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Shifting ideas of Santa Fe’s south side

May 27, 2019

The Santa Fe the world knows is a charming little Southwestern city where art, history, culture, turquoise jewelry and earth-tone-colored buildings abound.

But just a few miles outside Santa Fe’s historic core, in the part of the City Different the rest of the world rarely sees, the diverse and growing south side continues to wrestle with its identity, its future and its shifting geographic definitions.

As Santa Fe prepares to enter the third decade of the 21st century — more than 60 years after it began to march away from its downtown confines — finding a new definition for the area remains a political and economic concern for city leaders and residents who acknowledge the south side is not just a place but a state of mind.

“One of the things that I tried to do when I was a city councilor was to celebrate that state of mind — a state of mind of being the hardworking people of this community, and that they deserve just as much, if not more, than other parts of Santa Fe,” former City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez said.

“I don’t think that residents of the south side want sympathy or anything special,” he added. “They just want a fair shake at what this city is all about.”

Historically, south-side residents have felt underrepresented at City Hall, despite efforts by Dominguez and others to shine a light on the needs of Santa Fe’s fastest-growing area, which is largely Hispanic.

Asked why south-side residents might feel marginalized, Mayor Alan Webber, who took office last year, said it’s probably because there is some truth behind concerns their neighborhoods have been neglected.

Over time, the south side “didn’t get the same level of planning and investment and attention as perhaps the north side of town,” as the city annexed unincorporated areas of the county and as other neighborhoods grew organically, he said.

“The north side of town is older, and it’s kind of the historic section of Santa Fe, so people who lived on the south side, I think, came to think that maybe they weren’t getting as much government attention or investment as had already happened on the north side, where history made its point early,” Webber, who was out of town on vacation, said in a telephone interview Friday.

“Part of what I’ve been doing for the last year and what I tried to talk about during the campaign was the need to unify the city and give more representation to all parts of the city,” the mayor added.

Residents in the area have long complained that the tourist-heavy downtown area, for example, gets far more attention than their neighborhoods.

“Especially going to the newer parts [of the south side], you’d think they would take care of it a little better, but it’s terrible to see how the [traffic] medians are,” said Shirley Dennis, who lives in the older, more established Bellamah neighborhood, which she considers a part of the south side.

“That [traffic] circle out there, I take care of that because the city doesn’t,” Dennis, 80, said while pointing to a weed-free traffic circle in front of her home at Avenida de las Campanas and Calle Princesa Juana. “If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”

City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta said south-side residents don’t feel so much neglected as they do forgotten. He suspects city officials considered the area new and still growing and not needing the same level of attention as some of the older neighborhoods in Santa Fe.

“I think time just kind of passed by people. They didn’t realize, ‘Wait a minute. Tierra Contenta has been in existence for over 20 years now,’ ” he said, referring to a sprawling subdivision with more than 2,300 housing units, about half of which are considered affordable for lower-income residents.

Though the area is still growing, Abeyta said the city is “finally” recognizing that the south side — or least what he considers the south side — is not a “young community anymore.” Abeyta, who was also elected last year, credited Webber, Dominguez and City Councilor Chris Rivera, as well as himself, with leading a renewed charge to provide more and better services.

“We need the amenities now,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up now with the funding of a teen center, but we’re also going to have to start looking eventually toward senior centers. There’s no senior centers in District 3, and eventually we’re going to need those, too, because the community is getting older. Time is passing.”

Part of the challenge of addressing the needs of the south side is that its boundaries are continually in flux.

Ask residents and city officials to define the borders of the south side, and the answers vary. It’s an interesting, uniquely Santa Fe parlor game: Outline the contours of the south side.

“Since I grew up off of Airport Road, to me, the south side is the Airport Road area and now Tierra Contenta, but I’ve heard other residents in [southwest] District 4 claim they also live on the south side,” Abeyta said. “I’ve also heard people say that anything west of St. Francis Drive is on the south side.”

Elijah Estrada, a 17-year-old Santa Fe High School student who was reading a 1,517-page dystopian novel Friday at Monica Lucero Park off Avenida de las Campanas, said he considers the south side “no further than St. Francis Drive.”

“I guess I’ve heard the term, but I’ve just never really considered it that much,” he said. “I just consider it one big city — one big community.”

“Everybody has a different definition, I suspect, based on history or their neighborhood or how long they’ve lived in Santa Fe,” Webber said. “I don’t think you’re going to find one definition that everybody agrees on.”

As far back as the 1950s and perhaps earlier, Santa Fe grew south for a variety of reasons, from cheaper land to gravity flow.

“I better not say it, but all of our people have always said that [feces] flows downhill, but maybe we should say, ‘Poop flows downhill,’ ” William Henry Mee, a longtime resident of the village of Agua Fría, said, laughing. “But gravity flow of sewers made this southwest area of town cheaper to build, so that’s the impetus there.”

Mee considers the village of Agua Fría part of Santa Fe’s south side, though village residents have successfully challenged annexation efforts in the past.

Whatever the boundaries, Santa Fe’s south side comprises a mix of people.

“To me, it seemed like it was the poor side of town growing up,” said Abeyta, who grew up in public housing off Camino de Jacobo. “But I think Tierra Contenta, when that got built, changed a lot of that because then it became not just poor but middle class. Even more recently, it has also become a place where a lot of the immigrant community lives, so it’s a mixture of middle class, poor, immigrant and families.”

Restaurateur Jesus Zambrano, who owns and operates La Cocina de Doña Clara off Airport Road with his wife and their children, said the area has become a welcoming place for Mexicans and Central Americans.

“Somos puros Latinos,” he said. “For me, it’s part of Mexico. It has the flavor of Mexico.”

Particularly along Airport Road, the south side has a large number of businesses that cater to the immigrant community, from taco trucks to panaderías and carnicerías, or bakeries and butcher shops, respectively.

Hans Sisneros, who said he grew up on Canyon Road, described the area as “cramped” and said some native Santa Feans aren’t too happy with the influx of immigrants in the area.

“There’s some locals [on the south side], but they’re not too happy about living here,” he said while waiting for the Southside Branch Library to open Friday morning.

Not everybody shares his opinion, but there does seem to be agreement that the south side has issues that are not unique to Santa Fe.

Dominguez said he once invited a group of people from Las Cruces to visit the area.

“They were surprised because people think of Santa Fe as old streets and turquoise and turquoise coyotes and all that good stuff,” he said. “But they don’t realize that there are parts of Santa Fe that have challenges like the rest of the country does: poverty, homelessness, lack of access to food and health care, and some of those other things. If you dig into the numbers, just the data itself shows that there’s two different worlds.”

Webber said he hopes to erase the divide.

“There are a lot of things about the south side that merit attention,” he said, adding that planning of the third phase of Tierra Contenta is “coming back into focus” and that the city is moving forward with a teen center and other investments in that part of town.

“It is where more of our young families live. It’s where more of the growth is happening. It is where the school-aged kids live, and I think it’s a part of the city that has a huge amount of opportunity if we look at it with eyes of equity and inclusivity and fairness,” he said. “There’s a lot of positive things happening with south-siders, however you define it, wherever you draw the line.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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