What It's Like to Live in a Southwestern City

Hear from homeowners who live in the Southwest and find out what it's really like.

Few places in the United States can claim year-round sunshine, a laid-back atmosphere, a distinctive, earthy style of architecture, and a deeply embedded blend of Native American culture, Spanish culture and the pioneer spirit of the Old West. But all of those qualities and more reside in the Southwest, making it a notably different place to live -- a fact that residents of the region often take pride in.

Santa Fe, N.M., the oldest capital city in the U.S., asserts its individuality with its nickname: “The City Different.” Steve Lewis has lived in St. Louis, Chicago, Denver and Cincinnati, but since moving to Santa Fe 20 years ago, says he’s come to embrace the city as he sees almost everyone embrace it.

“There’s just something about it -- it’s so old that you want to protect it. It’s so different that you want to celebrate it,” Lewis says. “I know this is true for almost everybody who lives here that I talk to: You feel lucky to be here.”

After graduating from college in East Texas, Judy Love accepted a job in Albuquerque, N.M., knowing very little about the city. Forty-two years later, she still calls Albuquerque home.

“It’s a place where you really feel good,” Love says. “There’s a positive feeling, and I think a lot of that is because we have a great deal of sunshine, clear skies and beautiful sunsets.”

San Pedro Overlook, a scenic, gated community located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, was chosen as the site of the HGTV Dream Home 2010. The custom-designed 3,900-square-foot home combines Southwestern architecture with modern design and features a state-of-the-art kitchen, a stunning outdoor entertaining space, and a tranquil sunrise room, designed for meditation, reading or exercise. 

So what’s it really like to live in a Southwestern city? Read on to learn how locals have adapted to this unique region.

GETTING AROUND

“There’s a way of doing things in Santa Fe that just universally seems to be different than the way things are done in other places,” Lewis says. “Over time you understand better and better that you can’t just force things to happen here; you kind of have to allow things to happen in their own way.”

A friend around every corner. For those who are accustomed to bustling cities with big populations, Santa Fe’s small-town feel and friendly atmosphere might seem a bit foreign. Lewis says it’s not uncommon to run into your friends and family just walking down the street or to see smiling faces throughout the city.

“I think that can be a little off-putting for people who aren’t used to strangers walking down the street staring them in the eye and smiling at them,” Lewis says. “But it makes it a very comfortable town to be in.”

Movie mayhem. Still, living in a Southwestern city has its challenges. In Albuquerque, for instance, the growing presence of the film industry is starting to affect how residents get around (Terminator Salvation, AMC's Breaking Bad and USA’s In Plain Sight were all recently filmed in the city). Roads are sometimes blocked off for movie shoots. Love says this can sometimes cause problems, especially when filming coincides with other events. One time, lanes on I-40 were closed down for filming on a night when major concerts were also taking place off the interstate.

“There were hundreds of cars they had not planned on having, and it was a big surprise to both the filmmakers and the motorists,” Love says. “So they had to create detours, and some people were inconvenienced and weren’t happy. But they decided that in the future, there will be better communication, and they’ll know that if Willie Nelson is at Route 66 Casino, there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”

But residents are more than willing to deal with some inconvenience considering the influx of job opportunities. Plus, Love says it’s fun for locals to see familiar locations featured in movies or television shows. In fact, Love’s home was almost chosen as a film site for Breaking Bad, but in the end, the home next door made the final cut.

“I’ve never really heard anyone voice major complaints about inconvenience,” she says. “A number of times when we’ve had filming in our neighborhood, we’ve been visited by someone who explains the situation, or we have fliers that indicate that they hope that lights or noise won’t be annoying to the neighborhood.”

Mass transit options. Like many areas of the United States, Southwestern cities often have compact, walkable downtowns, but for more spread-out areas, a car is the most popular mode of transportation. However, public transportation is growing in popularity, especially in the current economy. In Albuquerque, Love says the city’s bus system is constantly improving.

“I think the economy and gas prices have put people on busses who never dreamed that they would ride busses,” Love says. “But it’s comfortable, it’s easy, it’s relaxing, and the bus routes make it convenient for people going all over the city to be dropped off near where they work or where they shop.”

The New Mexico Rail Runner Express, which travels between the Santa Fe and Albuquerque with several stops on the way, has also helped thousands of commuters who go back and forth between the two cities.

“People who commute find that they can sit with their computers with Wi-Fi, put in an hour’s worth of work and have a pleasant commute,” Love says. “It really has improved the congestion and the safety with fewer people on the road.”

Other Southwestern cities are exploring similar public transportation options. A light rail recently opened to connect Tempe, Ariz. and Phoenix, bringing a mass transit option to a typically car-driven lifestyle.

OWNING A HOME

Unique architecture. The earthy, organic architecture of the Southwest is one of the region’s most distinguishing features, setting it apart from the rest of the United States. Today, that distinctly Southwestern style of home is highly sought after by residents of the area, but it was originally adopted out of necessity.

When the Southwest was founded, vegetation was sparse, and the most readily available building material was clay or mud. Homes were therefore built out of adobe -- clay, straw and water hardened into bricks and mortared together. Not only were these adobe bricks a convenient construction material, but they were also durable and insulating, keeping homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Eventually, adobe homes evolved into a more specific execution called Pueblo Revival style, in which adobe is used along with large beams, or vigas, rounded corners and flat roofs. Territorial style, or adobe walls with squared-off columns, broad portals and brick copings, is another popular adobe adaptation. While other architectural styles can be found throughout the Southwest, these are the signature styles of the region.

“It’s just been adapted all over town, from my house, to the dry cleaners, to the Conoco station, to whatever you want to name,” Lewis says of Santa Fe.

Genuine vs. faux adobe. While the adobe look can be found throughout the city, not all homes are genuine adobe. Building a genuine adobe home is a labor-intensive process, and the homes require regular maintenance, such as waterproofing or replastering every few years. For that reason, many homes are “faux-dobe” -- made with common building materials such as lumber and concrete blocks, but covered with stucco so they resemble adobe. But genuine adobe homes are in high demand, and when properly maintained, they’re extremely long-lasting.

“In so many ways, that old adobe takes some really consistent care to keep it stable and viable,” Lewis says. “We’ve got adobe homes here that are 300 years old so it’s definitely doable, but it takes a little work."

Genuine adobe also offers a unique, natural look that can’t quite be duplicated by other materials. Lewis says one thing residents of the Southwest have noticed is that it’s difficult to get things plumb in an adobe home.

“You look down the wall and it’s just not quite square or quite smooth -- it might ripple a little bit,” he says. “But adobe is very desirable, so that kind of rippling wall is something to aspire to.”

And residents of the Southwest are serious about keeping these old adobe homes intact. In Tucson, Ariz., there was a public outcry when some of the city’s historic barrios -- colorful adobe row houses originally built in the early 19th century -- were demolished. Today, artists, younger couples and other Tucsonans are revitalizing these historic homes. And in Santa Fe’s five Historic Districts, the architecture is regulated by the Historic Design Review Board. If a resident wants to remodel or add on to his home, the plan has to be approved architecturally and conceptually by the board in order to maintain the historic nature and character of the home.

A twist on the traditional. While the historic appeal of these districts is certainly a selling point, many older adobe homes have small, dark rooms, low ceilings and small windows that don't jibe with contemporary tastes. In the hills surrounding Santa Fe, the lots are bigger, the homes are larger and high-end homes are more prevalent, Lewis says. And since architects aren’t bound by the design codes of the historic districts, more contemporary realizations of the adobe style can be found outside of town. Some high-end homes are even built using genuine adobe, and eco-friendly features are becoming more and more standard in newly constructed homes. “There are some absolutely astounding homes in and around Santa Fe, both technically as well as aesthetically,” Lewis says.

Water conscious. Besides the added maintenance that comes along with Southwestern homes themselves, the arid climate of the region also presents challenges for homeowners.

“Everybody is just critically aware of water use,” Lewis says. Santa Fe has one of the lowest per-capita water usages in the country, Lewis says, and residents take measures every day to keep water consumption to a minimum, from turning off the faucet while brushing their teeth to using low-flow showerheads. City-wide projects also help to reduce water consumption: Santa Fe has a municipal-wide toilet retrofit program, where you can trade in your high-flow toilet for a low-flow toilet.

“There are even commercials that are paid for by the city about how to save water,” Lewis says.

Landscaping is also a huge consideration when it comes to water consumption in the Southwest.

“There was very little vegetation here, but somehow when people came in they wanted lawns,” Love says. To save water, people are now moving to xeriscaping, or landscaping with drought-resistant plants that require little water, and Albuquerque is working hard to encourage this transition.

“Nurseries have worked with local people, getting them to plant vegetation that blooms in beautiful colors but requires very little water,” she says. “The same thing with flowering trees. It’s beautiful and colorful, but not in the way you would really think of in yards that need regular watering.”

FINDING FUN

Love for the outdoors. Year-round sunshine, a dry climate, mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery make the Southwest an ideal spot for a wide range of outdoor activities, from hiking to biking to golfing to skiing, to name a few.

“Albuquerque has always joked that in the winter, usually you can ski in the morning and sometimes play golf and tennis in the afternoon because of the sunshine,” Love says. “It’s a dry cold and not very penetrating, and in the summer it’s a dry heat.”

Boating in the air. One downside for outdoor enthusiasts living in the Southwest is a lack of water. As an alternative to boating and other water sports, many Albuquerqueans have taken up an interesting hobby: hot-air ballooning.

The city is the ballooning capital of the world because of a weather phenomenon called the "Albuquerque box effect," which means a pilot can ascend from a point in the city, float south, west and north again, and land in nearly the same location. Each October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta draws thousands of balloonists and spectators from all over the world for nine days, but hot-air ballooning is a year-round pastime in the city. Many Albuquerque locals own balloons, and almost any morning, you can look up and see the colorful globes, Love says.

“You’ll drive by a home and instead of seeing a boat and a trailer in the driveway, you might see a hot-air balloon,” Love says. “It’s really a lot of fun. You gather all your friends together because you need a crew, and it makes for wonderful fun year round.”

Culture and the arts. In addition to being a haven for sports lovers, the Southwest is also a major cultural hub, and the region’s unique cultural blend is a major influence on art and performance. Santa Fe is the second-largest art market in the country after New York and has long been known as a source of exceptional Western and regional art, as well as Native American fine-art crafts and Hispanic religious folk art.

“Locals are very much art-inspired,” Lewis says. “And that can be anything from traditional Spanish Colonial type art, to doing tin work or straw applique or colcha embroidery, to just being a plein air painter or doing your own jewelry.”

Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque have a vibrant performing life. Albuquerque has 37 theater groups that perform year-round, Love says, and Santa Fe locals are just as likely to frequent the Santa Fe Opera, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival or the Santa Fe Thirsty Ear Festival as tourists are, Lewis says. “Locals definitely tend to take advantage of all those things that drive our hospitality industry, but really are locally supported just as much as by our out-of-town visitors,” Lewis says.

You are what you eat. The cuisine -- a unique fusion of Native American and Spanish ingredients and influences -- is a huge part of Southwestern culture. In New Mexico, the official state question is “Red or Green?” -- a reference to which kind of chile you'd like with your meal. (A popular answer is “Christmas,” or both red and green).

In both Santa Fe and Albuquerque, a local favorite is the enchilada: a tortilla that’s laid flat, filled with beans, rice, chicken or beef, covered with another tortilla smothered in red or green chile (or both), and often topped with a fried egg. More than anything, chile is ubiquitous in New Mexican food. It can be served with anything from eggs to hamburgers to steak -- there’s even a popular green chile beer. (“I try to stay away from that myself,” Lewis says.)

“It’s very specific to our area, and we love that about ourselves. We always want to share that with anybody who’s not familiar with it,” Lewis says. “We want to make people eat chile, because we enjoy it so much and have such a pride in it.”

Local pride. Overall, many people in the Southwest take a great deal of pride in where they live, and it shows in the activities they participate in. In Albuquerque, Love says locals often visit Old Town, the city’s oldest quarter where the distinct cultures of the area come together. 2010 marked Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, and Lewis says many people got involved in commemorating that landmark.

“We just want to help people understand what we love about Santa Fe so much,” Lewis says. “That’s true in a lot of places, but it’s very, very true here.”

TALLYING THE COST OF LIVING

The Southwest has its roots in pioneers and explorers. Surrounded by mountains on three sides and a desert to the south, Santa Fe’s position, in particular, was an unlikely place for a city to sprout. Today, the city’s remote location takes a toll on the cost of living in the area.

“It hasn’t been an easy place to get to, so things have to travel a ways to get here, everything from iceberg lettuce to door hardware,” Lewis says of Santa Fe. “So cost of living is a little higher here than in many places.”

Besides location, energy prices affect cost of living in Santa Fe -- gas tends to be several cents per gallon higher than anywhere else in New Mexico, Lewis says. The state also has a gross receipts tax, a tax on goods and services, levied on the seller rather than the consumer. Since the hospitality industry is the second largest industry in Santa Fe, a huge number of entrepreneurs are affected, Lewis says.

“Every one of those entrepreneurs -- from your individual artist to your gallery to a clothing shop to a public relations consultant -- all of those folks are paying that gross receipts tax on everything, and that makes it expensive,” he says.

In Albuquerque, Love says the cost of food and land are relatively inexpensive, though real estate prices are increasing rapidly as people realize that the city is a good place to live. The cost of entertainment is also lower than larger cities, even though Albuquerque receives quality entertainment throughout the year. Overall, Love says Albuquerque is not the least expensive place to live, but it’s moderate compared to the extremes of the East and West coasts.

“Our salary scale is lower, but I think you can maintain a very good standard of living on a lower scale,” Love says.

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