Visit Santa Fe’s Plaza on any Saturday afternoon, and a diverse throng of locals and tourists, buskers and gawkers, buyers and sellers, and artists and lunch-eaters will be milling in and around it. In a sense, that’s exactly what the Plaza’s original planners intended: a somewhat mundane but strategically situated blank slate upon which culture would grow and transform the very city from which it sprang.
Meant as a both record of how New Mexican cities developed and as a resource for city planners and architects, The Plazas of New Mexico describes plazas as holders of sacred spaces in the collective memory: “The idea of a plaza still resonates in the human imagination as a place where residents gather to celebrate, or to sit quietly in the shade and contemplate the passing parade. New Mexico has the longest and most varied traditions of such public space in the United States.”
The book, a project of the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, features contemporary photography by Miguel Gandert and documentary drawings edited by José Zelaya.
Alongside familiar, somewhat boring images of the iconic town square, Gandert’s photos of lowriders and plaza rats reflect the broad and complex history of plazas as centers of culture.
In the early 1600s, the Santa Fe Plaza was a barren square of packed earth, bordered only by the Palace of the Governors and a church. Unlike in a traditional Spanish city, however, the streets that developed around Santa Fe’s Plaza grew in haphazard directions, sometimes confusing visitors.
“The location, or site, of this villa is as good as I pictured it in the beginning, but its appearance, design, arrangement and plan do not correspond to its status as a villa nor to the very beautiful plain on which it lies, for it is like a rough stone set in fine metal,” Franciscan Francisco Dominguez wrote in 1776.
With the emergence of the Santa Fe and Chihuahua trails, commercial buildings with large storefront windows replaced the surrounding homes, transforming the Plaza into a center of commerce. Then, around 1860, regulating the Plaza became a priority for the dominant Hispanic businessman Simon Delgado. He bought the main commerce building, prohibited fresh meat displays and cockfighting on Sundays and limited parking on plaza streets in favor of the foot traffic resulting from trading.
After New Mexico earned statehood in 1912, the Museum of New Mexico assumed responsibility for giving Santa Fe a style attractive to tourists. Though the museum staff’s early efforts focused on Spanish- and Mexican-style edifices, their interests later transitioned on the more exotic-seeming pueblo style.
Many of the changes were not received well. In 1959, when the city Planning Commission proposed that a statue of Don Diego de Vargas replace the monument, novelist Oliver La Farge said, “We are getting to where we want even our history bland, sweetened, suited for consumption without any sensation whatsoever.”
The artist Jerry West, in response to the city closing the south and west sides of the Plaza to traffic during tourist season, decried the effective banishment of the city’s blank cultural slate.
“This kind of resolution, banning activity, stops a natural dialogue between younger and older members of the community,” West wrote. “What is more honest and socially healthy than to see young people from all social, economic and racial backgrounds gathering to have fun?”
The Plazas of New Mexico
Edited by Chris Wilson and Stefanos Polyzoides
Trinity University Press