April 30, 2016

From Adversity Comes Something Special

This post is part travelogue, part inspirational story. It is about a place that was almost destroyed by natural disasters, but fought back to find new life and a new direction.

Betty and I just returned from a trip to Silver City, New Mexico. About five hours from our home, we were looking for someplace we had never been. A few friends had cautioned us to not expect much from this town. They told us it was another southwest hamlet that staked its livelihood on mining. Boom times made everyone happy. But, when the earth had been played out, or the thirst for silver or coal was done, there were few reason for many to stay and hold on. Population plummeted and most stores were boarded up and abandoned.

Silver City's demise was a little different. The gold, then silver mine, had never shut down. in fact, it remains in operation today. What almost killed the town was poor planning and a series of devastating floods around the turn of the 20th century. 

Cut in half  after a massive flood

Astride the Continental Divide, the area is prone to heavy, intense rain during summer monsoon seasons. Silver City was positioned so that all the runoff during big storms would be funneled straight down the streets of the town.

During a series of huge storms around the turn of the 20th century, the main street and all its buildings were literally washed away. In their place was a 55 foot ditch. Almost overnight, the town was cut in half and most retail establishments were gone. 

While people rebuilt what they could by turning the massive ditch into a channel for future storms and eventually a park for residents, much of the damage had been done. Silver City was in deep trouble.

Starting in 1985, a full 70 years later, determined residents began a community wide effort to save and rebuild the downtown area. The new center for shopping, dining, and entertainment was established one block west of the massive ditch that once was Main street.

I can report they have succeeded. Still housed in mostly original buildings, Silver City's downtown is alive and well. Dozens of restaurants, art galleries, coffee houses, bars, antique stores, and a bustling farmer's cooperative give downtown energy all day and well into weekend evenings when antique street lamps cast a warm glow. To its credit, most store fronts have been left alone, creating a fascinating mix of textures and appearances. Most sidewalks are from 1 to 2 feet higher than the street, making sure future flooding waters run harmlessly into the ditch.

The original movie theater has been completely refurbished while still maintaining its 1940's charm. In fact, its grand opening occurred the day we arrived in town following a community wide effort to bring it back from the dead. Three community theater groups and an active local university cultural and sports schedule make Silver City seem much larger than just the 10,000 folks who call it home.

Much to our delight the town is not overwhelmed by tourists. Walking across the major streets usually means waiting for one car to go by. There is a feeling of calm and contentment. No one is in a hurry. Everyone smiles and talks to friends and strangers alike. 

The retiree community must be fairly large. We saw enough gray hair to feel right at home. Pony tails on men and women, peasant blouses, well worn shirts and pants, and all variety of hats pointed to a town that relishes its hippie - 60's - not quite mainstream kind of feel. In fact, one of the restaurants we enjoyed is owned by a couple that decided to move here from the Bay area after a particularly memorable Grateful Dead concert. Doesn't get more granola than that!

We ate well at a  tremendous variety of restaurants. Several eye-catching items found at antique stores and art galleries now grace our home. We enjoyed music ranging from country to African and Brazilian inspired rhythms at pubs and breweries. 

Though we missed it due to a mistake on my part about the timing, a coffee shop around the corner from our hotel even had a harp concert at a funky coffee shop on Sunday afternoon. Harps and coffee - what an interesting mix.

In addition to a very enjoyable, memorable getaway in a town we fell in love with, is the message of turning adversity around. When a group of committed people decide something is worth doing, the outcome can be wonderful. A series of setbacks that could have destroyed folks' spirits instead allowed something special to develop. There is a lesson there for all of us. And, it shouldn't take a natural disaster to spur us to action.

Enjoy some photos of our visit

Unique art is everywhere

love this metal stand

so many textures and light plays

The Big Ditch is now a city park
shapes and colorful decorations

colorful wall as seen through grating

Coffee shop and art gallery

not sure I've ever seen one of these before

mix of buildings and colors


  1. Seems like Silver City is a testament first to American shortsightedness, and then to American creativity. Your description reminds me of our trip to Bisbee, AZ, another mining town that seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

    1. Silver City is a lot like Bisbee: a town built around the mining industry becomes an artist and retirement community. But, you are right about the shortsightedness. To lay out a town right in the path of mountain runoff, and make all the streets perfect conduits for the water is guaranteeing a disaster.

      Now, through much better planning and a series of dams there is little risk of a repeat, though residents told me they still can have lots of water flowing down the main streets after a summer monsoon storm.

  2. What a great adventure! I love Betty's pictures!

    1. It is a very photogenic town. All of these were taken with her smartphone camera.

    2. My Samsung Galaxy has more mega pixels than my 35mm! I use my phone all the time now.

  3. I love, love, love finds like that! What a wonderful adventure! I love the lively colors on the buildings, and I am always especially charmed by funky little coffee shops, galleries and boutiques! We have a Silver City here in Idaho, but ours is still in it's original, played out, ghost town state...and not easy to get to. Someday, I hope to visit yours!

    1. I was surprised that the mine just outside of town is still operating and employing area folks. So many of the mines in Arizona and New Mexico are nothing more than giant holes in the ground or massive piles of waste. But, Silver City has been smart to try a tourist/eco approach to balance the ups and downs of mining. Otherwise, it could have ended up like the one in Idaho.

  4. What a great little town and wonderful pictures! I wish I had known about it on our last pass through New Mexico. I still haven't been to Bisbee, but it's on my list. We also love Jerome, AZ.

    1. Silver City reminds me of a blend of Bisbee, Jerome, and parts of downtown Flagstaff.

  5. Glad you had a good time. We may need to revisit, as the last time we were like horses heading for the barn, so we didn't spend much time there. Thanks for sharing all the pictures too.