In a city known for its high altitude, elevated spirits, and glorious skies, one might understandably overlook Santa Fe’s most down-to-earth cultural icon: the Santa Fe Railyard District.
The Railyard District is Santa Fe’s newest old neighborhood, offering an ever-evolving version of the authentic Southwestern experience. While Santa Fe’s historic Plaza may be the heart of town, the Railyard is its new cultural lifeline, serving up a casual — dare-I-say hipper — side of Santa Fe, while tipping its hat to traditional and time-honored activities just blocks away, and living side by side with one of Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhoods. Here locals and visitors converge in an eclectic mecca of contemporary art, fresh food, unique shopping, and old-fashioned relaxation.
Long before it became a “district,” however (more than a hundred years ago, for you history buffs), the Santa Fe Railyard served as the official gateway to the City Different. Tourists, artists, businessmen, and more than a few adventure seekers discovered a magical frontier beyond their wildest dreams, courtesy of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Strolling the picturesque district on a coffee-fueled spring morning, I learned that the Santa Fe Railyard District once supported a booming railroad economy, bringing laborers and materials vital to the development of our distinctive central neighborhoods and landmarks. Decades of economic glory faded into memory, however, as new generations of travelers found Santa Fe by car and eventually airplane. And the once-bustling Railyard fell to neglect and abandon.
Thankfully, Santa Fe’s past and future got back on track, so to speak, when the city pledged to revitalize the Santa Fe Railyard District, restoring the cultural hub’s historic elements, and reinventing a lively network of colorful, open-air community spaces. The district’s revitalization included the establishment of the Railyard Park, which is the “green heart” of the district. The park includes an outdoor performance space for movies and concerts, picnic areas in shady groves and gardens, and 5,000 feet of walk-bike trails that will link to a citywide trail network.
Much like the rail lines of old, the Santa Fe Railyard District offers refreshing, surprising, and unforgettable stops. Indulge in Santa Fe’s emerging performance events, dining destinations, and to-die-for shops. Or just set off on a local journey defined only by the district’s enchanting rhythm. So let’s roll down the tracks …
Tomasita’s proudly holds court among Santa Fe’s chile royalty. But there’s nothing stodgy about this local landmark. Open since 1974, the lively restaurant is considered by many the epicenter of the Railyard. Drop in to begin or end your day, to see and be seen, or to soak up the Railyard’s good vibes and creative energy. Authentic — as in, “abuela’s in the kitchen” — New Mexican food is the specialty. That means mouthwatering traditional chiles rellenos, enchiladas, and stuffed sopaipillas. (I confess the smell of fresh tortillas sustained me as I waited in the quick-moving line of hungry patrons.) Diners are encouraged to fearlessly dive into local red and green chile, and then toast the culinary adventure with a famous sangria swirl margarita.
SITE Santa Fe
Visit SITE Santa Fe to experience full-throttle visual and performance art in the Railyard District. Here video, photography, large-scale sculpture, and painting coexist in harmony, as internationally recognized artists make full use of this modern space. SITE’s fantastic, flexible gallery space and groundbreaking contemporary art exhibitions provide an intoxicating yang to the yin of Santa Fe’s beloved traditional arts. I can proudly say I expanded my artistic horizons by simply wandering through each of the current exhibitions. A video installation by performance artist Linda Montano entitled "Art/Life Counseling" really called to me (though I’m not exactly sure what it said). The video monitor is draped in a disheveled red wig and the face of the artist speaks directly to viewers. Comical, endearing, and, mildly unsettling. Bravo, SITE.
Santa Fe Clay
If observing isn’t enough for your artistic endeavors, there is no finer way to get your hands dirty than with a visit to Santa Fe Clay. This is a dream facility for diehard DIY-ers, or anyone craving an enlightening hands-on experience. At a sprawling 10,000 square feet, the fantastic space offers endless hours of creativity via its gallery, artist studios, retail store, wheels and kilns, and massive workshop and teaching space with expert staff. Santa Fe Clay hosts classes year-round for adults and children, and exhibits some of the finest clay artists working in the medium today. I’m not talking pinch pots and light switch covers here. Santa Fe Clay is a dynamic, forward thinking studio. Inspired by the shelves of creations set out to dry, the fresh-out-of-the-kiln pots, and the sheer joy on the faces of workshop participants, I have officially pledged to get my clay groove on.
Railyard Artisan Market
Saturdays and Sundays bring the Santa Fe Artists Market and the Railyard Artisan Market. Prepare to be surprised. Housed alongside the east walkway of SITE Santa Fe on Saturdays or inside the Farmers Market Pavilion on Sundays, the respected markets boast fine handmade crafts and artworks ranging from knitted scarves and hats to watercolor landscapes to artisanal teas and body products. My credit card limit flashed before my eyes as I beheld a gasp-worthy selection of fun retro aprons, imported clothing from India, felt handbags, hand blown glassware, and a virtual trove of jewelry. Pick up one-of-a-kind gifts here, or self-gifts — my favorites. Several crafters work while you stroll, offering unfiltered glimpses of their works-in-progress.
Perhaps the unifying event in the Railyard is the renowned Farmers Market. This market prides itself on strict standards requiring that all food and products be made with local ingredients, and prohibiting reselling. That means you buy directly from the source. I love the idea of paying the farmer who grew my food. The market is alive with energy, color, and happy shoppers. Fresh breads, seasonal herbs, overflowing baskets of greens and veggies, free range eggs, aromatic fresh and dried chiles, local honey and jams, luxurious body products, organic coffee, and homemade tamales transform moods and test your bliss-endurance. Meanwhile, strolling musicians and kid friendly activities keep young shoppers smiling. The market is open 8 am-1pm Saturdays (year-round) and Tuesdays (May through Thanksgiving week). June-September the hours shift forward an hour: 7 am-noon.
Beyond the food scene, a true feeling of community pervades this burgeoning creative space. Whether you want to swing dance or catch a reggae band, see a thought-provoking film, visit with neighbors over coffee and burritos, even witness a dynamic aerial acrobatic performance held right on site, all you need to do is show up. Check the jam-packed schedule on the Santa Fe Railyard District website for information. Or take my advice and gather your friends for the Free Railyard Park Movie Series, which features movies every other Friday night all summer. Meet me at “The Princess Bride” July 27 or “… prepare to die!
Balancing history, authenticity, adventure, art, food, and performance, the Santa Fe Railyard District sparkles with timeless appeal and youthful. Find your favorite stop, as you get on board with a cultural treasure that is definitely moving in the right direction.