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Interstates ruined our urban areas - '15-minute cities' are the remedy
Albuquerque history can teach us how to get back to community in a sustainable way
The Federal Interstate Highway system was essentially a product of war. After World War 1, when Adolf Hitler rose to power, he needed a highway system that could support his ambitious military campaign. Therefore, the German Autobahn was built, and it helped Hitler move tanks and military equipment at unprecedented speed and volume around Germany. After World War 2, President Eisenhower wanted to replicate the German Autobahn as a way to strengthen America’s ability to move military vehicles and equipment around North America, and the idea of the Interstate was born.
Eisenhower originally thought the Interstate system would be inter-city, not intra-city - i.e. the freeways were supposed to stop at the edge of cities, not cut right through them. The bill that Congress agreed on, though, ended up being the city-destroying transportation policy that bulldozed communities around the US - devastating inner city, typically majority-minority, neighborhoods, and reinforcing segregation. Inner city Albuquerque reflects that devastation to this day.
Before the Interstates came through Albuquerque, inner-city neighborhoods were actually kinda flourishing. They were culturally diverse, connected to each other with trolleys, and dominated by small businesses - they were the closest thing to a 15-minute city Albuquerque has ever had.
The 15-minute city is the idea that, wherever you are in a city, you can walk to anything you might need within 15 minutes. This takes dense housing, sustainable mass transportation, and mixed-use zoning.
Once the Interstates were built in 1966, neighborhoods like Barelas were cut off from the rest of the city, robbed of their small business economies, and have been struggling with air quality, crime, and poverty ever since. Barelas is a sort of microcosm of the American city in general. Its storied history tells the tale of economic booms and busts, big changes in transportation patterns, and a recent history of homelessness and stasis.
For those reasons, today’s post is about the history of Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood, how the Interstate system affected its once-thriving community, and why Barelas (and communities like it) should be looking to 15-minute cities for revival. Let’s dive in.
Barelas is the oldest neighborhood in Albuquerque and predates the city itself. Located in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, it is situated between the Rio Grande, Downtown, the Rail Yards, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
According to the City of Albuquerque, Barelas has had four different eras or ‘ages,’ and understanding will help us understand what contributed to the community’s success in the past, and how it may recover from its current situation.
The first age spanned from 1660-1880. Albuquerque’s commercial redevelopment plan for Barelas notes:
According to Spanish government documents, the first record of Barelas dates to 1662 when Governor Penalosa visited the area… Barelas enjoyed a strategic advantage over other settlements that dotted the Rio Grande Valley because it was located at a natural river ford crossing. Like other crossroads settlements, geography was a contributing factor to its early prosperity as a service and trading node…
As the transition began from a territory of Mexico to a territory of the United States, Barelas prospered again from a second trade route. The Santa Fe trail…
This lengthy first era of Barelas can be summarized by agricultural development, trade, economic and geographic advantage, and a strong connection with the other communities in the area like present-day Old Town. Remnants of the ox path that connected Barelas to Old Town turned into present-day Barelas Road which cuts diagonally across today’s Albuquerque grid:
The second age spanned from 1880 to 1945.
This era started just after Barelas became a US territory and the beginning of the booming railroad and industrial economy. Replacing the once-dominant agrarian and trade economy - the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad set up shop in Barelas around 1880 because land was cheap and residents were interested in higher-paying work.
The Rail Yards became the city’s largest employer with 1,000 employees at its peak. The City of Albuquerque states:
Railroad jobs, commerce, and regional trade transformed Barelas into an urban center for the region. Barelas had night clubs, restaurants, retail stores, a newspaper, a baseball park and the Barelas Greys, a semi-professional baseball team, a link to the formation of the modern-day Albuquerque Dukes Baseball Team.
Through this second era, Bareleños enjoyed higher wages than were ever seen in the region. The jobs at the Rail Yards attracted people of all backgrounds - making Barelas a truly diverse economic center. Again, Barelas was the beneficiary of an important trade route in the region - this time, the railroad.
The third age was between 1945-1960.
The fast adoption of the automobile brought travelers from far and wide to the Barelas community. Route 66, and other major highways, drove the economy during this time. Before it was redirected to Central Avenue, Route 66 ran through what is now 4th Street and continued to foster an economically active community of bars, shops, theaters, and everything in between.
The significance of the car drove down demand for the railroad, but the community’s geographic advantage remained strong as tourists and residents frequented Route 66 and the businesses along it.
The fourth age of Barelas started in 1960 and is ongoing.
The fourth age is where everything slowed down for the Barelas community. The Interstate was built, the Rail Yards lost all economic significance, and 4th street was cut off Downtown with the addition of the Civic Plaza. The economy no longer has El Camino Real, the railroad, or Route 66 to bring much-needed commerce and jobs to the area.
After 300 years of growth, Barelas was cut off from the rest of the world. The small businesses closed, and the community has been essentially frozen in time ever since. There have been a couple of useful additions by the City over the years - the Zoo and the National Hispanic Cultural Center - but if you drive down 4th Street you will find a mile-long strip of empty buildings that see little traffic.
Unfortunately, the Interstate is likely here to stay, but if we look at what made neighborhoods like Barelas significant for so long, we may be able to recreate the local economy in a new, sustainable way. The sustainable, climate-friendly solution to this economic blight should be the 15-minute city. To build a 15-minute city, Barelas will need two things - jobs and housing.
Let’s first talk about jobs.
Traffic in Barelas on the residential 8th Street today exceeds that on Barelas Road, the railroad, and 4th Street. Every evening you can see bumper-to-bumper traffic on 8th and Avenida Cesar Chavez as West Side residents wait to cross the river after work.
In the case of Barelas, we can use the low traffic on 4th Street to our advantage by building a walkable, high-density area where people live, work, and play. The Civic Plaza, which cuts off 4th Street Downtown, is a car-free urban area where nothing happens outside of a few concerts and events per year. If Albuquerque extended the car-free zone down through Barelas, you suddenly have a mile-long strip of walkable shopping and dining area that you can’t find anywhere else in the state.
There is plenty of precedent for walkable economic growth in cities like Boulder, San Antonio, and Denver with Pearl Street, the River Walk, and 16th Street. Just as Barelas relied on El Camino Real, the Railroad, and Route 66 for economic activity, a walkable, aesthetically pleasing urban area could become its new significance.
To avoid the need for traffic and parking, big walkable commercial areas should be met with an abundance of dense housing, but building housing is easier said than done. NIMBYs on the Albuquerque City Council continue to turn away Housing Forward initiatives by Mayor Keller, so limited housing continues to limit the potential of inner-city neighborhoods.
Because of this, neighborhoods like Barelas are stuck in a weird limbo where everyone wants a better local economy, but they’re not willing to build the housing or transit that would be necessary to support it in the Interstate age. Save for a few exceptions, proposals for housing are met with NIMBYs accusing the developers of gentrification - but that’s a whole other story that will need a separate post.
In summary, communities should be looking to walkable, small-business-driven economies to repair the damage that the Interstate system did to our cities. i.e we need 15-minute cities. To do this in America, we will need denser housing, a focus on small businesses, and better mass transit. (I still can’t believe Albuquerque got rid of their trolleys).
Luckily, Albuquerque has some developments on the horizon that Barelas and other communities will benefit from, like this mixed-use affordable housing complex and the Rail Trail, which will offer 15-minute city vibes in some areas of Albuquerque. At the same time, more housing is being built on the outskirts of town than in the quiet urban centers - and that’s only going to give us a longer fourth age. Let’s turn the page and give Barelas a fifth, more community-focused age.
We’re not going to recreate the Barelas of the past, and we can’t undo the suburbanization that the Interstate caused, but we can foster strong communities with new ideas that don’t come from a war-time playbook.