Join the fiesta as Santa Fe celebrates 400 years

On a brilliant New Mexico morning, a festive mood pervades a once-derelict part of the city just blocks from its historic core. Growers hawk heaps of fresh garlic and mounds of organic snap peas. Couples leisurely sip coffee at outdoor tables as a live steel drum band provides the soundtrack.

It's a quintessentially local scene, but there isn't a howling coyote, bleached cow skull or any other clichéd vestige of Santa Fe Style in sight.

Indeed, on the eve of its 400th birthday, the nation's oldest state capital is out to prove wrong those visitors who figure there can't be much new about a city this venerable.

Exhibit A: the Santa Fe Railyard, a vibrant area of cutting-edge galleries, parks and performance spaces. Exhibit B: a stunning new history museum that chronicles the 400 years since Spanish colonization, paying homage to the Pueblo Indians, Franciscan friars, mountain men, atomic scientists and even extraterrestrials who have contributed to New Mexico's irresistible cultural stew.

Iconic buildings, including the gorgeous honey-hued St. Francis Assisi Cathedral, have been restored inside and out. The city is easier to reach, too. This summer, American became the first major carrier to establish daily air service. New rail service connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque. And on Labor Day weekend, the city kicks off 16 months of 400th-anniversary events with Viva! Santa Fe.

New attractions notwithstanding, history — and art — have long been Santa Fe's stock in trade for drawing out-of-towners. And that hasn't changed.

"Santa Fe has this complex history," says local historian Adrian Bustamante. "It never became a modern U.S. town, thank God."

Bustamante is sitting on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza recounting the spot's various incarnations. The pleasant square constituted the city's heart when the Spanish were calling the shots four centuries ago. It marked the end of the Santa Fe Trail, where traders unloaded and sold their wares in the 1800s. It beckoned the first artists, who, attracted by the clarity of the light, began flocking here in the 1890s. It was the city's living room through the late 1800s and into the mid-20th century, when this was still a mostly Hispanic city. And it remained a hub for fiestas and other events after Anglos became a majority in the late 1940s.

But since opening last September, the new Railyard development has picked up steam as a premier public gathering place. The 40-acre site is the former home of warehouses, auto repair shops and a rail line that in December began running trains between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The area had been destined for shopping center development until public protest quashed that plan. It now sports 13 acres of parks, new and rehabbed buildings housing art galleries and workshops, restaurants and a new indoor/outdoor facility for the city's popular farmers' market. With 12 galleries and more planned, the area has become the hub of Santa Fe's contemporary art scene.

The Railyard's industrial design aesthetic tends toward brightly painted corrugated metal, a departure from the soft edges and earthy palettes that dominate in Santa Fe's other historic districts.

"It was very purposeful so it didn't become an adobe theme park. It references a different time in history," says Sandy Brice, events director for the non-private group that manages the Railyard.

Still, Santa Fe's epicenter for most visitors — whether first-time or repeat — remains the historic plaza area. There's a constancy to these streets, even as many of the storefronts on them change hands. Indians from nearby pueblos still gather daily along the graceful portico of the Palace of the Governors to sell jewelry and pottery. A walk of fame along Palace Avenue salutes painters, potters and sculptors. At La Fonda hotel on the plaza's southeast corner (which is said to have harbored an inn for 400 years), old-timers like bell captain Lalo Ortega, 82, have been serving guests for six decades, and resident artist Ernesto Martinez, 77, has been embellishing the lodging's doors, walls and even parking garage pillars for 55 years.

On the plaza, Roque Garcia, 72, scoops savory pork hot from the grill onto tortillas for eager customers. As the operator of this carnitas stand for 30 years, he's just one more downtown fixture.

Business is booming, thanks in part to tourists, but Garcia misses the days when merchants on the plaza sold goods that locals actually needed.

"Everything has changed on the plaza," he says.

Across the way, native Santa Fean Bob Montoya relaxes on a bench during his daily walk, surveying the crowd for familiar faces. Few are in sight.

"This is not our town anymore," says Montoya, 74, who describes himself as a santero, or carver of saints. "I come here and have people ask me if they can take my picture. 'Are you a real cowboy?' they ask. Even the big annual events — Spanish Market and Fiesta — mainly bring buyers in from New York and Miami and California."

Bustamante has a somewhat different perspective. Long before curio shops were stocked with howling coyotes and other Santa Fe-style souvenirs, the city was courting tourists. After it was announced in the early 1900s that the main rail line wouldn't reach Santa Fe, the city built the 1917 Pueblo Revival style New Mexico Museum of Art, in part to give visitors a reason to come. Preservationists exerted themselves as early as the 1920s, helping to maintain the traditional look that created what one European writer called the most non-American of American cities.

"People say we've lost our plaza, and in a way, we have," Bustamante says. "But that happens all over America. In Boston, (locals) don't go to the Common. (Tourism) is an industry for us. We shouldn't resent that. Besides, we can't live in the past. The only thing you can be sure of is change."