Across Greater Downtown, merchants confront security problems that just seem to get worse and worse

People with all kinds of problems walk into stores and create more of them

Theft seems more brazen than before, impunity more stark, and police are hard to find
The calm and the storm.
FROM THE OUTDOOR PATIO AT J.C.'S NEW YORK PIZZA DEPARTMENT — Sit down to a couple of slices here on a lunch hour warm by February standards, and you could almost be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.

A dozen or so people are enjoying their lunches or midday beers, traffic noise is far from overwhelming, and the conversations are light and friendly. In the post-COVID Downtown core, "bustling" certainly doesn't describe the scene, but there are definitely people walking by. Some of them look as though they may not be sleeping in a bed or a house tonight, but most seem to be office workers, business types, or students from one of the two nearby charter high schools. The sun is shining, the pizza is delicious, and for a couple of hours at least, all seems pleasantly right with Downtown Albuquerque.

We've posted up at this table today to prove a point: Even here, just a few paces from Central and Second, the Downtown core is not the warzone you may have seen on TV. For the most part, it is every bit the interesting collection of people and storied buildings that they show in the brochures, and generally nothing to be afraid of. Mayhem may be too common, but it is also very uncommon, particularly if you avoid the late-night scene.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that if you own, operate, or work at one of the public-facing businesses along this strip or areas nearby - the places that give the neighborhood its pep and personality - your life is probably way more frustrating, difficult, and quite possibly dangerous than just a couple of years ago. Customers may not even notice, but stress levels among merchants have been turned up to 11.

Greater Downtown in general, and Central in particular, has long featured more than its share of people with problems aplenty and no apparent place to go. Some have clear mental health issues, some are sleeping off or actively reeling from the effects of any number of drugs, and some just seem to wander around. Plenty are out of their minds in a basically harmless sort of way, while a few are downright scary.

Whether the overall numbers have increased or are simply more prominent against the retreat of the cube dwellers and tourists is a subject on which there isn't much data, but this at least is clear: Merchants are dealing with more problems, more often. And while someone walking by can usually be out of a rough character's way in a matter of seconds, it is an entirely different story when that person walks into a business.

Arriving for work in the morning at Tuerta, a sandwich shop near Central and Fourth, owner Liam Kimball routinely finds that his first chore of the day is to gingerly coax people sleeping in his doorway off to their next engagement. Then, a few times per week, someone having a mental health breakdown or bad drug reaction will wander in, and his job then becomes a delicate improvisation aimed at getting them to leave with as little drama as possible.

The alley behind his shop, meanwhile, is now so commonly strewn with needles and feces that Kimball has forbidden his employees from taking out the garbage, preferring to take over the job himself.

"There's a bunch of people who are not well and need help and nobody is helping them," he said. "It's doubled, at least. Maybe more."

Everyone seems to have a story like this.

At the Acre, the new vegetarian restaurant on Gold, staff recently had to hustle away a man with a machete. At Duran Central Pharmacy in West Downtown, people stumble in, sometimes dirty or even bleeding, insisting that they want to "look around" the gift shop and pharmacy, owner Mona Ghattas told DAN. Other proprietors have been hit or had drinks thrown in their faces. Windows get broken.

On January 5, one man had to be ejected on two separate occasions from a gallery in the Simms Building owned by the artist Amy Baca López, according to a police report obtained through a public records request. The man, identified as Justyn McDaniel, caused damages alternately estimated at $1,000 and $2,000. Baca López subsequently announced that she would close the gallery, which opened last summer, permanently. She declined to comment further. 

"It's gotten bad," said Dan Garcia, the owner of Garcia's Kitchen, which has a location in West Downtown. 

"I would say it's definitely at a high point," added Jesús Zamora, the owner of Sister, a bar near Central and Fourth.

"You never know what's going to happen when one of those aggressive types walks into your business. It gets hairy sometimes." added Len Romano, the owner of Ripe Inc., a branding firm, and a co-chair of the West Downtown Business Group.

Some individuals also seem to be more on edge, angrier, and less cooperative than before.

Perhaps thanks to the stress of the COVID era, "people have gone crazy," Ghattas said. 

"Across the globe, everyone's mental health has suffered," Kimball added. "I would assume that would be the same for the homeless."

For businesses that sell anything portable and valuable, theft has also lately taken a turn for the brazen. Before, shoplifters would at least be discreet about it, but not so much anymore.

"They know they can get away with it," Ghattas said.

Garcia recounted one story - from his Coors and Montaño location - of a man who walked out the door with a basket of stolen food and carefully loaded it into his car, all while complaining about being harassed by staffers asking him to return the merchandise.

Apart from taking pictures and sharing them with employees so they know to watch out for the people in the future, "you can't do anything about it," Garcia said.

The sense of impunity extends to other rule-breaking as well. Last November, Victoria Van Dame, the owner of the OT Circus Gallery near Central and Eighth, woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of six cars doing doughnuts in the gravel parking lot just south of Damacios Bar and Tapas, the restaurant that succeeded Villa di Cappo.

"They were pushing all the dirt onto the sidewalks," Van Dame said. "You could smell it all the way across the street."

The ruckus went on - all under the eyes of an APD mobile camera unit - for an hour and a half.

"No cops, no nothing," Van Dame said.

Among the aggrieved business owners, managers, and employees, there is little hope that police can be of much help, either by responding to incidents quickly or by being in the area frequently enough to establish a deterrent.

"When we've got no presence here, the opportunists start to come out of the woodwork," Romano said. "The cops don't respond so there's nothing to stop them."

For West Downtown, this is all the more frustrating because the business group there spearheaded an effort a few years ago to bring bicycle cops to Central. They ultimately succeeded, and the city started the program, but these days merchants rarely see the fruits of their labor actually riding up and down the street, Romano said.

A lack of police presence - on bicycles or otherwise - is a frequent complaint among the business community and area residents alike, and the response from the city just as often points to a national shortage of applicants.

"We've got the money," said Aaron Nieto, a community liaison for Mayor Tim Keller, addressing a recent meeting in West Downtown. "The problem is getting individuals to be officers."

Prospects for other solutions range from tenuous to TBD. If more police are not on offer, some have wondered if more city security officers (organized by the Department of Municipal Development) or perhaps cleanup crews from the Block by Block program (DAN, 3/25/21), could be deployed to more parts of Central and beyond, hopefully providing at least some impression of an authority that was paying attention.

The city isn't shutting the door on the idea, but it hints at challenges finding the labor and/or money to make it happen: "We're always open to community-centered approaches to making our city safer," spokeswoman Ava Montoya said. "To do this, we'll need more boots. Growing our DMD security and Block by Block teams is essential if we want to expand their presence to neighborhoods throughout the city."

Other initiatives that could potentially help with the larger problem include the newly-formed Albuquerque Community Safety Department. Its remit includes helping people with mental health and other problems that don't necessarily require a police response, but it's hard to say in these early days whether the overall plan is working. Also in the category of too-soon-to-tell are the forthcoming homeless shelter and services center slated to open next winter, the sprawling Metro Crime Initiative, and APD's recent concentration on various forms of vehicular lawlessness on Central.

Whether any of those ideas, from the minor procedural change to the grand reform, ultimately does the trick, the prospects of better days seem this winter to be far over the horizon.

"It all sounds terrific," Kimball said of the various initiatives. "I don't believe that any of them are going to happen."

The sense of resignation is apparent even in those stalwarts who can usually be counted on for relentless positivity.

Len Romano is one of those people. A Huning Castle resident and Central Avenue business owner, he delights in his ability to walk either to the bosque or the heart of an urban area in 15 minutes or less, and he's a big fan of the mountains and our reliably great weather. Still, "when you brag about Albuquerque, it's usually cultural or natural assets and rarely about how business-friendly it is or how well the city is run. I'm saying that because I believe in Albuquerque, I'm invested here and volunteer a lot of my time, and I want it to succeed. But Downtown has been bumping along the bottom for a while now. Something is broken and needs to be repaired."

For Greater Downtown and Central, there are other possibilities that maybe, just maybe, will push things in a better direction. The Downtown Growers' Market's season, along with its big crowds, is just around the corner. The Hotel Blue renovation has finally begun after many delays. And the prospect of society at large learning to live with COVID could mean more people venturing out to recreate, eat, work, and shop.

Paradoxically enough, the steady stream of bad news could in a way turn out to be good news in a kind of darkest-hour-before-the-dawn style: "The city as a whole would love to have a safe and vibrant Downtown," Kimball said. "People have reached such a level of frustration that there has been more and better community organizing."

But even in the best-case scenario, a cheerier future for the retail and hospitality environment still seems a long way off.

"I'd like to say that I'm going to remain hopeful, Jesús Zamora said, adding that "it's going to be a real grind."
Music and art tonight at AM
The group Baracutanga performs and Santa Fe artists Gasali Adeyemo will dye fabric with indigo. Museum exhibitions will be open later than usual as well - until 8:30 p.m. Details here
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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