Letter To The Editor: Glowy Bunny – Urban Renewal In The American Southwest

Los Alamos

I got him out of the garage this past weekend because the weather screamed springtime – a giant plastic plug-in rabbit with a vicious little smile. I carried him home to Gold Street years ago from the TG&Y going out of business sale. Sometimes the garage feels like a museum of a lost Los Alamos.

We have ancient canteens from the Sports Bag. Shelves of books from R-Books and Otowi Station. Everything reminds me of something. The Hunger Games series brings back a particular summer day when Ms. Durbin convinced us we really needed a book about a bunch of teenagers killing each other for sport. The Harry Potter books bring back the store opening at midnight for new releases and how excited local bookworms would be.

Fast forward to a sad memory of the last time she checked us out before the store closed and looked like she could cry. I actually did cry with the checkout lady on my final visit to Ed’s. The last bottle of Gerolsteiner purchased there I sometimes use as a vase. We still miss the shrink-wrapped brownies by the register.  

So many stores with so many memories that formed the village my children called home. I keep seasonal kitchenware from Brownells and that kitchen store that used to be by Metzgers in this neat giant circus crate from Casa Mesita in its heyday at its location before its last location, and the one before that.

I miss the Los Alamos where a person could shop all day like I did my first summer here in 1988. I don’t think it’s possible to reinvent that Los Alamos.

My mother was a rustbelt politician in the seventies and eighties when the only thing on anyone’s mind was saving factory jobs and urban renewal. The downtowns were dying all over Ohio. Politicians were desperate to save their central cities but each example of renewal whether in Dayton, Columbus or Cincinnati was worst than the last. Good intentions could not force something organic and desirable to grow. It’s still a problem – the last of the malls, which killed the inner cities, never recovered after 2008 producing even more blight.

Luckily urban renewal became sort of “out” as it morphed into gentrification, which became unfashionable with the rise of identity politics. This is true worldwide. I sometimes live in Europe, which one equates with lovely shops and coffee house culture but even there this has changed. Central cities often have weird, giant malls full of goods produced in unsustainable sweatshops in the world’s poor lands. The mall nearest our village was being gutted last time I was there a few months before the Pandemic to lure more exciting stores to keep shopping fun.

Fun. People working these retail jobs in Europe are often immigrants who are paid so little that they can never hope to retire even with the strong safety nets Europeans enjoy. A nice walkable shopping district comes at a price. Are we willing to pay this price to somehow try to breathe life into downtown Los Alamos?

The businesses which used to be here were run by people who really gave it all they had and served the community proud. Some still do but not everyone is a true Wonderwoman like Cindy at the pet store who can raise a family, be an Ironwoman, while promoting an event like the Tour de Los Alamos, too. It takes an amazing amount of effort.

Small towns in our region, which succeed at maintaining a thriving central merchant district, are blessed in ways we aren’t. Why would you come here if you could go to Santa Fe or Taos? My dream, after vaccination, is an overnighter in Durango after a lovely lunch at the diner on the edge of Pagosa. The thought of Maria’s Bookshop makes me giddy.

The old Hilltop House, Marimac Village, CB Fox building, and the Reel Deal Cinema are problems. They are also opportunities. Who do we hope to be after the Pandemic? A couple of Council meetings can only scratch the surface of envisioning a future. If ever there was a time to think big it’s now. Keeping it local in the best possible way for the sake of everyone here, young or old, is a goal we should embrace.