Phill Casaus: Looking for a new glue to bond a city together

·5 min read

Sep. 18—If there was ever a Happy Days era in Santa Fe, it might've hovered around, oh, maybe 1979.

To hear it from those who lived here during that time, the city was in a sweet spot.

Not too big. Not too small. Tourists came to town but weren't omnipresent or oppressive. It was the '70s, so there were drugs and maybe gangs and the occasional gun, yet they weren't in anyone's face and certainly not lethal in the depressing manner America has come to know.

The city's only public high school was big, bigger than big, but seemed wildly successful, at least on the marquee: The football team won a state title; debate kids and band kids and bookworms were among the state's best; seniors were jumping off the stage at graduation and heading everywhere from Harvard to Highlands.

Santa Fe was no Mayberry. But it was very nice. Mostly, I guess, it was young. Young at heart. Young in mission.

There's gotta be an electoral benefit to that kind of reality. I'm surprised politicians in Santa Fe never consistently took advantage of the memories of '79 and run, run, run.

But now that I think about it, maybe all that was old is new again.

Case in point: Tuesday morning last week.

Public-project groundbreakings, as a rule, are generally pro forma events — staged and overwrought, as much for the party planners as the people who will occupy the gleaming buildings they celebrate. But beneath the ceremonial hard hats, you could almost see lights going on in the heads of just about every leader in Santa Fe as they busted dust in Zona del Sol for a new, $10 million teen center on the city's south side.

This youth thing. Yeah, that's the ticket.

November's city election may turn on items like the destruction of the Plaza obelisk or an audit or who's got a record or who doesn't really have anything of substance to say, but I'm going to bet the next election and the one after that may center on the politician who can figure out a way to make a kid's quality of life better.

Look, everyone knows there are limits to what a government can affect, many of them stopping at the front door of an individual residence. But the one thing it can provide is tools — opportunities. And toward that end, the construction of a new generation of facilities aimed at kids is where city and county government will need to aim their dollars in the long run.

Because, let's face it, the mystery of a south-side teen center isn't how hard it was to build, it's why it took so long to get there in the first place.

When Santa Fe constructs such things, they generally are first class. The Genoveva Chavez Community Center? You'd be hard-pressed to find anything like it in New Mexico, and really in a lot of other states, too. Parks? We can argue about how well they're maintained or how hard they are to keep green, but you can't say they aren't used or valued. They are.

In a complaint-centric city, such treasures are bound to cause controversy. But they also portend benefits — the best being they bond young people to the place where they grew up.

This isn't theory. Ask the class of '77, or the class of '79 or the class of '84 — the people from Santa Fe's so-called good ol' days. Residents of that vintage beat your eardrums silly with stories of hanging out at a gleaming, then-brand-new Bicentennial Pool. Of walking through the gates at spectacular Ivan Head Stadium (a Santa Fe Public Schools facility) for the first time.

They are people like City Councilor Chris Rivera — St. Mike's, '84 — a circumspect sort who represents the area where the teen center will go up.

At Tuesday's groundbreaking, we chatted about days old and new; about how kids react when they have first-class places to go and plenty of things to do.

"I think it's really important," Rivera said. "It's how you raise kids and how you bring them up. If they're invested at a young age, in the community, they'll stay — chances are they'll stay. And I think ultimately, that's what we're looking for: people that will grow up here, decide to stay here and work here and raise their families here."

For bean counters and planners, these facilities eventually become headaches. Like all of us, they age. Bicentennial Pool, once a kid magnet, has fallen on hard times of late, renewing a discussion about where and when the next pool complex could be built and who it might serve. That may be the next opportunity for the wise politician who can finagle money from state leaders and city voters, convincing both such an investment — every few years, not just once in a decade — is in their best interest.

It doesn't have to be a pool. It could be another teen center. It could be a library. It could be more soccer and baseball fields. Whatev, as the class of '22 might say.

The point is this: If you build it, they may stay.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.

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