Walking into Nob Hill’s Pink Rhino is like dropping into another world from another time. Rows of vintage, classy women’s and men’s clothing are complimented by old shoes and boots, freaky masks, fine furs, sparkling jewelry and elegant bridal gowns that go on sale during “Weddings Wednesdays.”
Projecting personality, Pink Rhino’s clothing has attired film sets and productions like “Breaking Bad,” according to owner Dori Martin. Rounding out the ambiance of the Albuquerque store are the classic face of the Mona Lisa and a new art gallery.
Asked whether her store was planning to close, Martin admitted that the “Everything Must Go, Make an Offer” sign facing Central Avenue was a hook to get customers inside. A woman with a life story as eclectic as the Pink Rhino, Martin said she started the business on a “fluke,” managing at one time to have 14 stores in New Mexico and 2 in Los Angeles.
Like other business owners and workers on or near the city’s Central Avenue main drag, Martin faces trying times, thanks in good measure to the $120 million-plus Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) construction project knocking on her doorstep.
Since last fall, construction crews have progressively torn up Central Avenue and cut down trees in a city project designed to revamp the old Route 66 into a corridor of fast buses; futuristic, canopied passenger stations plopped into the middle of the avenue; widened sidewalks; reduced left turns; and one lane for auto traffic in each direction. Navigating the road work and finding parking can sometimes be a daunting task, and many people simply avoid Central.
“I lost about 80 percent of my business when all this started,” Martin said. “I think the ART project has hurt a lot of businesses. It took me about three months to get back up. I think whoever did this didn’t think of the outcome on a small business.”
Despite the economic crunch, Martin’s landlord didn’t let her slide on the rent. A promised $5,000 loan from the City of Albuquerque never materialized, she added.
Her graceful, engaging face drooping into a sad look, Martin recalled making a mere $65 one week. The entrepreneur has faced other troubles as well.
In June, her vehicle was broken into five times while parked behind the store. Did Martin report the crimes? “I didn’t report it. Why?” she sighed. “The insurance would cancel me.”
To solve another recurrent problem, Martin installed a gate in front of Pink Rhino’s door so homeless people can’t use the entrance as a bed. Worse yet, she described physically struggling with would-be-shoplifters on different occasions. “I’ve become quite the bouncer, the private detective,” she laughed.
Seasoned in drama, Pink Rhino’s owner once starred in the YouTube reality show “Pink Rhino Dirty Laundry.”
Martin said she is not against the area homeless and had given away clothing to them, but delivered a stinging critique of the old burg. “It’s disgusting. It’s gotten more dangerous. I feel it’s worse than L.A.,” she said.
To top it all off, Martin said she was nearly run over three times while walking amidst the ART construction. Given the large population of substance abusers and mentally challenged people in the area, combined with the plan to have bus passengers cross Central Avenue from the middle of the street, Martin predicted tragedy in the making. “There’s going to be a lot of deaths on this street, I believe,” she said.
Still, Martin and her Pink Rhino continue to hang on — at least for now.
Up Central from the Pink Rhino, Nob Hill Furniture is planning to close — or at least trying to, according to owner Tamara Mahboub, who termed ART “pretty much the nail in the coffin” of her 26-year business. Prior to the Great Recession, Mahboub said she had two stores but closed down the Northeast Heights outlet when the economy tanked and concentrated on the Nob Hill store, which she defined as specializing in “mid-century, contemporary and retro furniture.”
Mahboub said fortunes were looking up before the ART construction disrupted Central Avenue and initially sent business plummeting by 50 percent. A downward spiral was only recently reversed — ironically — because of the liquidation sale that advertises bargain prices, she added.
Nob Hill Furniture timed a planned closing earlier this year when sidewalk widening was expected, but the anticipated date came and went and instead Mahboub and her husband found themselves grappling with getting official answers about when the delayed work will commence, Mahboub said.
The furniture dealer worried about ART construction across the street from her store, where summer rains could produce runoff that might flood her lower property. “I’m looking at this and going, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ ” Mahboub said.
Besides ART, Mahboub has long endured other problems. “I don’t know how many times I’ve called the police because of people passed out by my dumpster,” she said. “We have a drug problem in this area. It’s a mess. It doesn’t seem like they’re trying to move the people or get them help.”
Like other locals, this reporter included, Mahboub sometimes spots discarded needles and syringes strewn on the ground around town.
Pink Rhino worker Monique Singer contended that local government has its priorities upside down. “I really feel (ART) was a slap in the face,” Singer said, recalling the many business owners and residents who signed a petition against the project. “I think Albuquerque needs to listen more to the people. The government officials don’t really listen to us.”
In Singer’s book, the money allocated to ART could have been better invested in refurbishing old Central Avenue hotels for homeless rehabilitation and other purposes.
“Buy new buses or something. Don’t spend tearing up roads,” she suggested. “There’s AA, but if you don’t have a house, how’s that going to help you?”
On a recent Nob Hill afternoon a woman who would only identify herself as Lee, manager of Shogun Sushi, and Miss Silva, manager of Gertrude Zachary jewelry, were talking outside their adjoining businesses. Lee echoed other merchants on Central, saying overall business was 30 percent less at her restaurant than before ART, with some days dropping by as much as 80 percent. “We need help financially,” she said.
Silva, however, sang a different tune. “We’re doing phenomenal,” she said, crediting Gertrude Zachary’s long established name, enhanced media advertising and loyal customer base. “We’re above our numbers from last year. I’ve had a phenomenal March… the local people are coming and supporting the store.”
Silva praised ART, predicting the buses would bring more people to their jobs and expose new eyes to Nob Hill, such as the ART workers who told her they were impressed by the varied businesses in the district. In her opinion, there had been less crime and fewer transients hanging out because there are fewer people to “bug for money.”
An optimistic Silva said it is too early to make an accurate judgment about ART. Until it’s complete, “nobody can do an assessment down here,” she said, though she added that “change is not easy for people in any part of life.” Her only criticism of ART, she said, is that buses instead of light rail will be deployed.
And the fine jewelry store manager slammed the media, holding it responsible for scaring off visitors. “I think the biggest problem with the ART project is (media coverage) has been negative and saying bad things, so people don’t come out here,” Silva insisted.
The news media aside, problems ranging from major crimes to daily tragicomedies continue to rattle Nob Hill and the city. Last Saturday, for instance, as the late movie was showing at Central Avenue’s artsy Guild Theater, a Laurel and Hardy-like couple staged a free “performance” in front of Flying Star Cafe on the other side of Central, breaking glass outside the establishment.
Appearing intoxicated, the pair headed east on Central to Scalo’s restaurant. The loud and hefty woman berated the subdued, skinny, shirtless man with her before she entered Scalo’s patio, bothering clients before security shooed her away.
Reuniting, the couple then wandered in and out of Central Avenue traffic prior to melting away into the Duke City night. Imagine the consequences if ART’s fast buses had been roaring down the street at that moment, this reporter remarked to a security guard.
The remaking of Albuquerque: For whom? For what?
A Central Avenue excursion gives a sense of a city simultaneously in the throes of death and rebirth, or perhaps stillbirth. Confused and careless drivers, noisy construction machinery, sometimes negligent work crews, lumbering cranes, and orange traffic cones form a hectic landscape, where squadrons of private contractors flourish.
Although the principal ART contractor is Bradbury Stamm Construction, Inc., a chain of subcontractors and vendors is also cashing in — among them Coyote Gravel Products, Inc.; AUI, Inc.; The Groundskeeper; Fabritec; United Rentals; MWI, Inc; and SW Safety Services.
Slated for completion later this year, ART could be the glittering trophy of the outgoing Richard Berry administration — or, to its numerous critics, it could be a proverbial and costly white elephant that trampled everything in its path on the way to the bone yard.
Situated at the corner of Girard and Central across from the University of New Mexico, the 52-year-old landmark Mannie’s Restaurant emits electronic messages on its outside bulletin board. Interspersed with pitches for steak and enchiladas, carne adovada and eggs and Joanne’s Reuben, comes more food for thought: “Berry and his field of dreams,” the message says. “How is it working out for you, the citizen.”
Despite talk of declining business, new activity is obvious in Nob Hill’s ART zone. The dilapidated, long-shut down De Anza Hotel on Washington and Central is slated to be reborn as a boutique hotel. HB Construction is rebuilding the Carlisle condo complex at Central and Carlisle that was destroyed in a mysterious Thanksgiving season fire set last year shortly before its planned opening. The eatery Crepe Crepe has opened its doors, joining other newcomers Pete’s Frites and Frost – A Gelato Shoppe a few blocks away on Central.
On the other hand, numerous empty storefronts pockmark the area. And pedestrians strolling along Central might have recently spotted the posters pleading for information on the whereabouts of 24-year-old Ben Smith, who vanished on the Fourth of July after leaving the home of longtime Albuquerque Journal columnist Joline Gutierrez-Krueger. Smith was a close friend of Gutierrez-Krueger’s late son, and the journalist wrote a moving piece about the disappeared young man.
Planned to ramble along a lengthy but narrow ribbon of the city, and overlaying existing bus lines, ART is arguably more of an economic development scheme than a mass transportation project, with gentrification the primary purpose. Simply put, out with old residents and businesses and in with the new.
ART is envisioned to deliver carless patients to an expanded Presbyterian Hospital on Central, ferry students and professionals of the new Innovate Albuquerque business incubator to downtown and transport millennials to and from pricey, hip businesses and living spaces on the corridor. Largely excluded from this model are the emptying strip malls of the Northeast Heights, the long-marginalized neighborhoods of the South Valley and the far-flung pockets of growth on the West Side and other parts of the metro area.
“I’m selfishly rooting for ART. Employment opportunities for my wife and I opened up out of state during the housing bust, and we were unable to sell our home and were forced to become landlords,” reads a letter in support of ART posted on the project’s official website from a man identified as Mike Agpar.
“The studies I’ve read indicate that a project such as this has the real potential to drive private investment into areas within a 1/2 mile of the stations. The status quo is not going to benefit the city economically, so I’m happy to see city leaders attempting to pull ABQ into the 21st century,” he wrote.
Practically slipping under the radar amid the ART controversy are lane reductions in progress on Girard Boulevard paralleling UNM and intersecting Central Avenue.
Don Morales, urban projects supervisor for the City of Albuquerque, said the Girard project should cost about $335,000, with completion targeted for the end of August. Project design was outsourced to T.Y. Lin International, a global company with offices in Asia and the Americas, while the physical work was awarded to New Mexico-based GandyDancer, LLC.
Morales acknowledged that the project was running behind schedule, due both to the need for verifying the certification of construction materials and ART considerations. “We’ve had to be respectful of the ART project. That takes precedent,” he said. “We’re trying to get to this before (UNM) starts.”
One issue that cropped up, Morales said, was the behavior of some motorists in “not respecting traffic controls” and running over the orange and white cones.
When ART and the Girard redo are finished, will the intersection of Girard and Central become entangled in congestion, as some critics predict? In addition to the elimination of auto lanes on both Girard and Central, extra traffic lights are being installed on Central.
In a possible glimpse of the future, this reporter observed Girard and Central partially blocked off the other day because paramedics and APD were attending to a person on the sidewalk, one of countless such calls this hot summer. Sure enough, traffic bottled up on Girard in the lane heading south to Central.
A Texas madman, persistent vandals and fighting City Hall
Steve Schroeder owns Nob Hill Music on Central Avenue, a lively little store housed in a small brown brick building with a yellow “Stop A.R.T.” sign in the front window. Schroeder sells vinyl records of artists the likes of Santana, Grand Funk Railroad and Joe King Carrasco, the rocking Texas madman who was banned from UNM’s Popejoy Hall years ago because he climbed the curtains during a show. He eventually resurfaced as the giant poster face that invited tourists arriving to Puerto Vallarta’s international airport to a restaurant in which he had a small stake at the Mexican resort.
“I was going uphill for seven years until (ART) started,” Schroeder said, adding that sales dropped 35 percent after the ART construction hit earlier this year. Still down 20 percent in sales, the vinyl vendor nevertheless considers himself lucky, rattling off the names of other local businesses he understands are down between 25 and 65 percent in sales.
Like Dori Martin, Schroeder devised a gimmick to increase business: a rack of $10 Hawaiian shirts on sale displayed on the sidewalk outside Nob Hill Music as a lure to music land inside.
Schroeder blamed the ART construction for rupturing a water main, causing water to filter underneath his store this past spring and stink up the premises. Luckily, he escaped the rock-throwing rampages of June when, on multiple instances, an unknown vandal or vandals broke the windows of businesses along Central Avenue with large rocks reportedly left on the street by ART crews. One business, Zacatecas restaurant, had its windows repeatedly broken.
The community activist is among those who dispute City of Albuquerque contentions that the public was duly informed of the ART project ahead of time, insisting that he was not among the “311” people the Berry administration claimed it consulted before the project was being finalized in 2015. Schroeder was incensed that city officials checked off a “no controversy” box in their application for a Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) grant, which was originally billed as the source for nearly $70 million of the $120 million-plus funding for the new transit system but will likely pay short of the amount sought.
In early 2016, before the Albuquerque City Council approved applying for the FTA grant, any claim of non-controversy was shattered after hundreds of citizens packed special meetings, many of them angrily denouncing the rapid transit scheme, while others supported or opposed ART at city council meetings. At a crucial March 2016 meeting, both Republican and Democratic city councilors voted 7-2 in favor of the FTA grant. In bipartisan spirit, the fate of old Route 66/Central Avenue was sealed.
While ART proponents hailed a Brave New Duke City Day, opponents predicted increased traffic congestion, reduced parking, lost business and destruction of Central Avenue’s historical character.
A man with a background in urban planning and political consulting, Schroeder is no stranger to local and state politics. So when an acquaintance left him a note with news of ART, Schroeder remembered his father once telling him: “You must save, preserve and honor your history and culture.” Accordingly, “that’s what made me go to war,” he said.
Putting on his walking shoes, Schroeder founded the group Save Route 66, knocked on the doors of “300 businesses” and helped get “15,000 signatures” on petitions. He joined another citizen group, Make ART Smart, and enlisted in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the project.
Schroeder criticized elected officials and bureaucrats he asserted did not listen to the public, with perhaps the culminating insult coming in last November’s election when a non-binding question polled voters on whether the public should have a say with ART.
The question asked: “Are you in favor of giving voters residing in the City of Albuquerque municipal limits the chance to vote in support of or opposition to the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit Project?” A tally by the Bernalillo County Clerk counted 156,350 voters voting “yes” and 48,117 “no.” Although Burque’s voters overwhelmingly agreed they should be the final arbiter of the project, the remaking of Central Avenue was by then a done deal.
“I think we are in trouble. I tried, maybe I didn’t yell hard enough. I knew we were in danger and I tried to raise the flag,” he said. “It’s a citywide issue. It’s not just an angry old guy standing on Central.”
ART politics, culture and musicology
Lurking as a joker in the political deck of Albuquerque’s upcoming Oct. 3 municipal election, ART might even rear its head in next year’s congressional and other races. City councilors up for re-election this October who voted for the FTA grant include Ken Sanchez, Diane Gibson and Don Harris. So is naysayer Klarissa Peña. City Councilor Pat Davis, who voted for the FTA grant, is running for a congressional seat.
At least six of the eight mayoral contenders are on recent public record addressing the ART issue. Tim Keller advocates fixing the left turn and dedicated bus lane complaints raised by critics, while extending rapid transit to other nerve centers of the metro area.
Dan Lewis, who is abandoning his Westside city council seat to pursue the mayors’ office, maintains a detailed timeline and record of his ART-related votes on his official city council website. Lewis has also proposed undertaking a comprehensive study of ART’s impacts and possibly shucking the dedicated lanes if they do not function. Ridiculing Lewis, Ricardo Chaves, a parking lot owner, says the time for studies is over and the hour is here for returning Central to four lanes total of auto traffic.
Brian Colón considers talk of scuttling ART “insanity” and urges better public engagement than in the past to improve the system. Michelle Garcia Holmes blasts the Berry administration for neglecting rising crime while focusing on projects like ART, which she blames for downtown job losses and reduced business revenues.
On her Facebook page, Susan Wheeler-Deischel says she attended all the important pre-construction ART meetings and she claims, “I am the source for the real facts.”
As radio ads touting Mayor Berry and Mountain Dew sponsors herald the rapid approach of Nob Hill’s July 22 Summerfest, controversy surrounds the outdoor event (headlining the highly popular Los Lobos band of East L.A) which usually stretches along Central Avenue from Girard to Washington but this year is compressed between Girard and Carlisle. That’s because ART construction is not finished from Washington to Carlisle, much to the dismay of East Nob Hill merchants who depend on Summerfest sales to carry them through the year.
In a July 5 Albuquerque Journal op-ed, the City of Albuquerque’s Dayna G. Crawford and Dana Feldman attributed construction delays to last year’s lawsuit against ART. The officials justified excluding East Nob Hill from Summerfest because of ongoing construction work that could endanger pedestrians. The two officials wrote that the city administration would encourage Summerfest visitors to visit East Nob Hill businesses.
Meanwhile, Dori Martin and others weigh their options. Voicing a certain ambivalence about her Nob Hill location, Martin said she might decide to refocus on a second Pink Rhino that’s located in the Northeast Heights. Martin described herself as hailing from a creative, resilient bloodline including a gypsy grandfather, an inventive radio engineer dad and an actress mom.
“It’s been a struggle. You have to be very attentive with your own business. I think I’m a fighter and survivor. You have to reinvent yourself,” Martin said.
Mulling the closure of Nob Hill Furniture, Tamara Mahboub lamented losing customers, many of them repeats. “It’s sad. I love furniture selling. Our store is different than anywhere else. We’re into color,” she added. “I love the people when they buy things and have smiles on their faces.”
Steve Schroeder is concerned about the possible loss of out-of-town customers, who he estimated constitute 30 percent of his business. Will his little vinyl vault of vintage sounds weather the storm? “It’s like gambling,” he said. “I don’t know when to draw, when to fold.”
One day in May of this year, Schroeder embarked on an adventure into the ART zone, maneuvering through the construction on old Route 66 between Louisiana Boulevard on the east and Coors Boulevard on the west, the swath of Central the new rapid transit system is planned to cover.
“To be exact, it took me 58 minutes to go nine miles, but I was lucky because I had an automatic and air conditioning and I didn’t come back,” he said, vowing not to attempt the trip again.
Whatever ART ultimately does or does not deliver, the project has stirred the creative impulses of some New Mexicans. Musicians Kevin Pollock and Mark Padilla composed a song this summer, “A.R.T. Blues.,” which seemed to deftly capture the socio-political psyche and is now part of Burque’s cultural consciousness and historical record. Interested readers can check out the song on YouTube.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.