big business. Here you can call and talk to the owners directly. That's unusual now. (And) there's a lot of quality here."
    The new construction and improvements will bring more foot and vehicle traffic to the area, said Richard and Lillian Martinez, who have owned the Albuquerque Mattress Company for almost 30 years.
    "I feel it's good what they're doing. I see more people down here already. It's changed for the better," Lillian Martinez said.
    Crime reduction is another result of the rebuilding efforts, said Larry Perea, a member of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, a group formed 15 years ago to address the problem of neighborhood crime.
    "With new development, Barelas is a much safer place to live," Perea said. "We are consistently working to improve. And in a general kind of way, the neighborhood is a much safer place to live than it was 15 years ago."
    This is not a typical inner-city gentrification effort, planners say. The new center and the Hispano Chamber building are touted as strong symbols of community pride.
    The cultural center is a building of national scope, created from a local vision and drive.
    Barelas was founded in 1662 by a decree to found a town by Gov. Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa.
    Though the old neighborhood has long been incorporated by the city, it still clings to a distinct identity.
    The Camino Real, critical to trade and continued exploration of western states, winds through Barelas and traces westward over the Rio Grande.
    "I think really the center is so important. When you look at impact, we're changing the face of the South Valley. That's quite an accomplishment," Armenta said.
    Margie Hernandez is manager of La Mexicana, a tortilla factory just east of the Rio Grande on the fringe of Barelas.
    The business opened its doors 60 years ago.
    Hernandez can walk out the door during coffee breaks and watch the ongoing construction of the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico.
    "We knew it was coming for a number of years. It's been a great effort, and it's been a lot of hard work. Everyone is getting together. In the beginning it was real difficult to get people excited about it, but things are looking a lot better than they did five years ago," Hernandez said.
    "How do the people of Barelas feel now? I think everyone is very excited. Not only is this the national Hispanic center, but it belongs to the people here also. We're all very supportive of it," Hernandez said.