On some mornings, 70-year-old Gregory Lovato brings a bag of memories with him to breakfast.
The other old-timers circled around tables at the McDonald’s on St. Michael’s Drive tease him about the stacks of Polaroids in the shopping bag at his feet. Lovato likes having the photos close because they are proof of the past, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican.
On a recent morning, he spread them proudly across the table, like baseball cards from boyhood. In the cracked and faded photos were men in cowboy hats and silver-studded belts, saddled horses and pigeons raised in wire cages, baby-blue Cadillacs bought for $125 and children who addressed their elders as Mr. and Mrs.
Those were the days, he said.
“I miss them a lot,” Lovato said, his eyes behind black aviator glasses. “I feel like crying.”
Santa Fe is not the same city he remembers. He watched the downtown area change as the city grew and sprawled south. Much of the city’s growth began in the 1970s with a swell of baby boomers. An analysis of recent U.S. Census Bureau data by The New Mexican shows the growth peaked in the 1990s and has been slowing since then as young people either move away or don’t move in.
In what might be called the graying of Santa Fe, the numbers also show a stark reversal is underway. By 2020, people 65 and older will outnumber those who are 18 and younger for the first time in the county’s history, according to Santa Fe long-range planner Reed Liming.
Today, most of the growth is on the southwest side of the city, where there are new developments and cheap housing. The demographic shift is not only a challenge for city officials trying to return young people to the downtown core, but it also means a sense of loss for older people who long for the city of their younger days.
Between 1970 and 2010, census data show, the city grew to 67,947 people from 42,780. Santa Fe County’s total population nearly tripled in that period, rising to 144,170 from 53,756. The numbers fluctuated rapidly soon after because of a government action.
In 2014, the city’s population increased by nearly 15,000 people, climbing to 82,800. It wasn’t because of a spike in people moving in, but because their neighborhoods were part of a 4,100-acre annexation from the county.
Karen Walker, 76, was one of the baby boomers who swarmed into the city in the 1970s. When she moved here at the beginning of that decade with two young sons, she said, the three could buy everything they needed downtown.
There was Bell’s, where she’d buy inexpensive jeans for the boys. Base Camp had red Roy Rogers neckerchiefs and little Frisbees. Capital Pharmacy was where she and the boys would buy soda pop and sit behind plate-glass windows to watch people go about their day.
Other boomers from that time say the community was closer, wound tight around a downtown developed for them.
“But then slowly,” said Walker, author of Santa Fe Real Estate: Good Things to Know, “people began to buy the buildings. Or if they already owned them, they began to push the rent up.”
As the city of Santa Fe grew by more than 6,000 people between 1970 and 1980, rent downtown began straining small-business owners, Walker said. Then in 1985, amid their outcry, the Villa Linda Mall opened at Cerrillos and Rodeo roads. The mall is now called Santa Fe Place.
The mall, like others of that era in most American cities, caused an exodus of businesses from the heart of Santa Fe. In late July 1985, businessman J.D. Arnold told The New Mexican that the mall’s shadow loomed over the city five years before it opened.
“We will just have to live with a changed downtown,” said Arnold, who was president of the Greater Downtown Santa Fe Council. “It unfortunately will become more and more of a tourist area. Downtown will never be the same.”
Meanwhile, the county had begun paving its roads as city residents with stagnant wages struggled to pay higher rents, said 83-year-old Harry Moul, a former city planner. Now those people had a way to live in the county and commute easily to work in the city, and they had a good reason to do it, he said.
“It made it hard for people who work here to live here, or to live well,” said Moul, a city resident.
For many decades, people moved to the city, chasing jobs in local and state government. They bought houses and settled down. Between 1930 and 1970, the city grew by about 31,600 people. The unincorporated areas of the county also grew during that time, by almost 34,200 people.
But during the 1970s, Moul said, the county saw more rapid growth. Between 1970 and 2000, more than 75,500 city residents and others who were new to the region moved to areas of the county outside city limits. The city, meanwhile, began expanding south — more fallout from higher rents. Economic downturns reshaped demographic patterns.
The county had been growing at an annual average of more than 3,000 people in the 1990s, according to census figures. But in the 2000s, growth tailed off to about 1,500 each year. Birthrates were part of the equation. From a high in 2007 of more than 1,800 births, the number fell to just more than 1,300 in 2015, according to state Department of Health data. City planners say this indicates outward migration of young people likely to have children.
Now, Santa Fe County is only growing in and around the city, and most of that growth is on the city’s southwest side. Other areas of the city, especially in the center, are losing population. Between 2000 and 2010, neighborhoods south of Airport and Rodeo roads — Tierra Contenta — grew by more than 150 percent. Communities north of Airport Road and along Agua Fría Street grew by 17 percent, according to census data. A neighborhood between St. Francis Drive and Old Pecos Trail grew by 18 percent.
The southwestern stretch of the city also accounts for the largest growth in child populations, indicating young people with children are either moving to these areas or starting families there. These neighborhoods contained some of the city’s youngest residents in 2010, when the average age along the western and central sections of Agua Fría Street and south of Airport Road was 32.
City planner Liming said new affordable housing developments and housing construction in general are driving most of the growth in the southwest parts of the city. But that’s nothing new, said Vince Kadlubek, chief executive of the Meow Wolf arts collective.
The city has known for two decades that its population is aging.
“The problem is clear as day,” said Kadlubek, who is also chairman of the Santa Fe Planning Commission. “The problem is housing. We don’t have housing in our community for young people.”
Moul, the former city planner, wonders sometimes what brings people to the city of Santa Fe.
“I used to think they liked the adobe architecture because it was so tactile,” he said. “They liked the idea of quality.”
But he’s not sure.
“Maybe it’s a reaction to the industrial environment in the big cities,” he said, “and maybe it’s the congestion of the East Coast.”
Santa Fe used to be a little town full of farm animals and people Lovato knew. He used to work all day on his father’s ranch and on the weekends shine shoes on the Plaza for a dime. If he got four customers, he could buy a movie ticket.
“I used to love it,” he said.
Lovato, now retired, still visits the Plaza. He said it makes him sad, though, because the city has lost its animals and gained many strangers. But it still has its pigeons. On Sundays, after he becomes tired from talking to tourists, he finds a bench and pulls a bag from his pocket and scatters corn in the grass for the gathering birds. He knows they are always hungry.
Some days, he said, they remind him of the birds he raised when he was a boy, when the city was so much different.