As urban critic Ian Nairn wrote in 1965, "Albuquerque, for my money is one of the stupidest wastes of human endeavor on this earth. It occupies a magnificent site between the Rio Grande and the Rockies. It pays no attention whatsoever to either, but simply goes sprawling and spewing across the countryside in an endless repetitive pattern: without relationship, without identity."
But on the inside, Albuquerque is a very different place indeed. It's resplendent in its own way, full of the imaginative power of people who live in flourishing isolation and creative solitude. Albuquerque's artistic and intellectual life is, in fact, so well hidden that when people chance upon it, they hardly believe it's real. This mysterious inwardness comes from people who feel like Harvey Fergusson did when he wrote in his book, Home in the West that "home is less a town or a house or a society than a region-this piece of earth. I am sure I would still want to return to it if some unimaginable catastrophe swept it clean of every human trace."
For years, the boring old joke about Albuquerque has been that the only reason to go there was to catch a plane. Certainly, the snooty quipster implied, there was no art to see, no cultural life to speak of, and nothing there that resembled a humanely intriguing built environment. This view is especially virulent in the art colonies of Santa Fe and Taos.
And even Albuquerque itself never countered such slurs. Its convention and visitor propaganda tries to make the city seem like an All-American generic place instead of the hidden, creatively bountiful city of double takes, feints and misdirections that it really is.
Albuquerque likes to trick you. Driving around the city one often feels repulsed and quite literally enchanted almost simultaneously. The asphalt jungle of its strip malls and infernally hideous major roadways gives way, with the slightest turn of attention, to spectacular views of mountains and the comforting ease of the valley. Just when you think the city must be inhabited solely by Mammon's minions, you meet a series of painters, philosophers, musicians, poets, and scientists who astonish you.
It's not hard to list some of the obvious forms in Albuquerque's luminous and magnetic interior: its proximity to the New Mexican land, its big city size and uncluttered anonymity, the influence of Pueblo and Hispanic culture and spirituality, its university and scientific communities, its fine museums and curatorial professionals, its history as a frontier place fit for adventurers and problem solvers, its long tradition as a hideout for serious eccentrics — these add up to an ideal environment for a breed of creative people who prefer working in catalytic solitude, though not in isolation, to hanging out in more fashionable and static surroundings.
Most creative people in Albuquerque are what one might call blue-collar creative workers. Like everyone else who earns their daily bread, writers, artists and performers of all kinds here tend to prefer working alongside, rather than inside, the normal caste system associated with the arts, in which patrons validate and abandon creative work like trendy stock. Albuquerque is so attractive to a certain kind of creative person, who define themselves in opposition to all conformity, that it becomes quite a hat trick to live in this hard working town and keep your distance from distractions. Albuquerque's mysterious isolation has attracted so many intellectuals and creative people that sometimes they become a crowd.
So the bad jokes about Albuquerque's useless ugliness may be partially right about its built exterior, but dead wrong about its soul. Of course, like all souls, Albuquerque's is troubled too. And perhaps those dark troubles-its history as America's nuclear weapons capital; its frightful political warfare over development, open space conservation, and historic preservation; its legions of working poor in the arts and elsewhere; its status as a center for drug trafficking; its notorious high crime rate and profligacy with water-maybe they give a realistic edge and urgency to living in Albuquerque that's missing in more placid and artificial places.
Perhaps it's more accurate to say that Albuquerque is a geode which contains countless other geodes, crusty solitudes, people and places that don't seem like much until you get a chance to look inside. And what is the ultimate attraction? Albuquerque is a small town that is not a Peyton Place; it's relatively free of the stifling gossip, incestuousness, and cutthroat competition of cities that think of themselves as cultural centers. It's a small town that's wide open to the world by virtue not only of the Internet, but also its progressive cultural institutions and university. People can be alone here if they choose to be. As a creative community, it's pretty much free of preciousness and inhibition. Because of its trail blazing scientific past and its identity as a center for health refugees and others seeking the last bastion of the West, Albuquerque is a wide open place, a place where anything goes creatively. If Albuquerque is the home of countless creative people who could hold their own in any market in the world, it's because, in my mind, there's a chemistry here that's drawn them. And that chemistry comes from the city's unique mix of industrial sordidness, social and environmental struggles, world class intellectual infrastructure, cultural plurality, and location in America's most spectacularly beautiful natural frontier, the high deserts of the southern Rockies.
The interiors of geodes are formed under great pressure and then grow slowly hidden from view. Cities are like that too, encrusted with opinions, images, and realities that take a hungry and nurturing curiosity to open and reveal.