South Side Rising

Despite enduring challenges, Santa Fe's south side is moving up

Every year, thousands of tourists with open pocketbooks flock to Santa Fe for its multiple culture festivals, opera shows and art galleries.

The City Different consistently tops lists as one of the country's best destinations for food, wine and culture. In 2011, Condé Nast named Santa Fe the third best place to visit in the United States. This year, the city was chosen over Lake Tahoe and others to host the International Mountain Biking World Summit, a highlight Mayor David Coss emphasized in his annual State of the City address this past fall.

"This is a great place for active, outdoor vacations," Coss said in the October speech, "for nature and environmentally friendly travel; for food, wine, spas, wellness, art, culture and history."

As in many culturally attuned societies, political activism is also common. In the fall, Occupy Santa Fe protesters first gathered near a local Bank of America branch, then settled in the Railyard Park. Every Wednesday night at a City Council meeting, familiar faces speak out about the issues of the day, be they public parks, nuclear contamination or beer and baseball.

But at the other end of town, where much of the city's working class lives, a less visible brand of activism is forming. Rapid commercial and residential development there—a new Super Walmart in October, for instance, and housing construction that far outpaces the rest of the city—arguably leaves its residents with no other choice.

At her job at La Fonda hotel, the historic adobe establishment situated just off the city's Plaza, Claudia Ortiz sees tourism dollars at work. Cleaning hotel rooms during the day, she watches people spend more money than she's ever seen. Of course, the money isn't for her. It represents a lifestyle far removed from her own.

Colegio sin Fronteras charter school Executive Director Miguel Acosta says the state of the economy is responsible for the creation of poverty jobs.

Ortiz immigrated to Santa Fe 17 years ago from Chihuahua, Mexico. Since then, she’s been through multiple living situations, many jobs and a rough divorce. Today, she works as many hours as she can while holding down two jobs and raising three kids on her own.

More and more people like Ortiz are populating the city. Miguel Acosta, executive director of Colegio sin Fronteras, a charter school aimed at helping older dropouts, says Santa Fe's tourist-driven economy resembles that of other resort cities, with a growing gap between well-to-do vacationers and retirees and those working at the resorts, restaurants and gift shops they frequent.

"The kind of economy we have creates the kind of jobs that are poverty jobs—the working poor," Acosta tells SFR. "You have the wealthy and a huge gap between them and the rest of the population that [is] basically a servant class."

With one of the highest living wages in the country (scheduled to increase even further in March), Santa Fe is often recognized for its progressive politics. But lingering beyond the picturesque ski slopes and enforced adobe architectural codes is a city, like so many others across the nation, divided by an income gap.

Ortiz' status as an undocumented immigrant limits the amount and type of work she can find. She says she's worked for as low as $6 an hour.

"I work for whatever they give me," Ortiz, speaking through an interpreter, tells SFR. "It doesn't matter; it could be the most miserable job."

On top of her job at La Fonda, she cleans houses on a freelance basis. Recently, she's found that steady work hours are increasingly few and far between.

Seven months ago, she and her three children were kicked out of their house after being unable to meet rent payments. Ortiz moved her family to a nearby apartment unit, which provides public housing, shortly afterward. Ortiz says many workplaces around the city ask immigrant employees for their citizenship papers before hiring them.

"We don't come to cause trouble," Ortiz says. "We come to work."

While US News and World Report lists Santa Fe as one of the top 10 places to retire, the city also has a higher child poverty rate than the rest of New Mexico, which as a state ranks behind only Mississippi in that dismal category [Indicators, Nov. 23: "Poor Kids"].

Eighteen percent of Santa Feans live below the poverty line, according to US Census figures, and up to 1,500 homeless people wander the city's streets on any given day [news, Oct. 5: "Vagrancy"]. Education quality is poor; in 2010, only one other school district in New Mexico had a lower graduation rate than Santa Fe Public Schools.

Much of the city's lower-income sector is concentrated in its fastest-growing region, where Ortiz and many like her live: the south side.

As Santa Fe has grown, so have the gaps between the cultures and incomes of residents in the city's northern and southern ends. The south side, generally defined as the area bordered by Cerrillos Road, Jaguar Drive, State Road 599 and Agua Fria Road, includes more than 20,000 residents, accounting for nearly a quarter of Santa Fe's urban population.

US Census data divides the city into tracts. Using data from the 2010 census, SFR compared the tracts that best align with the south side to those that include parts of Santa Fe's northeastern regions to try to assess the accuracy of the usual assumptions about the city's demographic divide.

A comparison of two census tracts—one on the south side and another in the northern part of the city, each with approximately 4,000 residents—shows marked differences. According to those data, 28 percent of residents in the south side tract live below the poverty level—an increase of 8 percentage points since the 2000 census. In the north side tract, by contrast, only 13 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Additionally, less than 13 percent of residents in the south side tract have bachelor's degrees and only 65 percent have high school diplomas; in the north side tract, 50 percent are college-educated, and 90 percent graduated high school.

The share of foreign-born residents in the south side has grown over the past decade, from 25 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2010. According to SFR's analysis, in the downtown area, foreign-born residents account for just 6 percent of the total population.

Israel Lopez assists homeless families through Santa Fe Public Schools’ Adelante program.

Census tract statistics, which are produced annually in relatively small sample sizes, sometimes have a high margin of error. But any south side resident can attest to the demographic divide.

"It's all one city, but [downtown residents] wouldn't understand what's going on here," Ortiz' daughter, Blanca, a 14-year-old student at Capital High School, tells SFR.

A drive down Cerrillos from downtown reveals a portrait of urban sprawl. Chain stores and restaurants replace comfortable adobe boutiques and yuppie eateries. Buildings become larger, and the land flattens and sprawls. To Israel Lopez, the real south side begins at the intersection of Cerrillos and Airport roads.
"Go down Airport Road and you'll see the shift in the stores," Lopez, who works with Santa Fe Public Schools' Adelante program, which helps homeless youths and families, tells SFR. "You'll see the signs are in Spanish, then you'll see the land."

“It’s all one city, but [downtown residents] wouldn’t understand what’s going on here,” Blanca Ortiz, a 14-year-old student at Capital High School, tells SFR.

Gaile Herling, coordinator of the Adelante program, estimates that 80 percent of the 400-500 families she works with come from the south side. She attributes disparities in graduation and proficiency rates to a de facto economic and racial segregation that exists nationwide, but is invisible to many.

"There are some people that never go west of St. Francis Drive," Herling tells SFR. On the other hand, she says, "We have students and families who have never been downtown."

The division manifests itself in myriad forms. Near downtown, five grocery stores and one food cooperative lie within a few miles of each other; the region southwest of the intersection of Airport and Cerrillos roads doesn't have a conventional grocery store at all. Smaller food markets exist, but they're still not enough to keep the region from being considered a food desert.

The area also lacks recreation opportunities. Public parks are sparse; 10 acres of park exist within a two-mile radius of the home of City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, who represents the area, whereas 353 acres lie within a two-mile radius of Councilor Patti Bushee's home. (Bushee represents part of the city's northeast area.) Public recreation centers are nonexistent on the south side, Dominguez says, and health care providers are scarce.

"Health care in the south side is handled one of two ways: the emergency room or the folks in the neighborhood," Acosta says.

Five small clinics, all of which either require insurance or have long waiting lists, are located near or in the area. Roughly 80 percent of patients at La Familia Medical Center's Southside Clinic aren't insured, La Familia Development Director Nancy Phillips says.

Adelante program Coordinator Gaile Herling estimates that 80 percent of the program’s families are from the south side.

Currently, new patients for La Familia’s Southside Clinic have to wait until March for an appointment. La Familia is addressing the backlog by moving its dental practice to the Santa Fe Community College.

To Dominguez, all of these factors are linked to the area's high student dropout rate.

"Education is not just about what happens in the classroom," Dominguez says. "It's also [about] the quality of life and inequities that exist outside of the school."

Blanca Ortiz shares that philosophy. She used to spend her after-school time at Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, which works to empower the city's young women. But after the Girls Inc. in the Zona del Sol Center on Jaguar Drive closed because of a lack of funding last summer, Ortiz quit going. Another Girls Inc. remains open downtown, but it's too far away.

"Most of the parents here have two jobs," she says, "so they can't afford driving you around all the time."

Such obstacles exist on both sides. In a statement last summer, City of Santa Fe Children and Youth Commission Executive Director Lynn Hathaway said that any south side youth program must be completely subsidized in order to succeed.

The lack of after-school programming prompts teenagers to turn to trouble, Ortiz adds. She says more resources would curb much of the problems with the area's youths.

"I see kids confused," she says. "They don't know what they want. They don't feel supported; they feel lost."

Take Manuel, a south side resident, who dropped out of Capital High School four years ago. He says he was influenced by his friends and the money he was making from his part-time jobs, but he also had a pragmatic reason: helping his mother pay rent on their mobile home.

"It was hard," Manuel, who requested that SFR not print his last name because he is an undocumented immigrant, tells SFR. "We were going to lose the house, so I dropped out."

Julio Perales, owner of outdoor restaurant Famous Oasis, is torn about the effect new development will have on his business.

Manuel’s mother ultimately lost her job because her employers started asking for citizenship papers. “It was just me. I had to take care of everything,” he says.

He started working two jobs, at Panda Express and at the Olive Garden, but it wasn't enough to meet the rising rent payments. They were homeless for a time, staying at hotels and friends' houses. Fortunately for his family, Manuel was eventually assigned more hours, which allowed him to move them into an apartment. Around the same time, he met a woman, and they had a baby together. They later married.

Now 21, Manuel works 56 hours a week at a restaurant on Cerrillos and supports his wife, child and mother in an apartment in Tierra Contenta. Because his wife is a citizen, he's in the process of getting his residency and, soon, citizenship, which will take at least another two years.

Still, Manuel says he regrets dropping out. Last summer, he worked with a tutor to prepare for the general equivalency degree test. He says she unexpectedly stopped coming over, but he still plans to take the GED and eventually go to college.

"I want to work in a bank or a hospital," he says.

But even if he did finish high school and college, Manuel says his undocumented status would still be a barrier to his landing a good job. Blanca Ortiz says many south side residents like Manuel have similar stories and share similar dreams.

"It's not only bad influences" that prevent many south side residents from getting ahead, she says. "There's also always that boundary that you're an immigrant."

Divisions between the south side and north side extend beyond the quantifiable disparities in income, socioeconomic status and educational attainment. A cultural gap between recent immigrants and multi-generational New Mexico Latinos dominates Santa Fe, Lopez says; the lack of intermediary services, such as bilingual education, exacerbates that divide. Alejandra Seluja, a business development director at Guadalupe Credit Union, says the dearth of bilingual services leads to a general ignorance about the resources already available in the area.

"The business incubator is right there," Seluja tells SFR. "A lot of people in the south side have no idea."

In 2008, Guadalupe opened an Airport Road branch to help serve the area. The company hired several people who originally came from other countries to "help make people feel comfortable that there was somebody there that spoke Spanish," Seluja says. But city zones and signage rules remain muddy territory for many of the area's business owners.

"Most folks aren't clued-in to permitting rules," Acosta says. "People [display] signs like they did in Mexico."

In September, city officials found several Airport Road businesses in violation of the city's sign ordinance. One of the businesses they visited recently was Famous Oasis, an outdoor restaurant that Julio Perales opened nearly three years ago.

"They asked me about the signs," Perales, who holds a large sign in front of his restaurant to make up for the lack of a front driveway entrance, tells SFR. "I told them, if I have to move them, I'll move them. But I've never had problems until now."

“What’s left of native Santa Feans, much is here on the south side,” Acosta says.

Perales' restaurant is decorated with murals designed by a local graffiti artist. A small shrine dedicated to his younger brother, who was murdered in Mexico just last year, adorns his front window.

Perales, 34, grew up in Santa Fe, although he considers himself culturally Mexican. Growing up, he helped his parents, who immigrated from Ciudad Juárez, run restaurants in Santa Fe and Roswell.

"It's my dream to own a business," he says. "I didn't know it was going to be this hard. But I'm already in it. I know I'm going to make it."

He's sometimes late paying rent for his building and can't afford the $4,000-$5,000 needed to build a driveway in front of his restaurant. For Perales, who recently went through a costly divorce, the price is simply too steep.

He's also torn about the effect more commercial development in the area will have on Famous Oasis. On one hand, Perales knows he needs more of an infrastructure in the area in order for his business to grow. A lot of open land lies between his restaurant and the nearest stores. He says he and some of his customers often have dreams of his managing a large restaurant in a more-populated Airport Road.

But on the other hand, Perales is nervous about the potential strain nearby development and competition could put on his business.

"I want this to be here, but only God knows what's going to happen," Perales says.

In a sense, Perales' predictions for the south side's future are already coming true. Over the years, an upsurge in affordable housing development has accompanied the city's march south. Many families native to Santa Fe moved with the development, where living became more affordable.

"What's left of native Santa Feans, much is here on the south side," Acosta says.

As he sips coffee in a strip mall restaurant on Airport Road, Acosta shuffles through papers detailing development plans in the south side and launches into an explanation of Santa Fe's migration patterns.

In the mid-20th century, an increase in state government buildings and a spike in the value of land prompted many downtown inhabitants to leave the city center. "Little by little, people sort of just came further and further south on Cerrillos Road," Acosta says.

At the same time, Cerrillos Road was becoming the city's major post-World War II commercial corridor. Santa Fe slowly annexed land southwest of its original quadrant, a process that is still underway today.

Reed Liming, a division director in the city's Long-Range Planning office, says the expansion is practical. The city couldn't grow east because of the mountains or north because of long-established Pueblo lands. But by the 1980s, Santa Fe's cost of living became a major issue.

Blanca Ortiz is shooting a video in which south side students voice their problems of which the wider public isn’t aware.

“A lot of people who grew up here couldn’t afford the housing costs,” Liming tells SFR.

The city responded by developing a number of affordable housing plans. The biggest and perhaps best known project is Tierra Contenta, a mixed-income housing community with roughly 2,400 homes and 7,000 residents. Over the past decade, 90 percent of the city's population growth was concentrated in Tierra Contenta and the surrounding subdivisions.

Conceived in 1993, Tierra Contenta is still a work in progress. Eventually, developers want 4,000 units hosting more than 10,000 residents.

Its swarm of quaint adobe houses and apartments was built under a vision of "new urbanism," which emphasizes walkable, close-knit neighborhoods over spaced-out, car-friendly communities. Today, nearly half of Tierra Contenta's residents qualify for federal affordable housing credits. In recent years, the city's housing development has basically been limited to affordable housing units southwest of downtown.

"Anything we're seeing outside of the south side of town are pretty much high-end homes being built as custom homes," Kim Shanahan, an executive officer at the Santa Fe Area Homebuilders Association, tells SFR.

Affordable housing developments are just one way south side residents and organizers are attempting to address some of the area's problems.

Blanca Ortiz is currently shooting a video that will examine the issues many south side high school students face, through their own words. She plans to interview a number of young adults from around the area, voices she says aren't heard by the public. Later this year, Ortiz intends to submit the final product to a local film festival.

J Jesus Zambrano’s La Cocina de Doña Clara recently opened a new location off the Plaza. Zambrano has, for three years, been assisting in the creation of the South Side Merchant’s Association.

Upcoming ballot initiatives will also influence the area’s future. In the March municipal elections, city voters will decide whether to approve three general obligation bond initiatives, some which would provide city funding for south side projects. One would allocate $5 million to developing the city’s

Southwest Activity Node Park

, a future 98-acre public park in Tierra Contenta. A separate $20 million capital improvement bond will bring citywide funding for public transit, road and sidewalk improvements, some of which will go toward the south side.

On top of that, Dominguez and Acosta are loosely leading the charge in organizing multiple community-driven initiatives, including the South Side Merchant's Association and the Southwest Area Planning Initiative.
"What's going to save our community is the kind of organizing that is occurring," Herling says. "Carmichael is really pushing because his constituents are pushing."

Both plans seek to give local business owners and residents a chance to play a direct role in the area's rapid commercial and residential development. Acosta describes the initiatives as a way to get members of the community involved in making decisions rather than "having decisions made from the outside."

"Urban spaces are always contested terrain," Acosta says. "There's always going to be folks that have an idea with what to do with a piece of land that doesn't belong to them."

J Jesus Zambrano, owner of La Cocina de Doña Clara restaurant on Airport Road (which, due to its success, recently opened a new location just off the Plaza), has been helping the Merchant's Association form for the past three months. In July, Acosta and others sent out surveys to around 270 businesses in the area. More than two-thirds of respondents said they'd be interested in meeting with other area merchants to discuss experiences and problems.

"Our main goal is more organization," Zambrano tells SFR through an interpreter. "On my own, I can't get the responses that I could get as part of an organization."

Most of the survey respondents also said the city could best help them with better information on business resources, a greater police presence and better signs. Zambrano, who came to the US from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1995, says he's had to deal with a number of burglaries in the two years he's operated the restaurant with his wife. He's hoping participating in the merchant's association will help him address some of those problems.

Since November, Acosta, as part of the planning initiative, has also been helping organize community meetings at south side residents' homes. Aimed at those who aren't as active in the community, the meetings usually last a few hours and are meant to serve as a forum for residents to raise any neighborhood issues they think need improvement.

Later this year, Acosta will hold larger, more focused meetings to smooth out the details. The goal is to eventually come up with a master plan of south side improvements to present to the city.

Acosta says the south side is an area that hasn't received its due.

"How do we plan for a healthy, sustainable, livable, living, beautiful community?" he asks.

The question, he says, will be answered with a community- and city-driven partnership.

To Dominguez, the projects are necessary to improving the area's quality of life. When describing them, he pauses to make one point clear about the south side.

“It is a wonderful part of our community. I absolutely love it. It has a lot to offer the rest of the community,” Dominguez says. “But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”  SFR

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