Friday, June 19, 2009

The heart and soul of our city

By S. Derrickson Moore
Sun-News reporter
LAS CRUCES — We’ve come a long way in resurrecting the corazon y alma (heart and soul) of our city.
While working on a recent issue of PULSE devoted to Las Cruces’ historic downtown area, I thought back to my first days as a resident of Las Cruces, back in 1994.
I remember that I loved the Las Cruces Farmers & Crafts Market, the Branigan Cultural Center, Branigan Library and Coas My Bookstore, which reminded me of the rambling, whole-block Powell’s Bookstore in my longtime home in Portland, Ore.
Otherwise, the Downtown Mall, as we called it then, and still do, despite noble efforts to rechristen it, was kind of, well, challenging. Others would refer to it in bleaker terms: a home for derelicts, a “graveyard of high hopes.”
I remembered the motto of Oregon activists and then-fledgling neighborhood organizations who vowed to “make the city a delight.”
They did. Portland became a wonderland of revitalized waterfronts, dramatic fountains and more park and wilderness land within city limits than any urban area of the country. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back, but my son keeps me posted on the progress of everything from light rail to their art and music scenes.
Las Cruces is much smaller, but we’ve also managed some major milagos in the “delight” department.
I walked the length of the Downtown Mall during a recent Saturday, reflecting on the changes.
The famous block between Las Cruces Avenue and Griggs has undergone a couple of major transformations in the 15 years I’ve lived here, and there’s no question that it’s looking better. The Rio Grande has gone from a quiet, dingy little second-run movie theater to an intriguing venue for live performances, with gallery areas and a nice suite of offices for the Doña Ana Arts Council. It’s joined an already impressive-for-our-size theater community that offers world premieres of original plays, ensemble pieces and local and traveling acts. The Las Cruces Community Theater was active when I arrived, and has been joined by Ceil and Peter Herman’s Black Box Theatre. Other regional venues have undergone enhancements or transformations. The Mastery in Life Center has started the twice-monthly Howling Coyote Coffeehouse open mic and jam sessions.
Court Junior High was then a crumbling mess, and hopeful plans were mere gleams in the eyes of Irene Oliver-Lewis and then-Mayor Ruben Smith. Today, it’s a restored Pueblo Revival showplace that houses Court Youth Center and its theater and Alma d’arte, a charter high school for the arts.
But it’s the block north of Las Cruces Avenue that’s still my favorite and everyone else’s, retro arches and all. It borders the Branigan Library, the new city hall and the entertaining CAPA art wall, which is attracting sticky-fingered art thieves, kind of a recessionary tribute, I suppose.
That best block, at least for now, still has the Las Cruces Farmers & Crafts Market, Coas and Branigan Cultural Center. It has since added the Las Cruces Museum of Art, part of a burgeoning downtown museum complex that now includes the Las Cruces Railroad Museum and, if all goes well, before too long will add the Las Cruces Natural History Museum, relocated from the Mesilla Valley Mall.
With luck and financing, we’ll also soon have a history museum in the historic Amador Hotel.
Despite tough economic times, galleries have made impressive inroads in the Downtown area, especially on that best block, where The Main Street Gallery, Blue Gate Gallery, M. Phillips Gallery and Unravel Gallery continue to offer venues for leading regional artists and specialties that range from Russian and European painting to fine art textiles.
We have some entertaining hybrids too: Savor art and coffee at Ocotillo Roasters Evergreen Gallery and custom tailoring and impressive international art at Art of Life Gallery.
We’re even developing a kind of downtown “Off Broadway” gallery tradition, with colonies of artists who have homes or studios in the region hosting periodic gallery tours and open houses, and the establishment of Mesquite Street gems like UnSettled Gallery. On Griggs, we’ve lost White Raven, and Paula Van Overbeke Voris now confines Griggs and Reymond to special events and classes, but In Effect, Dennis Lujan’s Griggs Street gallery, still showcases some of our most cutting-edge artists.
We can now enjoy art and cultural exhibits at the city museums, theaters, libraries, schools and nonprofit institutions like Southwest Environmental Center. We can see art during an outdoor amble, on the CAPA fence and as part of the Viva Ventanas project to add curb appeal by decorating windows in downtown buildings. Restaurants like Ono Grindz have art exhibits, too.
Coas and the Rio Grande Theatre host story hours for kids and join several downtown sites which take advantage of our status as a mecca for authors and poets by hosting booksignings , lectures and readings and regular story hours for kids.
In recent years, I’ve enjoyed everything from chamber music, dance and performance art to black tie galas and a magical winter festival on the Downtown Mall.
We are making our city —and its downtown corazon y alma— a delight.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at

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