Wednesday, July 4, 2007

In Defense of Barelas

Said in 1996, in and around UNM…

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”
“Where’s that?”

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”
“In the barrio? Is that safe?”

Eleven years ago last summer, I purchased an old adobe fixer-upper in Barelas. It had crumbling pavement in place of a front lawn, a sagging porch, and a parkway filled with bindweed and goatheads. A collection of used tea bags dangled from the wrought iron grating enclosing the front porch. The dried tea bags fluttered in the breeze like aspen leaves and puzzled our traditional Hispano neighbors, who wondered out loud if they were part of a protective religious ritual.

Our house had two claims to fame in the neighborhood. Folks either knew it as the former home of several UNM Ski Team members and site of infamous wild parties, or associated it with local politico and native Bareleño Al Otero, the New Mexico State Representative who pushed to locate the National Hispanic Culture Center in Barelas. After we moved in, we became the people who bought the Ski Team house or the Al Otero house, depending on who you talked to. Shortly before we closed on the house, President Clinton drew some positive attention to the neighborhood by speaking at the Barelas Community Center. The 4th Street Revitalization project began as we moved our furniture, books and toys into our new home; some say this started the seismic shift that transformed Barelas from a poor neighborhood to an up-and-coming funky place to live.

Why Barelas? I needed to be close to UNM, where I was beginning graduate work in philosophy. We didn’t want to live in a New Mexican version of a Levittown suburb. Barelas was affordable; we bought an adobe house twice as big as our NE Heights apartment with a monthly mortgage that cost less than our rent. We could walk to the zoo, downtown, and the Rio Grande bosque. Plus, Barelas felt like home – there was something about it that reminded me of Guadelahabra, a neighborhood in my home town of La Habra, California, blended with a dash of my grandparents’ stomping grounds of Boyle Heights and Santa Ana. Downtown rehabilitation was pie-in-the-sky talk at the time, ground-breaking for the Aquarium and Botanic Gardens hadn’t started yet, and drug dealers and gangbangers lived down the street. Still, something about Barelas smelled right and it wasn’t just the home cooked tortillas y frijoles, though that helped.

About a month after we moved in, we started hanging out on the front porch. We couldn’t see much at first, just a treeless concrete streetscape with people walking by. I’d park myself on my rickety five dollar faux Bentwood chair purchased from the NM Animal Humane Society Thrift Store and read Leibniz and Descartes while drinking yerba buena iced tea. The front porch became an extension of our living room – the place where we colored, drank coffee, played with ants and grasshoppers, read Dr. Seuss, and cut up magazines for art projects. It also introduced us to the neighborhood.

After a while, I started noticing neighborhood patterns and habits. There was the dapper eighty-ish Hispanic gentleman with a fedora who walked by every morning; the blonde hippy chick headed to Arrow Market a few times a week with a little girl, a baby, and a dog in tow; and the homeless Anglo guy with the Grizzly Adams’ hair and beard who favored pink muu-muus and pushed a shopping cart down 4th Street.

One morning, while I was agonizing my way through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the man with the fedora interrupted his stroll to ask me what I was reading and how I liked the neighborhood, in that order. It turned out he was a retired academic who lived a few streets over. One thing led to another and pretty soon we found ourselves talking about the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, logical positivism, and the retired prof’s experiences in Austria in the 1930s. In Barelas, no less!

Barelas has changed a lot over the past decade. I still sit on my front porch and watch the neighborhood go by - these days I’m more apt to be pecking a blog on my laptop than reading early modern philosophy. More artists and writers live here than when we first moved in, and downtown is hopping, not just hoping. People still refer to our place as the “Al Otero house”, but these days, it is also known as the house with the colorful flowers and exposed adobe front porch. The dapper guy with the fedora stopped his morning constitutional about nine years ago, but not before we had many conversations about history, art, philosophy and life.

To my regret, I never did catch his name.

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