Thursday, November 3, 2022

Handling Tourists


I’m sitting here on the side of a mountain in Santa Fe, NM. It’s another perfectly gorgeous morning. Deep blue sky. And the sloping fall light that always seems three times brighter here. I’ve been in this little house all month, fleeing the heat and finishing my memoir manuscript about Leon Hale and me.

The deadline has caught me thinking about timelessness and place. About tourists.

In Fayette County we’re learning the effects of popularity. Round Top bulges with it, changing our daily landscape and our traffic patterns. There’s been a influx of developer activity—growing over the past ten years or so, and recently accelerating.

I always think Santa Fe is a good example of a place that understands tourism. That takes it in and uses it, revels in it to some degree, but allows none of it to affect its core, source of its blood and spirit.

I hadn’t been here for a protracted visit for more than fifteen years. When I came for a week last year, visiting my longtime friend Donna Norquist and her husband, I stayed downtown in the old La Fonda Hotel. Tourist Central, that is. And I found the city much changed.

Coming back this year, I don’t notice those changes as much.

I’m staying where Hale and I had a place, in an old development up the hill from the city center. The condos are like little adobe houses, and they’re arranged around a wicked 9-hole golf course. Great dog walking, and I’ve done a lot of that. Rosie loves it.

Staying in this familiar place activated all the familiar pathways we trod twenty years ago. Routes we took through the city to accomplish errands and have fun. Our dry cleaner is still there, so is the neighborhood grocery store. All the landmarks—museums, cathedral, Plaza, Canyon Road—are in place and only a small area near the railyard has been altered significantly.

Mainly, of course, the mountains haven’t moved. And although the sweeping basin to the south is dotted with more houses, the basin is there, the mountains encircling it still shimmer in ever-shifting blues and lavenders.

One reason for Santa Fe’s endurance in the face of truly daunting numbers of tourists and new residents (a California influx of tsunami-like proportions) is that they have strong land-use restrictions.

Letting themselves Houstonize fifty years ago—tear down whatever, build whatever, wherever—would have destroyed this place.

It’s a lesson for us.

Round Top, LaGrange, Fayetteville and the surrounding communities appeal to tourists by being different from daily life in the city. We all know that. But creeping urbanization threatens our future.

Creeping developments, on properties that are subdivided into lots that are too small, too numerous. They increase the load on well water, without any return possible. They add to traffic.

Junky construction on the outskirts of our towns duplicates the origin of urban blight.

These creeping negatives partake of the human drive to turn every resource into money, especially land in a pretty place. This drive is part of our culture and our human race. It seems as strong as the highly restricted drive to procreate.

Santa Fe surely loves money. And money loves Santa Fe. Big money. But the city’s underlying strength of spirit continues to prevail.

Intelligent developers understand that the character of the place whose appeal attracts them must be maintained, and enhanced if possible. To some degree they restrict themselves from taking the short-term approach to maximum gain.

Some days I see examples of this in our county and I feel myself exhaling in relief and gratitude.

But then, on other days, I wonder.

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