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Santa Fe: A Historical And Cultural Wonder (PHOTOS)

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As the second oldest city in the United States, Santa Fe celebrates its past through art, music and numerous museums. Georgia O'Keeffe stands out as this region's most prominent landscape painter, and an art museum dedicated to her work is located a couple blocks from the Plaza. Unfortunately, I was there between shows and the museum was closed. I did find the New Mexico Art Museum right off the northwestern side of the Plaza and found it to be quite engaging and informative.

The featured exhibit, "How the West Is Won," showed the contribution early 20th-century artists made to depict and preserve the Indian culture and way of life that was fast being destroyed as the white Anglo culture of the late 1800s and early 20th century was moving in. Other paintings included four or five by Georgia O'Keeffe including "Red Rocks" and one of a window of her house, the latter which didn't move me as much as it did her. Nevertheless, it was very exciting to see these paintings.

The photography exhibit was more compelling. It showcased Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter works that portrayed the natural beauty of the West. So popular were their portraits of the region that they inadvertently enticed the rest of America to see it for themselves. This all led to the tourism industry, which accommodated travelers and their need for food, lodging, transportation and cameras. Unfortunately, it helped to change the wild landscape into a more commercial, tourist-oriented one.

Still, the photographs inspired a deeper awareness about land preservation and kick-started the conservation movement and the US national parks system, as filmmaker Ken Burns illustrated in his documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Subsequent photographers then used the landscape to make political statements. For example, they'd show a trash heap in the foreground contrasting beautiful mountains in the background. Or they highlighted the "mushroom cloud" of Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was tested during World War II. Apparently the cloud could be seen from many, many miles away.

Any city sees itself change with the times, and in the 1980s Santa Fe began to attract the super-rich who settled on the eastern side of town in full view of the Sierra Gordo (fat hill in Spanish) where goats used to graze. This area is the southernmost end of the Rocky Mountains, and the houses and condominiums built by these people are second and third homes that caretakers watch over full-time.

Santa Fe is also home to 4,000 artisans and 250 art galleries. A good deal of the galleries are located on Canyon Road, an old Indian trail that connected the Rio Grande to the Pecos River, 15 miles east of Santa Fe. The trail provided a transportation system for agriculture and trade and later was the site of an art colony. Today, it's home to the second largest art market in the United States next to New York City and it specializes in contemporary, traditional and Native American fine art. The shops, boutiques and galleries offer paintings, indoor and outdoor sculptures, glass, jewelry, clothing, accessories, home furnishing, gifts, antiques, rugs, folk art and crafts.

I stopped at Matteucci's Gallery just off Canyon Road to look around and saw an O'Keeffe painting on sale for $600,000. In fact, the lowest priced piece I found was a small desk object for $200. This was not exactly my world. Nevertheless, the themes of the paintings and sculptures were exquisite. They centered around Native Americans, the Old West and individual figures of people and animals in action. An outdoor garden featured bronze sculptures around a pond with several fountains and lent to a peaceful and beautiful setting.

On the eastern side of the city on the Old Santa Fe Trail is the San Miguel Mission. It was built in 1610 with a blend of Native American and Spanish Colonial architecture styles and is considered the oldest church in the US.

The nave is small and narrow with creaky wooden pews on a creaky wooden floor. It includes wooden sculptures and crosses, engraved tin lamps and old photos of the church before it was restored. The wooden reredos (altar screen) dates from 1798 and features paintings of Christ in the center flanked by St. Francis of Assisi (patron saint of Santa Fe) and other important saints. There is also a carved and gilded wooden statue of St. Michael the Archangel celebrating his victory over Satan from 1709. The San Jose Bell is on display at the entrance of the church with an inscription of 1356, although that date is in doubt. It was brought by the Ortiz family from Mexico in 1712 and once hung in the mission's bell tower.

Mass is still celebrated weekly. I was there about 4:30 p.m. when two old padres came out to pray before the 5 o'clock Mass. One of them occasionally stopped and asked visitors where they were from.

I did go to Sunday Mass at St. Francis Cathedral to celebrate the Eucharist but also to gain further insight into Santa Fe culture. Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy built the church between 1869 and 1886 on the site of an older adobe church, La Parroquia (built 1714-1717). An even earlier church was built in 1626 on the same site but was destroyed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The new cathedral incorporated a small chapel of La Parroquia, which is all that remains of the old church. The two towers in the front are stunted because funds ran short.

On my way to Mass, I passed through the Plaza where many people were just milling about casually. Sidewalk vendors were seated under the shady portico of the Palace of the Governors selling their wares. It was a sunny, cool and very mellow morning, made only more perfect by the music of a wonderful classical guitarist named Petra Babankova. She is among the 147 professional Santa Fe-area guitarists.

The priest was very personable and obviously well-liked by parishioners. The deacon gave an emotional homily about what identifies a Catholic, which he used to lead up to his new program to get people back into the Church through the marriage sacrament. Apparently, a lot of people here live together without being married.

The music was fantastic as about 20 young people played guitars, drums and led the congregation in song with their beautiful and energetic voices. During Eucharistic prayers they sang the acclamations in Spanish. As I looked out at the congregation, most of the people were brown-skinned, well-dressed and very beautiful. I wondered what it would be like growing up in a place like Santa Fe where the predominant culture was Spanish, Mexican and Native American? This was so decidedly different from the white America I come from!

It also occurred to me how confused some of our politicians are about multiculturalism. They think it tears down the community and dilutes what it means to be American. I think it contributes to a vibrancy and necessary acceptance of differences, especially when all groups are acknowledged and invited to participate in running the city. This is the spirit of Santa Fe, which has known and dealt with multiculturalism for centuries.

I also found that the city has a lot of strong, independent women, feminists who are respected and not vilified. This also applies to gays and lesbians as well. (This year The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, named Santa Fe the second "gayest" city in America behind Minneapolis and ahead of San Francisco, which ranked eleventh.)

A monument in the middle of the Plaza illustrates this spirit of respect, too. It was originally constructed in 1868 to honor those who had fallen in "battles with the Indians in the New Mexico Territory." Because these tributes are etched in stone, another plaque has been added to note that the tributes were made in different times, "near the close of a period of intense strife which pitted northerner against southerner, Indian against white, Indian against Indian. ... Attitudes change and hopefully dissolve." While some people would call these sentiments soft, liberal and pandering, I think they reflect the a city trying to come to grips with our times where we have a variety of people from different cultures. A global economy has brought all these people together, and we can no longer run away from the fact or try to segregate ourselves from each other. Santa Fe seems to be doing that.

Santa Fe has another cultural feature: the pace here is a lot slower. Perhaps it is the winding roads, some of which are old Indian or buffalo trails. Perhaps it is the Mexican and Spanish influence of manana or poco tiempo where people don't worry about keeping to a schedule. I found it refreshing, however. What do we really gain by rushing and clock-watching?

The Santa Fe area was occupied 10,000 years ago by nomadic people who grew corn, squash, melons and beans. Their mud houses lacked doors or windows so they entered them with ladders that opened on the roof. This design would endure and later be developed into the Spanish pueblo style with its square or rectangular shape and more durable brown-earth adobe mud (a trick the Spanish learned from the Moors who occupied their lands for nearly 800 years).

Some of these structures still stand today after 400 years, like the Palace of the Governors (located on the north side of the Plaza), the oldest public building in the USA. More buildings would have lasted had they not been destroyed by the enslaved Pueblo people who rose up against the Spanish in 1680.

One of the earliest known settlements here was a Native American group who built a cluster of homes that centered around the site of today's Plaza around 900 C.E. The Pueblo People, who originated from the Four Corners area, founded Santa Fe as a trade and commerce center somewhere around between 1050 to 1150. When the Spanish conquered this territory in 1598, they established Santa Fé de Nuevo México as a province of New Spain and developed a trail called El Camino Real (The Royal Road). The area's third Spanish governor, Don Pedro de Peralta (there's a downtown mainstreet named after him), founded the present site of the city in 1608, which he called La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1610, he made it the capital of the province. Thus, Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States and the third oldest American city founded by European colonialists behind the oldest, St. Augustine, Florida (1565).

In 1810 Mexico declared independence from Spain, and in 1824 the city became the capital of the Mexican territory of Santa Fé de Nuevo México as formalized in the 1824 Constitution. Then, in 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico and added New Mexico through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This opened the way for thousands of American pioneers whose covered wagons followed the southern route West on the Santa Fe Trail. (The Oregon trail went north.) The railroad came through in the 1880s and made the old trail irrelevant, although remnants of it are still visible on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. An auto tour circles the area on the Cimarron shortcut to Santa Fe where you can see wagon swales and ruts, buildings, historic sites and natural landmarks.

The difficult terrain in Santa Fe made extending the train tracks into the city nearly impossible, so the railroad bypassed the city and almost killed it economically. In 1907, the prominent archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett founded the School of American Research together with Vera von Blumenthal and Rose Dugan. They also helped develop the Pueblo Indian pottery industry as an art form. Hewett also started the Santa Fe Fiesta in 1919 and the Southwest Indian Fair in 1922 (now known as the Indian Market).

Commerce has been a consistent influence on Santa Fe, however, it has not made this city into a Mall of the Americas kind of place. Instead, it has retained its historical and small town character to offer fine arts and crafts instead of the artificial tourism that so many cities create. There is little neon in the downtown area as shopkeepers prefer to post the name of their stores on wooden signs. Even so, Santa Fe has a healthy tourist population of 1.5 million per year, and it's easy to see why.

Recycling and restoring old buildings also seems to be an art form, too. A 75-minute tour on the Loretto Line, an open-air trolley tram, takes you around the city as the guide tells you that this store used to be a gas station or the galleries on Canyon Road were once homes. The Shop, which specializes in handcrafted Christmas ornaments, nativities and Santas by New Mexico artists, used to be a funeral parlor. The Pink Adobe Restaurant (a.k.a. The Pink) was an 18th-century school run by the Christian Brothers. The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts was once a post office. Nevertheless, many of the Spanish-built houses and buildings were lost during 1693-96 when the Pueblo people rebelled against their Spanish conquerors and burned down most of the town.

New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912 and it is already preparing for its centennial celebrations. Today, many other people have been attracted to the "Land of Enchantment" including yuppies, yoga gurus, holistic and natural healers, New Agers and people pursuing alternative lifestyles.

There seems to be room for everyone in Santa Fe.

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