The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition by Chris Wilson

Santa Fe is old. Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is older than Boston, older than Plymouth, older than any town in New England, older than any still-existing town in Virginia, older than Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans. Quebec City is only two years older.

Santa Fe was laid out on the prinicples of the Laws of the Indes.

The Laws codified seventy years of Spanish town planning experience in the Americas and drew from a variety of European sources, Roman and Renaissance planning theory from Vitruvius to Alberti, monastic complexes and military encampments, and the siege towns built during the reconquest of Spain from the Moors.

Santa Fe is almost medieval, laid out (like Los Angeles) according to the Laws in a place “in an elevated and healthful location; with means of fortification; fertile soil with plenty of land for farming and pasturage; have fuel, timber and resources; fresh water, a native population.” It’s still has fresh water running right through it, it’s in an elevated and healthful location, timber and resources, a native population. It has the feel of being old, it’s small, it’s at a high, almost intoxicating altitude, it’s surrounded by forest and mountains, it’s charming and special. But in 2021, real estate is incredibly expensive, the buying of second homes is a huge force in the city. Is Santa Fe becoming a tourist attraction of itself? Is there the authentic still there? What even counts as authentic? How does this happen to a city?

This book The Myth of Santa Fe was for sale in Albuquerque, which struck me as funny, since I’d never seen it in Santa Fe. Comical to sell a book about how your rival city is a myth.

The New Deal populists of the 1930s sought to balance the myth of Santa Fe between the economic necessity of tourism and the use of its symbols to promote more broadly conceived social objectives such as public education and local economic self-sufficiency. Progressive regionalism peaked again in the early 1970s, with the counterculture and the Chicano and environmental movements.

But in the 1980s, this balance tilted almost completely toward the manipulation of the myth as a tourism marketing image. Simultaneously Ronald Reagan led a reallocation of resources from social programs to the military and from the lower and middle classes to the wealthy. Some of those with conspicuous new wealth were attracted to the city by the upsurge of international publicity that projected Santa Fe as a Tahiti in the desert, bathed in rosy sunsets, and elevated it (or reduced it, depending on your point of view) to a chic style of interior design and a world-class tourist destination.

The book is great, it functions as an informative and readable history of the city, as well as a catalogue of cultural shifts in self-understanding, belief, feelings towards that history which took form in architecture. Here’s a great summary of the book from 99% Invisible. Roughly the story told is how Santa Fe tried to be not Santa Fe, then stopped not being Santa Fe and switched to being more Santa Fe than ever (or at least an idea of Santa Fe, which may or may not have ever been the “real” Santa Fe) maybe to the point that it became so “Santa Fe” it risks not being Santa Fe any longer.

What is authentic, really?



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