Thursday, July 19, 2012

Downtown has a healthy heart again

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — It was a dilemma when I was planning a tour for visitors recently. Where to start? Where is the corazon (heart) de Las Cruces?
It was the same question I posed when I moved here in 1994. But there’s a big difference in potential answers, as I start my 19th summer in the City of Crosses.
Back then, if there was still a heart in downtown Las Cruces, it seemed to be on its last, feeble beats, as forlorn and hopeless as the homeless souls who slept in its shadows and haunted its crumbling corners. One of our reporters called it “a graveyard for high hopes.”
But even then, there were signs of both new and enduring life. A thriving Farmers & Crafts Market. Plans ... however faltering at first ... for urban renewal strategies.
There were solid cornerstones: CoAs Bookstore, then-and-still one of the nation’s largest and most diverse book stores. The Branigan Library. The Branigan Cultural Center, where then-director Sharon Bode-Hempton rallied volunteer groups and gathered some of our best artists to join for exhibits that celebrated Borderland culture, like her annual showcase of Our Lady of Guadalupe images. She also dreamed of regional museum cooperatives and expansion of a city museum system that consisted, back then, of the BCC and Las Cruces Natural History Museum. Today, thanks in large part to Sharon’s efforts, those dreams have been realized with the Las Cruces Museum of Art, the Railroad Museum and an expanded Natural History Museum, due to open downtown this year.
And more change was coming. The reincarnation of Court Youth Center, once just a gleam in the eyes of Irene Oliver Lewis and then-Mayor Ruben Smith, is now a thriving community performance and arts center and home to Alma d’arte Charter High School for the arts.
Citizen’s groups and Downtown Las Cruces got a new shot of life when arts maven Heather Pollard came out of retirement to shepherd more progress.
It started slow and then speeded up ... ironically, during a time when the nation’s economy and most of the world was slowing down and cutting back.
In a Southwest heartbeat (a little more laid back than a New York minute), we have a new city hall, a gleaming new federal building, an expanded library. There are new shops, galleries and restaurants, not just on what was once the Downtown Mall, but expanding throughout the downtown area.
The historic Mesquite area has added a street of eclectic adobe galleries, colonized by talented artists from throughout the world. Downtown area galleries, shops and museums join for the Ramble the first Friday of each month, and artists in surrounding neighborhoods plan periodic art walks and events.
The Rio Grande Theatre, reportedly the nation’s oldest adobe theater, has been restored. It’s headquarters for the Doña Ana Arts Council and hosts all kinds of events and its own theater troupe now, joining the downtown’s pioneer theater group, the Las Cruces Community Theater (celebrating its 50th anniversary) and Ceil and Peter Herman’s inspired addition: The Black Box and its No Strings Theatre Company.
And there’s more, lots more. Fun restaurants, interesting shops. Artists’ studios and cooperatives.
Today, downtown is pulsing with life and fun, especially during fiestas, markets, Rambles and special events. This month, Denise Chávez moved the Border Book Festival headquarters to a cute old town adobe at 314 S. Tornillo St. and said the festival itself may move from Mesilla to Las Cruces’ downtown.
Like any human enterprise, it’s not perfect. I’m still mourning a few of my favorite things: the surprisingly glam La Iguana restaurant. The loss of my favorite Las Cruces tree, which vanished when renovations began on the last downtown Main Street block. Our long-time home base Sun-News building, lost after a 2011 fire.
But I love some of the new landscaping and the expanded market which was named the nation’s No. 1 large market in a recent nationwide poll and now has a waiting list for vendors eager to join the fun.
And I’m looking forward to the completion of the new Sun-News building, and moving back to our querencia, in the corazon of it all.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

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