Seeing Like a State: the corner of Ortega Road and Guadalupe Trail

Guadalupe Trail at Ortega Road in Albuquerque’s North Valley – here, it is a street

Some years ago, when I first began riding bikes in Albuquerque, my office chum Jimmie took me riding south through Albuquerque’s Rio Grande valley floor along a street called Guadalupe Trail. It’s not a street I would have found by myself – following the contours of one of the early acequias, the irrigation ditches that spiderweb across what was once the river’s flood plain, stopping and starting as it jogs around modern neighborhoods built where the valley’s farms used to be.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott describes the Flemish city of Bruges in the 1500s:

The fact that the layout of the city, having developed without any overall design, lacks a consistent geometric logic does not mean that it was at all confusing to its inhabitants. One imagines that many of its cobbled streets were nothing more than surfaced footpaths traced by repeated use. For those who grew up in its various quarters, Bruges would have been perfectly familiar, perfectly legible. Its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements. For a stranger or trader arriving for the first time, however, the town was almost certainly confusing.

To borrow from Scott, then, Guadalupe Trail, following the contours of an old irrigation ditch, “could be said to privilege local knowledge over outside knowledge.”

When the modern Ortega Road was slapped down atop the old north valley maze – it’s not clear when, but old aerial photos show it was a dirt farm road by 1949 – it ran dead straight for its two-mile run across the valley floor. It is so legible to outsiders that the modern state has added speed humps to discourage automobile drivers from speeding.

It’s been ages since I’d ridden Guadalupe Trail, but in the Time of Pandemic, with a need for calm and a lot of miles in my legs, I’ve been following the contours of the old dirt ditchbanks. South of old Guadalupe Trail’s intersection with modern Ortega Road, it becomes what its name suggests – in the midst of a modern city, an old dirt trail.

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