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Albuquerque's Route 66 Gets New Lease on Life

July 03, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — "If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that's the best, get your kicks on Route 66!"

Nat King Cole put Bobby Troup's song on the hit parade. A TV series in the '60s and a generation of musical groups like the Rolling Stones kept it there.

It was an era when millions traveled this first highway to link Chicago and Los Angeles. The Automobile Club of Southern California called the highway "the most magical road in the world."

Route 66, which was completed in 1926, displayed its magic until the freeways took over and almost removed it from Western maps. It still stretches 2,200 miles, extending through three time zones and eight states.

Dramatic Rebirth

Some segments are being reborn, most dramatically in Arizona and along the inner-city Cultural Corridor leading into the Old Town of Albuquerque.

My wife and I have been retracing the development of the highway, from early Indian and Spanish colonial times to the late 20th Century, and discovered that the highway again has become a major crossroad.

A poignant stop for us close to the Route 66 corridor was the memorabilia-filled home of Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II correspondent who was killed by a sniper a few weeks before the war ended. His home, given to the city, is a community library.

The volunteer and nonprofit Route 66 Assn., based in Oxnard, regards the rebirth of Route 66 in Albuquerque as a beacon of hope.

But all of Route 66 was a highway of hope, as well as a popular vacation artery long before the nation began to get its kicks from Troup's music and lyrics.

This was the "mother road" for John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" refugees migrating west from the Dust Bowl during the Depression. A generation later, Jack Kerouac's dreams included the American West and Route 66.

In the 1930s Central Avenue was posted as Route 66 through Albuquerque.

Highway signs mark 20 miles of Central Avenue through the heart of new and old Albuquerque, leaving Interstate 40 near Tramway Boulevard on the eastern side of the city and rejoining it west of the Rio Grande.

Three Cultures

Along the avenue is a city that weaves three major cultures into its fabric--Indian, Spanish and Anglo. Indian pueblos dotted the banks of the Rio Grande when Spanish settlers arrived in 1706. They named it after the 10th Duke of Albuquerque, Spanish viceroy in Mexico.

The settlement became a supply post serving wagon trains along the old Chihuahua Trail, an extension of the Santa Fe Trail.

Driving or walking into the city from the Rio Grande, Central Avenue and Route 66 lead to Old Town and the tree-shaded, Spanish-style Central Plaza, presided over by the church of San Felipe de Neri since 1793. The church still has its original stone walls and is a major part of community religious life.

The gazebo in the center of the plaza is the hub of outdoor living. Couples walk hand in hand on the grass around it. Weddings are held under its arched roof. Children romp along the paths. The elderly sit and talk in the shade. Guitar strains emanate from under a tree. Sundays sparkle with "Arts in the Park" and free musical entertainment.

Indians and other artisans sell their arts and crafts along narrow streets that twist and wind around the plaza. Restored adobe homes representing many periods of plazuela -style architecture house restaurants, galleries and boutiques.

The galleries showcase New Mexico artists and their works, which range from Indian to traditional Western and contemporary paintings. In the boutiques and shops, visitors can find everything from tone-on-tone weavings of Navajo rugs to porcelain, brilliantly fired pottery and an unusual selection of turquoise jewelry.

On Mountain Road, a block from Old Town Plaza, the Albuquerque Museum of Art, History and Science presents "Four Centuries: A History of Albuquerque." This is the largest exhibit of Spanish colonial culture in the United States. Nearby, the Museum of Natural History features a fascinating study of New Mexico dating back to an Ice Age cave.

The Albuquerque Museum conducts guided walking tours of Old Town on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and weekends for $2 adults, $1 seniors and children through age 12.

Nob Hill Restoration

With the coming of the railroad in 1880, Albuquerque began to grow east of Old Town. This culminated in the late 1940s and early '50s with the fashionable Nob Hill shopping and restaurant district along Route 66.

The Nob Hill district began to fade in the '60s as major regional shopping centers began to appear.

Now the rebirth of the Albuquerque segment of Route 66 is being paced by restoration of the Nob Hill district, which is one of seven such areas in the nation to be chosen initially for the National Main Street Urban Demonstration Program.

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