July 2014

The International District: A Portrait


Valerie Martínez


Albuquerque’s present-day International District (a four-square-mile area in the Southeast Heights, bounded by Lomas and Gibson and San Mateo and Wyoming boulevards) is within a larger area once known as the East Mesa (or Grand Mesa). Before it was urbanized, the East Mesa was a grassland, stretching for about eight miles from the edge of the Río Grande to the foothills of the Sandía Mountains. The East Mesa wasn’t best suited for agriculture (as was the river valley), but it was fruitful for grazing sheep and cattle.


After the railroad was established in the 1880s, the city of Albuquerque (also called New Town) grew steadily, especially in what are now the Barelas and Old Town areas. By the turn of the 20th century, very little development had occurred on the East Mesa, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the present-day International District experienced any substantial urban development.


For hundreds of years, transportation through the Albuquerque region had been along north and south corridors. The Camino Real, the railroad, and even the original Route 66—established in 1926—all followed the general direction of the Río Grande through the river valley.


In 1931, plans were finalized for rerouting Route 66, so it would pass through the heart of Albuquerque along Central Avenue, going east and west. Route 66, which became the nation’s busiest western highway, was the single-largest influence in the urbanization of southeast Albuquerque. When the new route was completed in 1937, the area that is known today as the International District experienced significant new development. Car-centered services such as motor hotels, restaurants, car dealers and gas stations were the first to emerge. In 1950, it was estimated that 2,000 to 5,000 people traveled the full length of Route 66 every day. From the beginning, capitalizing on this traffic was the incentive for the area’s development.


In 1936, the State Fairgrounds, in the heart of the International District, were established, making it a local, state and regional destination. It was widely believed that the area would become one of Albuquerque’s primary urban centers, with large-scale commercial and residential development.


Most of the International District’s residential development took place in the decades following World War II. This growth was encouraged by mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Authority for war veterans. The establishment of Kirtland Air Force Base (1947), located adjacent to the district on the south, also encouraged housing development. The base, including Sandia National Laboratories, quickly became a dominant feature of Albuquerque’s economy.


The construction of Interstate 40 (I-40) drastically changed the character and the development of the International District. As soon as plans for I-40 were finalized, property values plummeted, especially along Central Avenue. I-40 siphoned away virtually all of the traffic along Route 66, and the incipient business corridor was affected dramatically. For example, in 1956, Tijeras Place Development Company proposed a giant commercial development on San Mateo between Central and Zuni, to be called The Uptown Shopping Center. This plan was never realized. Just after the plans for I-40 were finalized, it was decided that Winrock Shopping Mall would be built, not along Central Avenue, but along I-40, which was completed in 1970.


Though there were many negative consequences of the district’s declining property values, low housing prices created conditions for the district to become one of the most dynamic and diverse areas in the city. Since the 1970s, the district has been the epicenter of immigrant settlement in Albuquerque. In 1975, the state of New Mexico Indochina Refugee Resettlement program sponsored nearly 500 Vietnamese immigrants who settled in the area. Since then, families and individuals have continued to migrate from Latin America, Asia and Africa, some on their own and others with the assistance of local nonprofit organizations. Recent immigrants, including refugees, have come to the area from Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo. The district is also home to the largest population of Native Americans in the city, as well as large numbers of Hispanic/Latino and mestizo residents.


The district has benefited greatly from the entrepreneurial energy generated by the influx of immigrants over the past decades. The area offers a wide range of international restaurants, businesses and specialty stores, including Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican and U.S./New Mexican. In addition, the affordability of the district has, in part, created its international character. The district’s diversity also makes it remarkably rich in terms of terms of people, history, culture and character.


At the same time, it is facing significant challenges. The absence of green spaces and the large numbers of empty lots contribute to areas of urban blight. Single-family homes and apartments, in some places, are in serious disrepair. Housing conditions, for some, are dire. Unemployment in the 87108 ZIP code area has reached 35.9 percent, poverty levels are 42 percent below the federal poverty level (FPL) in some areas, crime rates are three times the national average, and infant mortality is 7.8 per 1,000, all of which present residents with challenges that hamper development and vitalization initiatives.


Between 2006 and 2009, community groups began a process of rebranding the area. In early 2009, both the city of Albuquerque and the New Mexico State Legislature officially named the area—one more important step toward enhancing the quality of life in the district for residents and visitors. On Feb. 26, 2009, the New Mexico Senate District 17 celebrated the newly named area: the International District. This was made possible by the unanimous passing of Senate Joint Memorial 24, sponsored by Sen. Tim Keller, and by the strong support of the community.





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