Whatever else you may imagine when you think of a city, you probably visualize a surge of high-rise buildings, a network of one-way streets, an intricate mosaic of glass, neon, cement. Perhaps a fountain or two. In this respect, Downtown Albuquerque is about as urban as New Mexico gets. Situated just southwest of our busiest intersection, where the arteries of I-25 and I-40 cross, it is—geographically speaking—the city center of the entire state. A growing conversation among Albuquerque residents concerned with urban revitalization focuses on how to make Downtown the city center—the heart—of the city itself. Through collaboration with DowntownABQ MainStreet and UNM’s CityLab, Civic Plaza Presents hopes to help bring the urban heart of this community back to life by reinventing Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza.
Historically, Civic Plaza has fluctuated between dearth and deluge—during the big annual events like Summerfest the plaza overflowed with people, but the rest of the time it sat relatively empty, an unfortunately underutilized public space. When the Vortex Theater held its first annual Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza there last spring, however, that began to change, and later in the year the idea of “placemaking” took flight when Lola Bird of DowntownABQ MainStreet successfully applied for a Heart of the Community placemaking grant from Southwest Airlines. With the help of the Project for Public Spaces, DowntownABQ MainStreet initiated the collaborative placemaking process through which its vision of Civic Plaza can be achieved: to transform this “square block of concrete into a civic living room, central park and community gathering place.”
According to the Project for Public Spaces, “Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.” It’s an organic process, a little like tending a garden. You can’t force your favorite flowers to grow. You plant what your climate can support and then work with whatever flourishes. Likewise, creative patterns of use can’t be implemented from the top down; they must emerge organically from the people who actually use the place. This is where master placemaking gardener Damian Lopez-Gaston enters the picture. Damian became the director of event services at the Albuquerque Convention Center in January, shortly after it was decided that the Convention Center would start managing Civic Plaza. One result of this development was the establishment of Civic Plaza Presents.
“Can we get people to come out and have a good time on Civic Plaza?” Damian asks. “We’re trying different things and feeling our way and paying close attention to how people respond to what’s happening out there. What we will do is grow on anything that appears to be successful that people really enjoy. So we’re letting that help set the agenda.” So far the agenda includes weekly Truckin’ Tuesdays, Sunset Markets, family movie nights and ABQ Food Fridays, plus four annual festivals and, during June and early July, Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza. The idea is to engage people on a regular, ongoing basis. “That’s what’s gonna really change the perception of Civic Plaza and help with changing the character of what there is to do in this area,” he says. A huge standalone event like Summerfest might draw thousands—for a day. And “12 months from now they may come back if the event happens again, but it’s not community-building.”
Damian credits the pop-up restaurant concept behind ABQ Food Fridays to Farm & Table’s Cherie Montoya. “She was one of the first proponents of the idea,” says Damian. “There were a few chefs that were very interested right off the bat, like Chef Ernesto [Duran of Café Bien] and Chef James Campbell Caruso [of La Boca, Taberna and MÀS], and now we are getting calls from other restaurants that are interested in coming out.” Each week a different chef prepares an entrée for a fixed price of $10. “These are places that people may not really go very often because of who they’re geared for or because of [the expense], but with the $10 price point, people know what to expect, people know that it’s reasonably affordable, and then they also get a chance to sample some food from one of these great restaurants,” Damian says. “So it’s trying to be populist in what is being made available on Civic Plaza.”
When they were approached about ABQ Food Fridays, Amberly and Ted Rice, co-owners of Marble Brewery, were quick to jump on board. The brewery is a short walk from Civic Plaza, so they have a vested interest in bringing new life to the area. “One of the reasons we agreed to do it was because we were hoping to make it an iconic Albuquerque thing,” says Amberley. Now, besides serving fine craft beer to complement the fine food available every Friday night (and during Sunset Markets on Wednesday evenings), Marble helps get the word out at the brewery, on their website, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Marble and Civic Plaza placemaking are a good fit. “Specifically, we’ve designed it as a business that’s very community-oriented to bring people together. When we renovated we took out all the four-tops, and we put in community tables so people have to integrate with each other,” says Amberley. “One of the coolest things about being in the craft beer industry is that sense of community.”
The Vortex Theater produces Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza with a similar sense of community and populist philosophy in mind. “On Thursdays, everybody gets in for $5—which is a scandal—but great for making it accessible. And the other nights it’s $15 and $10, $10 for students and kids and $15 for adults. That is cheaper than any other theater in town, and deliberately so,” says David Jones, co-founder of the Vortex and artistic director of Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza. Making theater more accessible strengthens our community by helping us understand those who are different from ourselves. “It’s about transformation,” he says. “Internal transformation.” The Vortex can offer such affordable tickets to performances on Civic Plaza because the theater receives a lot of support from the government—Albuquerque City Council, City of Albuquerque Cultural Services Department, Bernalillo County Commission and New Mexico Arts—as well as Wells Fargo Bank. “It does make Shakespeare accessible to people who might not normally be coming to a theater to see a Shakespeare play,” he says.
Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza is more accessible behind the scenes as well, because it gives students an opportunity to get involved in professional theater. “We’ve got a very young crew, high school and college age,” says David, which is “considerably different than what we normally have at the Vortex. And its partly because a number of them are either at Bosque Prep or have just graduated from it—they’ve been trained by a really good person there, so they’re great to work with. And we have some other quite young people who, during the school year, might not be as available as they are right now.” Encouraging theater culture in the schools helps maintain Albuquerque’s vibrant theater scene. “The playwriting program at UNM has been very productive for a long time. Decades,” says David. “And it’s turned out a lot of playwrights and continues to do so, and they win awards and national competitions and so forth. And getting those people into the city’s theater scene is a good thing, too.” This year’s Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza features “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Julius Caesar” (final shows run July 2 through 5).
Besides Shakespeare, the stage on Civic Plaza also accommodates movies on the new outdoor movie screen that Civic Plaza Presents purchased with money from the Heart of the Community grant. “It’s a massive screen. It almost goes to the top of the roof over the stage,” says Damian. At around 30 by 17 feet, “it’s probably the biggest outdoor screen in Albuquerque, and probably the sharpest image. There’s a lot of ambient light, but it still looks great out there.” All movies are free and family friendly, and so far they have been very popular, attracting as many as three hundred people per night. During Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza, movies are showing on Wednesday nights in order to free the stage for the Vortex, but the long-term idea is that people can enjoy dinner by the fountain at ABQ Food Fridays and then wander to the other end of the plaza for a movie.
Part of the beauty of Civic Plaza is that it’s large and versatile enough to host a variety of activities all at once. “Yesterday we had the Sunset Market—a little offshoot of the Grower’s Market—in one wing, and Shakespeare was rehearsing on the stage while we were setting up the movie. There were all of these things happening suddenly,” says Damian. And a greater diversity of activities is in the works. Damian and Lola Bird have been talking about bringing more sports and play to the plaza, possibly ping pong tables and such, and there are still ideas from UNM’s CityLab that have yet to be implemented. The possibilities are as varied as the people who are making Civic Plaza a community gathering place. “When they approach the plaza we see them coming from every street,” Damian says, “and there are kids running around on scooters and people dancing to the band and suddenly all this life is happening for a few hours.” It sounds like Civic Plaza, the urban heart of Albuquerque, is pulsing again with the beat of city life.
For more information, visit: albuquerquecc.com for Civic Plaza Presents, abqmainstreet.org for DowntownABQ MainStreet, vortexabq.org for the Vortex Theater and Shakespeare-on-the-Plaza, and marblebrewery.com for Marble Brewery.
Story by Emily Ruch