Santa Fe's popularity as a tourist destination threatens the charm of the area

November 08, 1992|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

SANTA FE -- Probably for the worse, the "City Different" is riding an unprecedented wave of popularity.

For decades, New Mexico's historic capital has lured artists, writers, retirees and increasing numbers of tourists because of its adobe charm, high plains-mountain setting and Southwest ambience. The intense color of the land and sky, vividly captured by artist Georgia O'Keeffe and Hopi artist Dan Namingha; Hispanic and Indian traditions that have given the city a foreign flavor; and a lively contemporary arts scene contribute to Santa Fe's popularity.

The city's focal point always has been the downtown Plaza, a square laid out by the Spaniards who came here in the early 1600s. The one-story adobe Palace of the Governors, built on the Plaza in 1610 to house Spanish officials, is the oldest continuously used public building in the United States. Two- and three-story commercial buildings flank the Plaza's other three sides. The tree-shaded Plaza is dotted with white, cast-iron benches and several monuments. One marker commemorates the end of the Santa Fe Trail, a 780-mile caravan route (used between 1821 and 1880) from Independence, Mo.

But Santa Fe's popularity has exacted a price; the Plaza is no longer a main shopping area for Santa Feans, who now must do their shopping at De Vargas Center, College Plaza and Villa Linda malls on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

The Plaza now is a more contrived adobe- and territorial-style town that's really a tourist mall specializing in Western wear, Western art and antiques and Western jewelry -- some great, some awful.

On a recent mellow fall afternoon, the busiest business on the Plaza, however, was a Haagen-Dazs ice cream, pastry and sandwich shop, frequented by camera-toting tourists. Nearby Dunlap's, a department store, folded last year and was converted into a fluorescent-lit, adobe-style mini-mall that caters tourist tastes, with 20 shops selling everything from bad art, concha belts and turquoise jewelry to frozen yogurt. The one remaining store that hasn't been "malled" is an old-fashioned Woolworth's, but its days probably are numbered.

Indian craftspeople who guarantee the authenticity of their work sell sterling silver and turquoise jewelry beneath the portal of the Palace of the Governors; others set up stands in the Plaza facing the Palace and in front of Woolworth's across the way. With the exception of the ever-present visitors and Santa Feans who work in nearby stores, galleries and offices, the Plaza is a venue for punky teens who hang out after school.

Last month, Santa Fe was selected as the ultimate destination in the world by reader survey in Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Santa Fe, a write-in winner, beat out San Francisco, Vienna, Florence, Rome, Sydney, London, Paris, San Antonio and Venice.

While Santa Fe certainly has its own mystique -- Santa Fe-style furniture, clothes and an essence -- the choice is quite remarkable for a city of 55,000, where denim and cowboy boots, funky low riders and tourist buses are common sights. But the danger is that even more of what makes Santa Fe special will be lost to familiar chains and commercial greed.

Santa Fe officials tend to favor development to preservation of buildings. Take, for example, the Eldorado Hotel, several blocks from the Plaza. The five-story adobe-style hotel, whose exterior resembles an upscale prison, violates the city's height scale by about two stories, yet no one curbed the developers. Other hotels, smaller but more tasteful, have sprung up near the Plaza.

The Conde Nast Traveler vote will put further pressure on Santa Fe tourist development. "Everyone's phones are busy now," said Alan Silow, sales director for the Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The impact will be considerable." Last year the city had more than a million visitors, with 813,823 staying overnight in hotels.

There is a growing concern among Santa Feans that the "City Different" will lose more of its charm, Mr. Silow acknowledged.

Back in 1985, city officials and preservationists admitted that Santa Fe could lose its place on the National Register of Historic Places as a result of its bent for progress. The Plaza area and the Palace of the Governors were placed on the Department of Interior's National Register in the early 1970s.

A 1985 survey of 57 buildings be tween 50 E. and 500 W. San Francisco St. on the south side of the Plaza showed that 25 of the buildings were altered to such an extent that they no longer contributed to the area's historic status. Eight years later, several more could be added to the list.

If the trend continues, one preservationist said, the renovations in Santa Fe, especially around the Plaza, could create "a false sense of history -- like Disneyland."

Whether watchdogs can prevent detrimental expansion is another matter.

Carol Stodgel, executive director of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, said her group has acquired and spared a number (( of historic homes from destruction.

"People do come to Santa Fe for its history," Ms. Stodgel said. "You just can't just let it go. There won't be anything here."

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