When I first started this “Where Millennials Can Make It” series, I put Albuquerque in the category of “Towns Luring Back Their Townies,” likening its appeal to the revitalization happening in Cleveland or Pittsburgh. But when I sat down to write this piece, I realized the city was in a category of its own. It’s not a post-industrial city being made over by its natives. It’s also not a place that’s just overflowing with jobs, nor one that particularly attracts young artists or scrappy entrepreneurs. You won’t find Albuquerque on many other “best cities for Millennials” lists.
But what I learned during my visit there is that Albuquerque’s off-the-radar status is exactly why young people love it. Since the recession, the U.S. economy has been been downright scary for Millennials. Albuquerque offers an oasis of sorts, where the property is cheap, the mountains are beautiful, and the nightlife is vibrant—but not overwhelming.
The number one word Albuquerque Millennials used to describe their city was “livable.” That’s the reason Lauren Foley, 27, came home to Albuquerque from San Francisco a couple of years ago to get her master’s degree in nutrition. She loved the Bay Area, and she was making a decent living working at a mortgage company there, but the work didn’t interest her. She wanted to go back to school, and just the thought of living off loans in pricey California stressed her out. So she convinced her boyfriend, another Albuquerque native, to come home with her. She enrolled at the University of New Mexico and they signed a lease for a one-bedroom right near campus for $625 a month.
“It was a way to take a breath and slow down and actually go to school like I wanted,” she says. For many Millennials I met there, Albuquerque’s relaxed feel allows the mental space for anything from school to activism. Ramiro Rodriguez, 21, came to UNM from Los Angeles at the urging of his mother, who’d heard positive things about the school from his cousin. Rodriguez was skeptical at first, but now he’s grateful for Albuquerque’s slower pace.
“In Los Angeles, it takes so long to get everywhere, and it’s hard to get everything done,” he says. Here, he’s been able to balance his coursework with his activism. When I came to Albuquerque, he invited me to visit him at his part-time job, with an advocacy group called El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. Rodriguez helps facilitate meetings and events for a youth group in the colorful downtown office, where Dolores Huerta paintings and flags from Latin American countries adorn the wall.
Rodriguez says they give him a lot to do, and in a smaller social justice scene like Albuquerque, “[y]ou can start whatever you want.” When Rodriguez discovered that UNM’s chapter of MEChA, a national Chicano student organization, had fallen by the wayside, he threw himself into reviving it and recruited a classroom full of new members.
Rodriguez also describes Albuquerque, which has a population of about 500,000, as “the perfect size” city for his college experience. Foley agrees: “It’s small,” she says, “but it doesn’t feel suffocating.” She tells me that the area between downtown and Nob Hill, a young neighborhood centered on a stretch of Route 66, “has really exploded.” On weekends, Nob Hill’s bars fill up with twentysomethings, many of whom, Foley says, “went to high school with me.” And after the anonymity of San Francisco, that’s a nice feeling.
For others, Albuquerque strikes a balance between being cultured but not pretentious. Liz Blankenhorn, 27, appreciates the influx of diversity UNM provides and the influence of Native American culture, but recognizes that the city “is not Santa Fe, which is full of affluent people.” Blankenhorn says Albuquerque is “genuine,” and “way, way cheaper,” although she’s happy that Sante Fe’s attractions are just an hour away. Blankenhorn, a general manager at a local bar and grill called O'Niell's, owns a four-bedroom home in the university area, where she lives with her boyfriend and six-month-old baby. Their mortgage payment is $1100 a month. “A lot of people here are in the service industry,” she says. “And you can support yourself on that.”
Several twentysomethings I met already owned property, taking advantage of FHA-backed mortgage loans. One woman I met had just bought a foreclosed property in the South Valley, near a park and an organic farm, for $80,000. Kelly Siebe, 26, makes her living off of rental income. She’s spun a small low-five-figure inheritance into owning and renting out four properties, in addition to the downtown house where she and her husband, a software developer, live. She stays in Albuquerque because of the open-minded, earthy vibe—she’s training to be a doula and has found a great community surrounding that. But it’s also because “it’s possible to piece together a really nice living here.”
Her husband, 29-year-old Albuquerque native James Kassemi, appreciates the city, too. He regularly gets recruited by San Francisco tech companies, and sometimes he’s “tempted,” but he’s quick to defend the burgeoning Albuquerque tech scene: “People are just as talented here, and since the community is so small, you can become well-known pretty quickly.” Plus, “you don’t get burnt out. It’s not that culture where you stay in the office ‘til 10 at night.”
Then there’s the landscape: Kassemi hikes, bikes and skis every chance he gets. “The mountains keep me here,” he says. And in Albuquerque, he actually has time to enjoy them.
Top image: Mike Tungate/Flickr