El Corazón de Belen: Becker Avenue

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PETE’S CAFE, BELEN—I met Rhona Espinoza, Belen’s Executive Director of its MainStreet Partnership, for lunch.  There are two things I have to say about that:

1.  Pete’s Cafe was packed, but Rhona knew absolutely everybody in the place…well, except one person and that person was me.
2.  I have seen Bill Richardson work a crowd of people before, but he was nothing compared to Rhona Espinoza!  I just sat there and smiled as she went from table to table.  She knew the young and the old–everyone from the owner to the dishwasher and all their customers.
Belen - Rhona
“Do you have any suggestions?” I asked.  I have eaten here several times before, but Rhona seemed to know everything, including the menu.  “I was thinking of the chile rellenos,” I added.

“Do it!” she exclaimed.  “I won’t order them anywhere else but here.  They’re the best.”

And I would have to say that they probably were the best chile rellenos I have ever had.  They used big, beautiful Big Jim chiles and they were a bit cheesier and fried a bit crispier than any of the other several hundred I’ve had.  Delicious!
Belen - HH postcard
Pete’s is right across the street from the Harvey House…and there is news!  Visitors can borrow a tablet from the HH and take it on a walking trip of the area.  The tablet shows 19 different scenes from films that used Belen as the setting.  And apparently it does this as it directs you to where the scenes took place.  Welcome to 21st Century tourism!

Last winter the Harvey House drew 10,000 visitors to view the Buggs Light display that was set up on the HH.

Well, I asked Rhona if she would walk with me down Becker and just comment on some of the things were looking at.  Becker Ave. is in the heart of Belen’s historic MainStreet district.  And in case you don’t believe it, it says so right on benches up and down the avenue.
Belen - Onate
We started our walk-n-talk at her office, which is right next door to the Oñate Theater.  For those who have never been there, the Oñate is now a restaurant featuring what they call the “Fat Boy,” a one-pound burger featuring two patties large enough to write “Connecticut” on each one with the mustard squirter.
Belen - garden
The first place we stopped was El Corazon de Belen Garden Park.  I like community gardens; let me tell you what I liked about this one.
Belen  - fence water tower
✔  The raised beds were two feet high.  That means that those who have trouble bending down, or kneeling, or are in some kind of assisted conveyance can work their garden without problems.
✔  The fence looks nice but doesn’t immediately say “No Trespassing” by using barbed wire or having pointy chain-link fence tops.
✔  There is a “take one leave one” little library for books.  Nice.
✔  The shelter, picnic tables, and dusk-to-dawn lighting over them help make it a community gathering place.  And that really is what it is all about:  building community.
Belen - old city hall
We came upon the old city hall.  Built in 1937 by the WPA, it once housed the police department. the jail, and the fire department.  There must have also been city offices in there…unless those jail cells were doing double duty.

It has been empty for years, but it looks nice.  You know why?  Because volunteers patched the stucco and painted it.  They also got two grants from PNM to repair the roof.
Belen - vigas
Another brilliant idea was to have architect Will Powell show the volunteers how to replace those fake vigas that were rotting in the front of the structure.  And why not?  It will be interesting to see how that turns out.
Belen - hotels
We passed by the Belen Hotel which, of course, is artist Judy Chicago’s private residence.  It is a wonderful building and I would love to see the inside of it some day.
Belen - Jaramillo's
Right across the street is what used to be the Central Hotel.  The front of that building was falling apart, but a lot of money was put into this old brick hotel.  It is being turned into a restaurant and wine-tasting place.  The Jaramillo Winery out of Sabinal is behind the effort.  It should open this September!
Belen - bowling
Down the street, there is talk of reopening the bowling alley, the Sugar Bowl Lanes.  The name comes from the nickname of the original owner—a man named Glidewell…Sugar Glidewell.

Beyond that is the Doodlebug.  The Doodlebug used to run between Belen and Albuquerque.  It could only carry maybe half a dozen passengers.  The rest of this two car train was devoted to the engine, freight, or mail.  It sat on a California rail siding for years outside a train museum.  It was scavenged and vandalized, yet California didn’t seem to have any use for it.  It was returned a few years ago.  Its return was well-noted and documented by train lovers nationwide.
Belen - doodlebug
Incidentally, it has been repainted in its traditional “warbonnet” Santa Fe color scheme.  This was done by the film crew of the movie Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a way of saying “Thanks” to the city of Belen for its help during filming there.
Belen  - art league
Actually, one of my favorite spots during this walk was the space in front of the Belen Art League.  It just seems so inviting with the trees and the long bench.

Rhona Espinoza told me that former Belen mayor Ronnie Torres should get some credit for much of this.  He started the Belen MainStreet program in 2009, and is currently running the Harvey House Museum.

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