When Does Urban History Become Food History?

Urban history is my drug of choice. I chase it to the detriment of other things in my life. I like it so much that I apply its techniques to non-urban places (Yosemite, for instance). Perhaps my favorite thing about urban history is the emphasis on place. Take, for instance, the Highlands district of Albuquerque. Did it birth any important political movements? No. How about its impact on major battles? Nada. Does it produce a lot of jobs? Not necessarily. So, we’ve just established the district’s complete lack of relevance to political, military, and labor history. Where does that leave us? In a pretty good spot, actually. Urban history allows us to take a certain area—one house, one block, one neighborhood, or one whole city—and dissect it as we see fit. In other words, if the classical denominators of significance don’t apply, we can just make up the categories ourselves.

Albuquerque’s Highlands District is a great comparative subject. It’s located right next to the Nob Hill area, a commercial district with an established Main Street program, a wide variety of restaurants, and an even wider variety of users. Is it active at 3 am? Not really. Few areas in Albuquerque are. But compared to the Highlands District, Nob Hill is a model of mixed-use planning; there are enough workplaces, dining/drinking establishments, and retail outlets to keep the district humming at most hours of the day. The Highlands, on the other hand, lack any pedestrian activity between 5 pm and 9 am. Check cashing outlets abound, signifiers of low property value. There are some historic buildings, but most have been converted into antique malls; Hiland Theater, the neighborhood’s gem, is now a dance studio but serves little other public function. Almost all the dining establishments are chains (with the exception of Loyolas). Cheap motels and auto shops dot the landscape, remnants of Route 66’s tourist heyday. Although they’re neighbors, Nob Hill and the Highlands could hardly have less in common.

The astute reader will notice that the previous paragraph mentioned food more than anything else. While it’s not the only reason to visit a neighborhood, it’s a pretty good one. A vibrant dining landscape lures a crowd for all three meals, plus the after-hours customers in search of a liquid diet. This keeps “eyes on the street” (hat tip to Jane Jacobs), which means a generally safer environment. The Highlands’ longest-tenured restaurant, Loyolas, serves only breakfast and lunch. As a result, dinnertime marks the district’s daily decline. The streets become ghost towns. It’s around this time that the district’s less-desirable spaces—like the Desert Sands Inn—take over. While local residents may stop for dinner, chances are they won’t be eating in; a vast majority of the Highlands’ options are primarily take out joints (Wendy’s, Long John Silver’s, El Taco Tote). These chains sit on large lots, drowning in parking. As a result, they contribute very little to their surrounding streetscape. There is no pedestrian circulation, as the plentiful parking encourages everyone to drive. The neighborhood lacks an anchor tenant, a major draw that encourages visitors to walk around and patronize other businesses. The Highlands, as a whole, is a jumbled mix of parts. They don’t fit very well together, and it starts with the dining scene—the primary reason to visit a district, other than work or socialization (which often involve food in some way or another).

Much to the chagrin of picky eaters, food touches everything. It generates revenue. It forms identity, whether at the neighborhood, regional, or national level. It stimulates movement. In a city like Albuquerque with few nationally-recognized museums or parks, food is also essential to tourism. While the decision to trek across town for a burrito may originate in idea form, it also reflects people’s interactions with their environment. Food controls design, at least at the neighborhood and street level. A healthy foodscape is a healthy urban environment. Albuquerqueans take their food seriously; it’s telling that they patronize Nob Hill but leave the Highlands alone. Food history and urban history may seem like a la carte items, but they’re really part of the same combo plate.

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