Here is a rambling reflection on our stay in Santa Fe.
Overall, I/we found Santa Fe chilly, charming, congenial, dog-friendly, scenic/stunning, expensive, quirky/cultural, exclusive, remote, disparate, and more adjectives than these.
Santa Fe chilly: one of the main reasons we want out of Connecticut is the long and brutally cold and snowy winters. The past few years have been exhausting - snow removal has seemed endless throughout the winters and more depressing because it is so difficult to get out for a hike or for that matter, to do anything that involves leaving the house.
Being in Santa Fe in January was a bit of a shock. The temperatures were colder than we had expected and the fact that the snowfall did not melt or evaporate by noon often left us feeling that we hadn’t left the northeast. Granted, the snowfall was less than in New England, but the cold was still very discouraging.
To be fair, the cold was not sustained and there were days that easily got into the 50s and 60s. The sun, intense as is, provides plenty of warmth, even when snow remains on the ground. It is like the moon - in the sun it is warm, in the shade the snow doesn’t seem to melt at all. Speaking of the sun, in the winter it is low on the horizon and seems to be always in your eyes - the lack of tall trees means the sun is there from rise to set. But sun is sun and any warmth in winter is welcomed. By mid March spring will be in the air, as opposed to New England which will still be in winter mode.
So the winter weather is milder, with less snowfall than in New England, not warm, but tolerable. It allows for more outdoor activity, or at least activity with less effort. We have never been in New Mexico in the summer. We are told that Santa Fe is pleasant in summer, the sun, very intense and requiring sun screen to be used regularly. The summer evenings are cooler and rarely is air conditioning needed.
Santa Fe, charming: the setting in the mountains offers a serene feeling and the dwellings and commercial buildings all in the required adobe-style architecture give one an initial feeling of simplicity and continuity but, I think this sameness tends to turn into a kind of visual monotony after a while. I find the subtle earth tones pleasing, the smoke from wood burning kivas a pleasant incense, the older homes with their textured hues of stone and stucco and juniper interesting, rich looking, aesthetically pleasing. Landscaping, if done well, is also very pleasing to the eye, low maintenance, and interesting. Like anywhere, if poorly done or not attended to, homes can look trashy. But there seems to be no excuse for not having a low maintenance front yard that looks good.
House hunting among the adobes was quite an eye-opener. We were not looking at condos at all and avoided anything with HOA fees. We looked mostly at homes in the lower to moderate price range ($175,000 to $225,000) - what we would consider comparable to what we are living in back home in Connecticut, which we can sell for about $160,000 to $170,000.
Most of the homes we saw in our price range were uninhabitable because they were in such disrepair and/or deliberately trashed so that they needed $70,000 or more worth of work. Or, if they were in decent condition, the interiors were “Home Depot Contractors’ Specials” - that is they were constructed and appointed with the cheapest materials: plain white tiles, carpeting, Pergo flooring, particle board cabinets, Formica counters, luan or plain white plastic composite interior doors.
In other words, despite the “charming” adobe exteriors, these homes have just plain, all-American, cookie-cutter, suburban, boring interiors that you would find in any suburb or housing development. They have none of the character or charm promised by the exterior Southwestern look.
We came away after viewing several homes, the only comment we could make being “What were they thinking?” Either there were strange additions built on, small cut-up rooms, strange layouts, windowless rooms, odd choice of materials.
In addition, homes in our price range and even those much above our price range are all on postage-stamp size lots. Some lots were nicely landscaped, and those in older, more established sections of town had mature junipers, piñon, or other trees. These homes were more likely at the higher end of our range or out of our range all together. Many back yards were not well kept, were full of junk, dilapidated out-buildings, overgrown with cacti or totally devoid of trees and vegetation.
The entire housing landscape is skewed toward unbelievable wealth: for example, today, February 1, 2015, there are nearly 1,800 properties listed. 974 are single family homes, not condos or townhouses, of which only 37 are under $175,000; 66 are between $175,000 and $225,000; (around 10% in our price range) 651 homes are $350,000 or more including the 363 that are over $600,000 and the 179 that are over one million dollars (over 18% are over 1 million).
We did find one very charming 1,500 sq. ft. home with lots of Southwest/Spanish style character that we both liked fairly well. The hacienda style home was listed for $179,000. The home had Saltillo tile, a kiva, 2 bedroom, 2 baths, kitchen, dining room, living room, herringbone wood ceiling, a 2 car garage, a large very nice portal, a fair size lot, but no “view” of the mountains;
So what is wrong with this picture. The home was in a borderline neighborhood and had no city utilities: it shared a well with a neighbor and had a septic system. We were skeptical about the shared well, especially after talking to a neighbor who knew some of the history and given the fact that water is a precious commodity in this area. And we’re thinking there has got to be more to the picture than we are seeing. Nice home, wrong place? The house had been on the market for over 500 days and was in foreclosure. What’s up with that? We were nearly willing to find out, but things just didn’t add up (factually or financially).
We haven’t even considered all moving expenses, closing costs, etc.
Santa Fe congenial: The folks in Santa Fe are very friendly from what we can tell. Almost everyone you meet along a hiking trail or in the dog park will greet you, most will engage in conversation at the slightest provocation. In the grocery store, in the restaurants, at the hotel, people are not as reserved as back east. Maybe it was the particular venues. We also were invited to a gay men’s discussion group where the members were friendly, but at the same time talked about the difficulty they had in “making friends” in Santa Fe. I guess there is a difference between being friendly and making friends. The wisdom is to get involved in as many different activities as possible. Still, friends are a step up from acquaintances, and good friends, people with whom one can establish close ties, are rarer yet.
Santa Fe dog friendly: That just about says it. Dogs are everywhere and just about everywhere one can find a park or a trail that provides great recreation for dogs and their people. We went hiking every day on miles of trails. The Frank Ortiz Dog Park is a large open space with trails going into the hills and arroyos all around.
Santa Fe scenic/stunning: One can enjoy vistas in almost any direction from any point. Hills and arroyos, mountains and mesas, mostly dotted with junipers and piñons, cholla and prickly pear, cottonwoods and yucca. Hiking trails abound. There is likely a hiking trail, walking trail, rail trail or walkable arroyo close to every neighbor hood in Santa Fe. The city, to its credit, has made and maintained trails for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors alike.
In some areas, dead juniper branches and branches of green are juxtaposed against rock out croppings and distant mountains to form pleasing zen-like landscapes. Magenta, rose and yellow-orange sunrises and sunsets are respectively early and late in the day because of the distant and therefore nearly three-hundred-sixty degree horizon. Cloud formations over the mountains from evaporating snow form eerie saucers and in the mountains, snow covered trees make for winter landscapes. Bodies of water are scarce and any so-called lakes are mostly devoid of shoreline trees or vegetation like one might be used to seeing back east or in other lake-dotted regions; I found the starkness of such reservoirs disconcerting.
Santa Fe expensive: Besides the observations about housing I would add that: property taxes and such may be lower in New Mexico, but the cost of living overall is much higher than suburban Hartford county Connecticut. If you are from another large metropolitan area you may find that the cost of living is comparable. In Santa Fe, the first car wash we checked out wanted $17 for a plain, simple wash. For $45 you could get a wash, vacuum and whatever. It should have included a full body massage.
Food prices are high. When a city of 65,000 can support not one, but two, Whole Foods Markets and a Trader Joe’s you know that the cost of living, or should I say the proportion of that 65,000 citizens in the upper income bracket is much higher than in Bristol, Connecticut. Neither does the alternative supermarket, Albertson’s have many bargains unless you buy on sale and in quantity. Green bell peppers 2 for $3, 8oz white mushrooms $4, apples $1 each, cheese seemed twice as expensive as at home in Connecticut. There is no Aldi’s.
Eating out can break your budget too, if you are in our income bracket. $30 gets you a medium pizza, a medium salad to share, a draft beer and a diet coke. Or breakfast for two, or two burgers and two soft drinks. Dinner out for two at a chain restaurant will run $40-$45, without wine or beer.
Yes, there is a Walmart and a Target, Dollar General and Family Dollar, Home Depot and a Big Lots. I was blown away by the price of some things at CVS. I’m certain they would have been half the price back home.
Santa Fe quirky/cultural: Wealthy democrats, artsy lawn sculptures, coyote fences, ristras, red and green chile on everything, chocolate wraps at the spa, crystal cures, spiritual guides. Nearby Madrid is quirkiness on a town wide scale.
Santa Fe offers a lot of cultural venues: opera, theatre, art, performances, history, multi-cultural experiences. We are not terribly attuned to cultural opportunities, mainly because of the cost involved. Concerts and theatre are mostly out of our income bracket, so we pick and choose the things we attend with care and budget in mind.
Santa Fe exclusive: hotels, restaurants, jewelry stores, fashion, galleries, opera. One example: a walk down Canyon Road with its many art galleries…they convey, at least to me, an air of unapproachability, an unfriendliness…I peek in and just feel totally intimidated so don’t even enter. Art here seems exclusive. Even the museums charge admission fees that are prohibitive for us and those of our ilk. The only splurge we did was a landscape tour of Ghost Ranch, Georgia O'Keefe's place in Abuiquiu - not a museum tour, but outdoors. We passed up the museums on Museum Hill and in town because of $$$.
Santa Fe remote: Albuquerque is an hour away, other smaller towns are twenty or thirty minutes away. As such, Santa Fe may as well be an island. Except that it lacks an ocean, the earth element I would miss most there. The remoteness of Santa Fe would seem to lend it to a feeling of isolation, cabin fever, stir-craziness. Except for Albuquerque, there are no other large cities and no substantial bodies of water within a day’s drive. Cochiti Lake is a disappointment.
I think I’d easily become bored. But when I think of my day to day life in Bristol, Connecticut, I don’t venture much beyond city limits there. Yet, knowing that the beach, the mountains, New York, Vermont, the gay campgrounds are mere hours away gives me comfort. Being away from the ocean is a big negative for me.
Health care is an issue that is related to both remoteness and economics. We’ve heard that it is difficult for a retired person to find a physician who takes medicare in Santa Fe and that many doctors are not taking on new patients; that health care in general is inferior to that in bigger cities. Many people travel to Albuquerque for doctor appointments. Those who can pay out of pocket, i.e. the wealthier folks or those who have other kinds of health insurance coverage have better access to health care in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe disparity/two-sided: This goes back to economics for the most part.
I conjecture that many people arrive in Santa Fe, lured by its beauty or liberal life style, or promise of success as an artist or writer, but fail to make ends meet. We heard over and over that those who succeed in making a life in Santa Fe are the wealthy, many of whom only live there part time and those who are retired with good pensions, substantial savings and social security.
There is an upper middle class of professionals: bankers, financial advisors, doctors, professors, high tech people, health care professionals, business owners, perhaps teachers and nurses, two-income families, established land-owning families and others who along with the blue and white collar working classes seem to make up the substance and social infrastructure of Santa Fe.
But judging from the real estate market, and the excessive number of foreclosures and number of days on the market of many homes, the working middle class is being squeezed out of the single family housing market and relegated to apartment rentals and condos. Statistics reported by local TV during our stay reveal that New Mexicans are more likely than residents of any other state to spend their income on housing and other basic necessities, to save less or nothing, and to have more credit card debt, not for frivolous luxuries but mostly for cars and household expenses. New Mexico has lost over 10,000 inhabitants during 2014 to economic opportunities elsewhere. I am assuming that the losses are of middle class and college educated individuals seeking better paying jobs out of state.
I don’t have a clue as to how the poor survive. Cleaning hotel rooms, making burritos, cashiering at the gas station quick mart, are not jobs that offer a living wage, at least not in Santa Fe. Even a job at the airport, doing everything but flying the plane has a starting salary of just over $10 per hour and only part time hours. Leon applied and was offered the job. Totally unrealistic.
Perhaps too many poor turn to petty crimes, drug dealing, burglary, and such. And the DUI/DWI and related accident rate is very high. The crime rate is not as bad as Albuquerque, but still too high for a small town that purports to be classy and sophisticated.
Santa Fe is a city of contrasts: most notably economic contrasts. A large number of people in poverty or near poverty, a shrinking working middle class and growing number of retirees, many having great wealth.
And more Santa Fe: For a city in the high dessert during a period of prolonged drought, neither the city, nor its inhabitants seem to be overly concerned about water. I would have expected more constraints on water usage in the hotels (conservation regarding laundering towels, for example) and more obvious public service type notices about how to conserve water.
I find that New Mexican cuisine becomes tiring: tortillas, beans, rice, chile; everything tastes of cilantro, cumin, and chili powder with some degree of hotness. I still can't tell what the real difference is between tortillas, burritos, and the various other things that are wrapped in flatbreads and smothered with red or green chile. It is kind of like the adobe architecture: interesting and different at first, but it quickly becomes monotonous. One longs for something plain or Italian or Chinese - all of which can be had, of course, but even then, beware of chili taco pizza.
Arbitrary Summary: Bristol scores a bit higher overall, at least with regards to our ability to live in the style to which we've become accustomed. But I did enjoy the time we spent there and miss it just a little.