Architecture and changing life of Taos Plaza

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Plazas are powerful architectural spaces.

The Spanish and Pueblo town plans always had plazas, always the center. In the 1940s, Taos Plaza was vividly alive with economic, political, social and spiritual life. I grew up on Taos Plaza and have witnessed seven decades of plaza changes. The sense of life that once radiated from the very dirt and buildings of the plaza has fallen silent. An architectural tradition generated by corporate-generated planning has drained its life.

I have not felt the plaza come alive (except during fiesta) since the '60s - until Fall Arts. I have to say it. But in the '40s you could buy anything you needed on the plaza. It was safe, busy from dawn to late at night with open businesses, people. There was plenty of shade, horseshoe games and lilacs. You could sit on the wall, and some people did, all day.

The change began when the jail and court house were moved, then big chain stores killed businesses like Sisneros grocery store, on the corner of Bank Alley and Placitas Road, heated with a wood stove and that sold produce nobody knew was organic.

But there was one thing about our plaza that gives deep meaning to the phrase "heart of the town." For instance, there was a man with no legs who lived on a little cart on roller skates and shined shoes on the plaza. His corner was the northwest. He propelled himself along with two blocks of wood, had very strong arms and could reach up on his stumps and knock a poor tipper out cold. People said that when winter came he swam back to Mexico across the Rio Grande with his cart strapped to his back.

There was the old man who lived in a wheelchair and sold piñon. He had a little potty under his chair, paid someone to empty it, and when it was cold the cops wheeled him into the courthouse hallway for the night.

Felipé sold newspapers and was a couple of tacos short of a full combination plate, and he didn't bathe. But the plaza waitresses gave him free coffee anyway. One year a certain waitress promised the Virgin of Guadalupe that if her particular prayer was answered she would give Felipe a bath once a month for a year. For 12 months Felipe gleamed, proof that the Guadalupana doesn't fail.

Banana Joe would only eat out of garbage cans because he believed someone wanted to poison him, and he used to squat on the corner of Bank Alley during the school lunch hour with a popsicle stick and if we got too close he would lift the hems of our skirts.

And then there was Ginger, who dragged a rocking chair from her house to sit on the plaza in a flowered hat and dress and sing Christmas carols. She would come into my father's drugstore, her hat crowned by wobbling, chipped cherries, order a chocolate soda and then begin to weep with theatrically loud sobs and snorts. When she finished her soda she would blow her nose and leave, cherries wobbling. My father never charged her.

People left fresh food in the garbage for Banana Joe, and somehow when winter came the old man in the wheel chair had mittens and Felipe had a new second-hand coat. In the back of our minds was the security of knowing that no matter how bad we got we could always find good hearts on the plaza. Sadly, I don't have pictures of the above plaza characters, except for a few - such as Doncito. He loved to direct traffic. For fiestas the police would give him a badge, make him an official member of the sheriff's posse and give him a corner where he could direct traffic.

We were not offended by these people, we were not ashamed of them, and the forces that made them vanish are many and complicated. No one thing, group or cause is to blame. But their absence does not make me feel safer, rather the contrary - I miss the heart of my old plaza.

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