The Highlands in 1949: (The Beginnings of) A Mapping Odyssey


Above is a product that I owe entirely to last semester’s digital methods seminar with Fred Gibbs. I made the map in QGIS, the free and sometimes finicky little brother of ArcGIS; nonetheless, I’m proud of of it. I figured that representing the changing composition of businesses along Central between Hermosa and San Mateo (roughly) might provide some clues regarding the evolution of commercial strips. Chances are, if you live anywhere in the American West (or anywhere in America), you know a commercial strip when you see it. Yet the way they evolve is somewhat of a mystery. Do they begin as low-quality and degraded environments? Or are they constructed with larger purposes in mind? Does their downfall happen all at once, or in stages? How do they serve the neighborhoods around them? The above map (the first of many) is my proposed method of investigating these questions.

At first, I debated mapping every business in the Highlands. City directories make this possible, but I’m not sure the ensuing visual chaos would tell us much of anything. Scientists gravitate toward ‘indicator species,’ or specific groups/populations that contain hints about future trends and developments. Urban areas have these, as well.  For instance, if I look at a map of an unknown city and I have to guess which areas are decaying, I’d look for payday loan/check cashing businesses. There are always points in research projects where one has to make tough choices. I’d say that my decision to map motels, restaurants, liquor stores/bars, and grocery stores was definitely one of those tough choices.

Given my previous posts on the (in)compatibility of tourist strips with neighborhood life, motels were an obvious choice. They offer little to no functionality for area residents–besides the promise of tourist-related income for area restaurants, gas stations, bars, and curio shops. In biological terms, motels are indicator species of migratory travel patterns; even today, formerly classy motels turned sleazy dumps still signify impermanence of residence. Gas stations and other fixtures of auto-oriented commercial development also connote transience, but they serve local residents as well. In a commercial strip environment, motels reign supreme as an indicator of non-residence.

Given previous posts, restaurants are also an obvious choice. They serve food, which is the theme of this course. They can also be used by both local residents and travelers, and–to my knowledge–there is no way of acquiring reliable data regarding which clientele predominated. I’m more interested in seeing how restaurants relate to other businesses around them. Do they cluster around motels? Do they dominate certain neighborhoods? What kind of food is on offer? I haven’t been able to find menus, but I’ve included the titles of each restaurant in a handy table (see map) for ease of reference. I’m also curious how chain restaurants have come to dominate the Highlands. As even the most cursory glance will reveal, 1949 did not bring an abundance of national franchises to the district–that came much later. This process, in and of itself, is worth studying. Chain restaurants are another important indicator species.

Liquor stores and bars aren’t necessarily food, but they relate in important ways. You can only drink for so long without seeking nourishment. Liquor stores/lounges are also used interchangeably by tourists and locals. I’m interested in seeing if any bar presents itself as a neighborhood institution, a ‘Cheers’-esque spot that defines local social life. Again, the data I’m using can only hint at longevity; it can’t give me accurate stats regarding user groups and frequency of visitation. I’m also interested in liquor’s seedier side. Anyone who drives through the Highlands today can see that it’s not a great spot to be, even for a short time. Does the prevalence of available liquor change the moral climate of a district over time? Or is it a service used by all kinds of folks?

Last but not least: groceries. This one serves mostly locals, and I’m hoping food stores will serve as an indicator species regarding cooking habits. Again, my data will not provide me with a culinary history of the Highlands. It will, however, tell me how many stores sold un-prepared food in a district saturated with restaurants. I can’t see any grocery stores in the Highlands at present, and I’m curious when the last one died out. Paleontologically speaking, I’m dinosaur hunting.

The 1949 map will prove more useful as it’s compared with later years. But for now, there are still some notable trends. 1) Groceries are concentrated west of Washington and east of Hermosa. This was probably the most densely settled residential area before the Highlands took off in the 1950s. 2) Liquor stores/bars are also concentrated west of Washington. Perhaps they served the same clientele that local grocers did? 3) Restaurants and motels are spread throughout. This tells us what we already know: the entire Highlands corridor catered to mobile populations, many of whom did not live in Albuquerque.

I will continue tabulating data at 10 year intervals (1959, 1969, etc). I’m especially curious about the change in the 1960s wrought by the emergence of Winrock Center and the coming of I-40. Sneak preview of the 1959 version: most grocery outlets have been replaced by clothing stores or loan providers. What does that mean? We’ll find out.


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