It's hard to describe downtwn Albuquerque as an overnight success ― after all, people have lived here for at least 11,000 years, and the city itself is celebrating a tricentennial.
Still, urban planners now tout its revival as the fastest downtown turnaround anywhere in the country.
WHERE TO EAT
Artichoke Cafe and Wine Bar. A thoughtful wine list and the modern American cuisine made this a destination long before its EDo (East Downtown) neighborhood began a revival. $$$; 424 Central Ave. S.E.; 505/243-0200.
Flying Star Cafe. Casual and quick for pastas, salads, and sandwiches. $; 723 Silver Ave. S.W.; 505/244-8099.
Gold Street Caffè. A symbol of downtown's revival and a neighborhood gathering spot. $$; 218 Gold Ave. S.W.; 505/765-1633.
WHAT TO DO
Atomic Cantina. Local bar with terrific jukebox, live bands. 315 Gold S.W.; 505/242-2200.
Burt's Tiki Lounge. The Burque does tiki at this bar with live music. 313 Gold S.W.; 505/247-2878.
Downtown Contemporary Art Center. Closed Sun-Mon; 105 Fourth St. S.W.; 505/242-1983.
KiMo Theatre. Pueblo deco landmark offers gallery exhibits, stage shows, and self-guided tours. Lobby open Mon-Fri, call for performance info; 423 Central Ave. N.W.; www.cabq.gov/kimo or 505/768-3544.
National Hispanic Cultural Center. Innovative art and performances. Closed Mon; $3; 1701 Fourth S.W.; www.nhccnm.org or 505/246-2261.
Ruby Shoesday. Fashionable shoes, apparel, and accessories, beautifully arranged in an airy space. 228 Gold S.W.; 505/848-7829.
The Downtown revival
Walk into the downtown Albuquerque eatery Flying Star Cafe on a weekend afternoon and you're instantly swept up by its swirling, colorful decor. This is a neighborhood hangout with style: Couples who live in new downtown lofts are enjoying lunch with their kids, and there's a lineup of students and 20-somethings on the banquettes, tethered to their iPods but surfing wireless on the Web.
Flying Star has brought new energy to this onetime gas company building designed by renowned New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem in 1950. The cafe is also a symbol of Albuquerque's increasingly vibrant downtown. It's hard to describe the area as an overnight success ― after all, people have lived here for at least 11,000 years, and the city itself is celebrating a tricentennial. Still, urban planners now tout its revival as the fastest downtown turnaround anywhere in the country.
Some may be surprised, but not Steve Wedeen. He's president and chief creative officer at the agency Vaughn Wedeen and recently was chair of the nonprofit Downtown Action Team, which guided the revitalization. He sees Albuquerque as another Austin or Portland, a medium-size city that taps into its own distinct identity instead of being a clone of anywhere else.
"That kind of depth is something that people innately sense," says Wedeen. "It's the difference between veneer and solid wood."
Downtown Albuquerque remains a work in progress, but that's part of its appeal. Take Gold Avenue, which, with its anti-mall sensibility, is emerging as a destination for upscale boutique shopping. Here you'll find the high-fashion Ruby Shoesday, a modern space where shoes are displayed like art ― and in some cases priced accordingly. But there's still an old-school shoeshine joint on the street. And by night, the music clubs take over. You won't find a better pair of local showcases than the Atomic Cantina, with its absolutely top-shelf jukebox, or its neighbor, Burt's Tiki Lounge, where the Southwest meets the South Seas.
There's a similar independent spirit over on Fourth Street at the Downtown Contemporary Art Center, a gallery and studio collective in a converted residence hotel built in the early 1900s. Its director, artist Joshua Franco, took over the gallery in 2004. For a while, it was very much a one-man show, says Franco: He vacuumed the carpets, mopped the floors, and hung the art. Still, things were slow; some days only one person stopped in.
But as downtown has revived, so too has the center. Eighteen artists have studio spaces here, with another 40 on the waiting list. There's certainly an energy to the place, with the sounds of a drumming lesson coming from upstairs, and artists stopping in at each other's studios to take a break from their work.
And like downtown Albuquerque, the center is drawing new attention. Now, Franco says, collectors from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles bound for Santa Fe are stopping in to check out the scene.
"When I lived in Santa Fe, I would pass 50 galleries, just walking the dog," says Franco. "Everybody I met was an artist. What's happening in Albuquerque may have happened in other places 10, 15, or even 100 years ago. But here I feel like I'm right in on the birth of something. I'm lucky to witness it and to be part of it."