Monday, June 13, 2011

Life's Lessons at the Aztec Motel

I. Intro:
While perusing a local urban exploration blog last week, I was surprised and dismayed to read about the demolition of the Aztec Motel. I had just driven by the area, several weeks prior and, while the building was intact, it did appear abandoned, its long, slow decline now solidified.

Part of the reason for my surprise was that I had amassed, over the last few years, a good-sized collection of photographic images taken on the property; and secondarily, the Aztec Motel's location along Albuquerque's Central Avenue -- the legendary Route 66 -- in the heart of what is now the urban chic Nob Hill district, made it a natural subject of interest for local historians.

Of course, what remained the hotel's most obvious draw was not its history, but the eclectic folk-art decor, plastered over its entirety and extending outwards onto the property's grounds.

(From "Roach Motel Series", pinhole collage)

II. Background:
I will not attempt any kind of scholarly treatise herein on the history of Route 66 -- The Mother Road -- except for what local history and family legend have been passed down to me.

My Dad passed away three years ago, at the age of 90. He was a rancher's son, a rough-and-tumble youngster who grew up in the dry, high desert of New Mexico during the Great Depression. He was a WWII vet, an unsung hero (we later found out), and a loving Dad to three young boys who had lost their Mom to illness.

Dad was born on the ranch, situated on what was then Albuquerque's east mesa (but now is square within the city limits) a mere stone's throw from what would be, decades later, the Mother Road, but then (at the tail end of the Great War) was just a mere dirt road.

He would tell stories of life near the road, like of migrant road worker camps, Mexican ladies cooking tortillas by fireside; of wood cutters hauling their loads from the nearby Sandias to sell in town; of vagabonds and travelers; of his Dad the rancher's failed dreams when the well broke, the family moving back into town and once again living a mere stone's throw off what would become the Mother Road, in the historic Huning Heights neighborhood. Over the years, my Dad's life seemed constantly intertwined with that fabled Mother Road.

The original Route 66 threaded its way through New Mexico via a detour that took it north to near Santa Fe, then down along the Pueblo villages of the Rio Grande valley, a route that took it north to south through Albuquerque along what is now 4th Street. Then, in 1937, it was realigned via a direct east to west route through the Tijeras Canyon pass of the Sandia Mountain range, straight into Albuquerque's Central Avenue, passing directly adjacent to the old Van Cleave homestead.

The corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street, in downtown Albuquerque, is where the old and new alignments of Route 66 cross each other.

In the 1950s, the iconic neon sign art sprang up along Central Avenue, Route 66 being the primary tourist road for travelers crossing the state. During this time, my Grandpa leased the former ranch-land to several drive-in movie theater companies. One of these, the Terrace Drive-In, sported a forty-foot-tall, animated neon sculpture of a dancing flamenco lady, situated along the back of the screen facing Central. My memory of that sign is still vivid to this day.

The many businesses that sprang up along Central Avenue to service the Route 66 tourist traffic included cafes, theaters and motels like the Aztec.

Dad would take us to the movies on a regular basis, us three boys piled into the back of the station wagon, because Grandpa got free tickets from the theater's management. I feel that, although I wasn't born in immediate proximity to the Mother Road, I came of age at the tail-end of Route 66's heyday, until the newly-built Interstate 40 took tourist dollars away from the area and it began its long, slow decline from tourist mecca, to drug-gang Combat Zone, to newly renamed International District.

Like my Dad before me, I can recall now that, over the years, my life too has grown around the Mother Road. I once lived in an apartment nearby, and I now hang out at coffee shops along its silver thread. And the family's former ranch-land, it's still in our possession, nearly a century having past since Grandpa first broke ground.

III. That Was Then, This is Now:
The Aztec Motel came to my attention about a decade ago, as I became more active in prowling around the university and Nob Hill districts of Central Avenue, in search of street photos.

The gestalt surrounding the Aztec is immediately apparent: you can't miss it. First-timers drive by, heads suddenly spinning around as brake lights flash. "Did you see that?" It had that classic southwestern Route 66 motel appearance, with tall, neon sign out front, but what stuck out was the building's exterior surfaces and surrounding grounds were almost entirely covered in folk-art, kitschy decor, junk and detritus of every conceivable ilk.

There was the metal grid of a once bed spring, propped up against the building's wall as a climbing vine's support. There were picture frames, paintings, yard sculptures galore. A glass garden of (recently) emptied wine and beer bottles. Wooden cable spools supporting a menagerie of nicknacks and whatnot. A collection of dolls and stuffed animals, nailed to the stump of a tall tree, crucifix-like. And tables, each like a personal shrine of sorts, out front of each room, where the occupants could provide their own, individualized, artistic display.

The Aztec wasn't the kind of place you'd want to take your family for a nice getaway. There were bikers, street people, recovering addicts, a menagerie of folks of life's down-and-out, existing week-to-week, on the edge, some residents more long term than others.

I started making infrequent visits a few years back with pinhole box cameras and tripods. I was always (still am) cautious about trespassing uninvited for the selfish purpose of acquiring photos, as I'd usually shoot from the public sidewalk. Later, I'd get a bit more bold and start capturing my long exposures on the grounds itself. The residents I met, they were all, to the person, excited that someone would be interested in capturing some essence of the eclectic place that they called home. Yet, they didn't want their pictures made, almost as if their life could be better portrayed through the facade of the motel itself, as if it were a gallery of their impromptu, spontaneous creative expressions revealed.

Several years ago I began to take with me a pair of 8"x10" pinhole box cameras. I had learned, through years of off-again, on-again explorations into pinhole photography, that the bigger the negative the more information collected therein.

("Aztec Altar", 8x10 pinhole camera paper negative)

IV. Found and Lost:
One day, after a rain storm, the air moist and the light subdued, I arrived at the Aztec with my large box cameras and heavy tripod. There I found an altar in front of one of the rooms, made from a smattering of votive candles and an old bible, the pages weathered and wrinkled. The surface of the altar had been an old vanity sink, the sink's bowl filled in with the stain of dirt and debris. That one image satisfied my hunger and search for visual truth at the Aztec Motel. Regardless of what kind of gear I subsequently used, or however inspired I felt, I knew that I had captured the quintessential spirit of the place in that one photo. Or, so I felt at the time.

And so, my interest waned. I'd drive by on subsequent visits and think "meh." Been there, done that. I'd leave without a picture, or maybe redo a previous composition but come away with something lacking inspiration, devoid of life or interest.

Time passed, and I assumed the Aztec Motel would always be there, should I suddenly get a renewed fire in my belly, a restoration of the documenter's hunger and curiosity for the world Out There.

And then, last week, I made the pilgrimage once more to the Aztec Motel, along the old Mother Road, to find the sign still standing (the city's sign ordinance grandfather's in older signs that exceed the new height restrictions), but the building, it was half ruins, a bulldozer parked out back, the property fenced off with chain link, the city having condemned (like they have much of our past history) these relics from a time now long gone, to make way for -- what, some boutique shop, or art gallery, or fast-food joint, or lofts, or a mere parking lot?

The lesson is clear and striking: the only constant in life is change. We've got to make the time to document our homes, our neighborhoods, our towns, before they change before our very eyes, quicker than you can blink away the tears of nostalgia and regret, becoming the future present-tense, our memories firmly rooted in a past whose only evidence will be musty photos, journal books and stories you tell your kids, and your kids' kids.

Aztec Motel Picture Gallery:
(Click each image to enlarge)
Older Pinhole Camera Images:

Images from 2009:

Recent Images from March 2011:


Blogger Ted said...

Beautiful, sad and so very true, all at once. You are an insightful fellow, Joe - and you take wonderful pictures. (:

2:23 PM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

I'm with Ted, a yarn exquisitely spun.

5:00 PM  

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