A Brief Urban History: Santa Fe, NM

Wellge et al. Bird’s eye view of the city of Santa Fé, N.M. 1882. https://www.loc.gov/item/75694742

[Essay originally written for CRP 1100, “The American City” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Richard Booth, September 2018.]

In August 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny led his Army of the West into the city of Santa Fe to claim New Mexico for the United States. What followed can hardly be described as a battle. Governor Manuel Armijo, perhaps through an American bribe or perhaps through sheer persuasion, withdrew his unorganized militia army from Santa Fe and made the decision to refrain from fighting before American troops even entered the city. Submissiveness of the people of New Mexico, and even of local leaders in Santa Fe, made for a bloodless capture. Not a single shot was fired. In fact, it was not until later that New Mexicans grew hostile towards the United States-established temporary civil government. Early attempts at revolt, including more successful endeavors such as the Taos Rebellion, faded over time. They practically disappeared altogether when a peace treaty — signed to end the war between the United States and Mexico — solidified New Mexico’s status as a part of the United States.

Santa Fe’s future, however, was determined many years before New Mexico’s incorporation into the United States. When Santa Fe gained independence from Spain in 1821, it was also freed from the trade barriers and restricted commerce imposed by Spanish mercantilism. Conversely, the Mexican Republic encouraged such trade with foreign merchants. The Santa Fe Trail was the fantastic result of this shift in policy, a result which shaped both the city and the lives of its citizens. The Trail was not only a “major international thoroughfare of commerce” but also a path for “foreign ideas, habits, and tastes” which made a tremendous cultural and economic impact on the Southwest (Bustamante, 2008). For travelling merchants, going to Santa Fe was both an exotic adventure and a chance at wealth. They reveled in Santa Fe’s natural beauty, local customs, and architectural uniqueness. By the time Kearny and his troops reached Santa Fe, it was already a distinct city with a status of its own in the world of trade.

However, many of the distinct customs of Santa Fe before the era of the Trail were impacted by the great increase in trade, and the subsequent increase in American influence within the city. Newly established buildings in the Plaza, for example, stepped outside the traditional one-story adobe building style of Santa Fe and began to be built with two stories to accommodate the need for store space and offices. As time went on, Santa Fe residents grew increasingly Americanized in “dress, foods, household furnishings, and even architectural styles” (Bustamante). Though the presence of American culture and English-speaking troops greatly altered the adventurous “trail experience”, economic prosperity in Santa Fe continued — for a time.

In the history of cities, the arrival of railroads nearly always indicates that great change lies ahead. As stated in Glaeser’s article “Our Urban Species”: “Transportation technologies have always determined urban form.” The introduction of one new main line in the Southwest brought prosperity to cities such as Albuquerque and Las Vegas, but this change was both jarring and threatening in Santa Fe. The main line of the railroad bypassed Santa Fe, running eighteen miles to the east, neglecting the existence of the flourishing city. The closure of the Santa Fe Trail on account of the railroad, along with Santa Fe’s disappointing location on a mere branch line, set the city’s economy in turmoil and greatly jeopardized its future. Many believed that Santa Fe would be able to overcome this obstacle. The argument was made that if efforts were made to modernize, the city could take advantage of the small benefits of the branch line and could continue its legacy as a center of commerce. However, little progress was made due to resistance to change by local leaders, merchants, and other Santa Feans. It seemed that only disadvantages, rather than benefits, were introduced to Santa Fe by the railroad. For example, hesitancy to develop in the Plaza district failed to accommodate the new crowds of visitors, and Santa Fe lacked the “economic energy” to retain its status as a thriving center of business and commerce (Tobias, 2001).

With its location right on the railroad’s main line, Albuquerque soon surpassed Santa Fe in population, industry, and overall economic development. Santa Fe was overshadowed by the booming city, even having to defend its political status as the state capital, despite the fact that it had held this title through all of New Mexico’s history and change.

By the early twentieth century, it was well known that the city would have to evolve in order to stay economically afloat. Building off of its rich cultural history, Santa Fe began efforts to establish its status as a tourist destination. The city sought, to an extent, to reverse the Americanization that had been steadily occuring in Santa Fe since the era of the Trail. Pueblo-style architecture was heavily encouraged and became the norm in most new construction. This was meant to reflect traditional adobe architecture, so as to regain the sense of Spanish romance that had once been the distinguishing factor of the city. This trend led to what is now labelled “Santa Fe style” architecture and design.

The hope was that encouraging this specific style of construction would make Santa Fe stand out from other cities. Thus, “The City Different” movement, taking place across the United States, was embraced in Santa Fe as a means to further encourage tourism to stimulate economic growth. Such growth was realized in the following decades. The population in the city grew from 7,236 in 1920 to over 20,325 in 1940. From 1950 to 1990 the population doubled, from 27,898 to 55,993. Almost three-quarters of this population was employed in service-oriented professions, a trend noted by Wyly et al. in the article “A Top 10 List of things to Know About American Cities”. Santa Fe continued to rely greatly on tourism throughout the rest of the twentieth century, and it remains vital to the city’s economy today.

In the decades following the birth of The City Different Movement, Santa Fe directed its efforts towards resolving issues that arose in the face of this growth. Issues included those regarding land use, community facilities, and budgeting. A 1965 Santa Fe Comprehensive Plan Update stressed a great need for improvement in the city’s thoroughfares. In studies of street maps and traffic distribution, it was found that Santa Fe’s Central Business District streets were “very narrow and inefficiently laid out”, and that the streets around the Plaza had been carrying maximum capacity daily traffic since 1940 (Harman, 1966). Notably, there were no sufficient routes that would allow “traffic without downtown destination to avoid the downtown streets”, causing large amounts of unnecessary traffic in the Central Business District (Harman). There was a call for new routes that would more efficiently distribute traffic and rid the city of downtown congestion, and plans were proposed for a system that would separate through highway traffic from local traffic. The 1965 Comprehensive Plan Update also proposed a public school plant system designed to adapt to projected growth of Santa Fe’s public school population. Additionally, it recommended a city recreation plan in order to accommodate the developing city’s future park needs.

Since the city’s initial push for tourism, and especially through the tourism boom of the 1980s, there has been significant concern among native residents regarding the conservation of their culture and community. Although Santa Fe capitalizes off of Hispanic history and culture, it is “almost impossible for Santa Fe Hispanics, whose ancestors have lived in Santa Fe for generations, to purchase a home or pay escalating property taxes for homes they already own” due to gentrification and rising housing costs (Lovato, 2004). In Santa Fe County, there was about a 43% increase between 1990 and 2000, from $422 per month on average in 1990 to $603 in 2000, with rents being highest in the City of Santa Fe. Native Santa Feans report experiences of feeling out of place and unwanted in their own ancestral city, even though, as of 2012, Hispanics made up 50.7% of the city’s population while White non-Hispanics made up 43.7%. When compared to 2000’s 49.0% and 46.1% (Hispanic and White non-Hispanic, respectively) this reflects Wyly et al.’s demographic observation of a declining white and increasing Hispanic population.

It is evident that housing prices are dispersing Hispanic communities away from both each other and from the center of the city, threatening the durability of these customs and traditions. Nevertheless, it does not appear that the presence of Hispanic culture in Santa Fe will fade. Native cultures have been kept alive in Santa Fe by both Hispanic residents that have adapted to the increased price of living and White non-Hispanic residents that seek to preserve the culture that likely drew them to the city in the first place. Throughout the city’s history, there has been a constant push to retain the presence of the Spanish language, traditional New Mexican food, and native art in the city’s culture.

Santa Fe’s history and evolution is one of growth and turbulence. As the oldest capital city in North America, Santa Fe has survived and upheld this title through New Mexico’s various forms as a province, a department, a territory, and a state; through prosperity and hardship. From its existence as the terminus of a major trading route to its modern role as a major tourist destination, Santa Fe has evolved and adapted to a spectacular extent.


Bustamante, Adrian H., et al. Santa Fe: History of an Ancient City, edited by Grant Noble, School for Advanced Research, 2008.

Tobias, Henry Jack and Charles E. Woodhouse. Santa Fe: A Modern History, 1880–1890, University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

Lovato, Andrew Leo. Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town, University of New Mexico Press, 2004.

RRC Associates, Inc. “County of Santa Fe Housing Needs Assessment”, April 2008.

“Santa Fe, NM Profile.” Diversity Data: Data for Diverse and Equitable Metropolitan Areas, Brandeis University, 2018, www.diversitydata.org/Data/Profiles/Show.aspx?loc=1256.

Wyly et al. “A Top 10 List of things to Know About American Cities.” The Urban Politics Reader, edited by Strom and John H. Mollenkopf.

Glaeser, Edward. “Our Urban Species.” The City Reader, edited by Legates and Frederic Stout, Sixth Edition, Routledge, 2016, pp.707–715.

Harman, O’Donnell & Henninger Associates, Inc. Santa Fe Comprehensive Plan Update, 1965. January 1966.

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