Nestled between the Foothills and Nob Hill on Albuquerque’s historic Route 66 is one of New Mexico’s most dynamic and diverse neighborhoods, a two-mile-square section now known as the “International District.” This remarkably diverse community is entering its 21st-century reinvigoration.
I first learned about the people and the history of the International District (ID) by walking—literally—door to door in 2008, when I ran to represent the area in the New Mexico State Senate. This small district in the heart of the Duke City has, perhaps, been more profoundly shaped by global events and U.S. foreign policy in the last 50 years than any other area in the state. Today, it is home to thriving Asian, African and Central American communities, and more than 27 languages can be heard on its streets and playgrounds.
The story of the ID begins in the 1870s, as America began the tremendous project of rebuilding and restructuring after the Civil War. Although this area was still undeveloped farmland, it symbolized what the frontier has always represented in the American narrative—unlimited opportunity and unencumbered hope. In pursuit of this reality, homesteaders, including many newly freed men, uprooted their lives in the Deep South and moved west to what is now Albuquerque’s southeast quadrant. Today, the “Elder Homestead” neighborhood bears the name of one of the first homesteading families, and “Eubank” Boulevard, which runs north through the heart of the district, carries the name of one of the largest African-American landholders in the area.
After New Mexico was admitted to the United States in 1912, the district’s first modern incarnation took shape around the vitality of Route 66. Travelers making their way west across the country would encounter, on the east end of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, shining new car dealerships, along with motels, diners and storied nightclubs, all of which buzzed with activity and life. In the 1940s, World War II established Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) , which sits just south of the ID, as a nexus of wartime workforce and military activity. Following the war, as young servicemen returned home optimistic and ready to begin their new lives, the combination of KAFB and Route 66 made this neighborhood legendary as a lively place to live and visit. Neon lights beckoned at Caravan East and the Sundowner nightclubs on Saturday nights, while families from across the state flocked to a racetrack that sat at the south end of Eubank Boulevard (where my house is today!) for weekend entertainment.
As post-war military activity increased, hundreds of apartment blocks were needed to house families affiliated with KAFB. These large complexes—by our local standards—many of which still exist in today’s La Mesa, Trumbull, South San Pedro, Singing Arrow and Elder Homestead neighborhoods, eventually comprised New Mexico’s densest housing community. However, as America entered the 1970s, two major changes transformed the area. The first was the slow and gradual move to military-associated housing inside the fence-line of KAFB; the second was the Vietnam War.
While military employees continued to relocate onto KAFB, the Federal-Aid Highway Act and subsequent creation of Interstate highways that crisscrossed the country drew traffic away from Route 66. The vast housing developments soon sat empty; the once-vibrant Central Avenue was quiet.
Around this time on the global stage, however, the U.S. Department of State, in conjunction with the United Nations Refugee Agency, began contracting with Catholic Charities to relocate refugees displaced by conflict and turmoil around the world in American communities. Recognizing the potential that this newly emptied neighborhood in Albuquerque held, the federal government began a refugee-resettlement effort in the soon-to-be International District.
Beginning with the arrival of Vietnam’s now-famous “Boat People”—refugees who fled after the withdrawal of American forces during the Vietnam conflict—history has continued to repeat itself in this little corner of Albuquerque, as tens of thousands of new settlers (refugees this time) have arrived in search of a new life. The initial wave included Vietnamese and Laotian refugees, who were displaced by the conflict; over the past four decades, this group has remained active in the founding of many of the businesses and temples that define the contemporary ID. In the meantime, the demographics of the district have continued to change in line with U.S. foreign policy and global political events. In the 1990s, as the American presence in Central America increased, Albuquerque welcomed a new group of refugees, first from El Salvador, then from other Central American countries. Today, a sizable community of African refugees has formed, which includes many families from Burundi, Congo and southern Africa.
Unfortunately, to some New Mexicans the district I represent is still more commonly known as the “War Zone,” a moniker that reflects a turbulent period in the 1990s that left the district in duress. In addition to grappling with the national recession and urban drug epidemic, southeast Albuquerque was also impacted by military downsizing at KAFB and a general shift in the city’s population to the West Side. Gangs and drug dealers controlled the impoverished district, and, eventually, large barricades were installed throughout the neighborhoods in an effort to curtail crime and violence.
Toward the end of the ‘90s, the community decided that it could no longer tolerate the lack of safety in the neighborhood. Armed with bullhorns and backed by Albuquerque’s newly minted Safe City Strike Force, community leaders like Alvorn Cliffton, Nancy Bearce and the Anaya family would gather groups of neighbors and march through the streets, confronting known drug houses and gang affiliates. By the turn of the century, they had succeeded in taking back the community. Crime rates locally began to fall, and most of the barricades that had turned an urban community into a “War Zone” came down.
When I first engaged in community service in 2007, I realized just how eager the community was to put its outdated reputation behind. Outsiders paid no attention to the strengths of the area that stemmed from its unique diversity; as long as the “War Zone” label remained, businesses would lack customers, property values would remain depressed, school attendance would suffer, and the entire area would be viewed through a discriminatory and, often, racist lens.
In 2009, after multiple town halls and community forums, local leaders and citizens finally picked a name that appropriately captured the spirit of the neighborhood. My first piece of completed legislation in the state Senate officially renamed the area, and when city and county officials followed suit, the International District was officially born.
Slowly but surely, this community is regaining its footing. The local International Festival is entering its sixth year; Talin Market, an international shopping center, has come to symbolize the business potential of the community; 10 Asian temples have been constructed; and the quality of education has vastly improved. Change and progress are evident everywhere, from the new UNM health clinic to the Veterans Memorial, to the Ed Romero home, to the recently improved community centers. This summer, artists and activists are teaming up to install a “story plaza” that celebrates the identities, histories, narratives and dreams that exist throughout the International District. While we certainly have a long way to go, the community has rallied in support of a stronger district and a better future. So next time you find yourself in Albuquerque in need of a good adventure, or you want to sample the state’s best Vietnamese cuisine, head east from Nob Hill on Central and pay a visit to the International District.
Tim Keller is a senator in the New Mexico Legislature, where he represents Albuquerque’s International District.