In the shadow of Santa Fe’s iconic Roman Catholic cathedral sits an idyllic, beautifully manicured park festooned with bright hanging pots of purple and magenta flowers and lined with stately metal benches. The city calls it “Cathedral Park.”

Most young people in Santa Fe call it “the drug park.”

In the front half of the park, tourists in neon shorts push strollers and lead bouncing children by the hand as they wander through the gates to peer at the bronze statue of Don Diego de Vargas, the Spanish conquistador. At lunchtime, people from the surrounding shops and offices go there to eat lunch on a bench or on the lawn.

In the back half of the park, at least until a few days ago, a loose pack of gray-faced people in dark, grimy clothes often loitered endlessly in the shade next to groups of tattooed and dreadlocked teenagers playing Hacky Sack and showing off for one another.

On a cold day, they could number just a few people, but on a sunny day, they would take over the area.

Now, as a massive new hotel prepares to open next to the park, police have begun quietly clearing out the seedier-looking teens and adults who frequent the park. And city officials are considering posting “No Loitering” signs.

The push came as The New Mexican was preparing a story about the park and the city’s long period of tolerance for the activities that go on there. Reporters spent more than three weeks observing activity in and around the park and interviewing dozens of teens and adults who frequent it, as well as tourists, city officials, police officers and nearby business owners and employees.

The observations and interviews present conflicting viewpoints of the park scene, raising the question of whether the drug culture, vagrancy and other activities in and around the park were mere annoyances that tarnished the image of a city hungry for tourist dollars, or whether they were symptoms of more serious issues.

As many of the regulars now migrate to other parks around the city, the push to clean up Cathedral Park poses tricky issues for the city about how and when it should police public spaces, and who has the right to be in them.

The people of the park

Chris Mooney, a Santa Fe police bike patrol officer assigned to the Cathedral Park area, is young and crisply observant. According to him, the Cathedral Park population has a cadre of “regulars” (people in their 20s, 30s and older who have been there for a while).

Some are vagrants, some are homeless. But the lines begin to blur. Many of the regulars have homes and jobs but continue hanging out at the park because that’s where their friends are. Then there are groups of kids as young as 13 who are attracted by those people, by weed and by the presence of other teenagers.

The one thing they all seem to have in common is the allure of the park: a shared place where they find the company of people of similar mind, the presence of drugs and the license to do as they please.

Vincent Lujan, 24, born and raised in Santa Fe, said he has been coming to Cathedral Park for about eight years. He isn’t homeless but doesn’t have a job. He keeps office hours at the park, arriving there at about 8 a.m. and leaving about 5 p.m. Lujan, like many of his friends at the park, gets food stamps, which they often pool to feed themselves while they hang out all day.

He says his father tells him to spend more of his time looking for work. “Yeah, I can do that, too,” Lujan shrugged. “But I like to kick it with my homies.”

“We hang out here because this is where everybody is,” said a longtime park denizen known as “Wolf.”

Wolf, who declined to give his real name, said he has both a home and a job, but spends much of his free time at Cathedral Park. At first glance, Wolf is pure Santa Fe with his long hair and Native American necklace. Like many Santa Feans, he said he would one day like to make a living at his art, which he describes as “some leather work, all kinds of things.”

Somewhere between 30 and 40 years old, Wolf came to Santa Fe from Detroit. With a soft, friendly demeanor, he’s the sort of guy who could make friends in a war zone. Wolf claims he and his friends prefer Cathedral Park because at other places, they get in trouble for drinking.

“You can’t go drink in the skate park,” he said. “There are too many kids in there. You feel bad cracking open a beer there.”

Brandyn Brady, a dreadlocked guy in his 30s, said he came upon the park “just cruising and meeting like-minded people.”

“It’s a meeting zone, I guess, is what you can call it,” he added.

The drug culture

Despite the park’s location next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, right in the middle of downtown, the drinking and drug use there is blatant.

“Understandably, we’re a different people,” Wolf said. “That’s a choice. It really is, man. But us, you know, we congregate, we smoke marijuana. … We do. We smoke weed, drink and all that stuff.”

The park regulars, while owning up to their use of marijuana, claim that when they see people doing harder drugs like methamphetamines, cocaine or heroin, they kick them out immediately. They blame the park’s reputation for harder drugs on “big groups from Colorado that come through.”

In a recent experiment, however, an acquaintance of a New Mexican reporter ventured into the park flashing a handful of cash and asking if anyone knew where he could buy meth, or “shards,” as he put it. The question launched a kind of bidding war as several people scrambled to make a sale.

“It was like throwing food in front of pigeons,” the acquaintance said.

While it’s unclear how pervasive the use of harder drugs is in the park, the fact remains that drug use is an open secret, and those who work near or around the park observe it regularly. Police are aware of this.

“It’s a hub [for weed] and everything else,” said Sgt. Chris McCord, the officer in charge of the park area, who has been a police officer for seven years.

But police reports show a surprisingly low number of drug arrests in the park itself. This might be due to a combination of police permissiveness and cagey behavior on the part of the park’s regulars, who appear to use the park as a meeting place to discuss drug deals rather than a place for drug transactions.

Dealers don’t keep their stashes in the park. New Mexican journalists several times over the course of three weeks observed people entering the park, speaking briefly with some members of the crowd and then walking off in pairs or groups. They would return in half an hour.

“We tell them to do that,” Officer Mooney said. “We’re not going to keep people from smoking weed, we’re not going to win the war on drugs. But we can stop them from doing it out in public places.”

Police reports from the past four years tell a story of a bevy of citations for paraphernalia and occasional drug arrests. One man, for example, got arrested twice for possession of an electronic scale and having marijuana residue in a pipe. In 2011, police arrested an Española man for possession of Ecstasy and drug paraphernalia, and for unlawfully carrying a .380 Beretta pistol with 50 rounds of ammunition.

Of course, Cathedral Park is hardly the only place in town to score drugs.

“I do believe drug deals go down probably every single day at probably almost every single park in this community, which is unfortunate,” said City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who lives in the south-side council District 4. “I’ve heard from other people when I pass by the Plaza that say that drug deals happen there, and I say, ‘Drug deals happen all over the place.”

Even so, Trujillo said, Cathedral Park “is one of the quickest places where people can score a sell.”

True menace versus perception

Part of the reason for what appears to be police tolerance of drug activity in the park may be due to confusion over who owns it. Officers initially told The New Mexican they were limited in what they could do in the park because it was owned by the church, but the city has owned and maintained the park since 1998.

One reason for the lack of enforcement there might be the low-key nature of the crowd: Despite their menacing air, the people in the park seem to harm few but themselves.

Police officers interviewed for this story said violence in the park was minimal, ranging from occasional scuffles and fistfights to arguments over stolen skateboards. Police records show no reports of tourists being physically assaulted.

Brian Nenninger, project manager of the 182-room Drury Plaza Hotel, which will soon open in the remodeled St. Vincent Hospital building on the corner of East Palace Avenue and Paseo de Peralta, has an up-close view of the park and its activities. The hotel’s construction offices are located in Marian Hall, whose back steps abut the park and are in daily use as a meeting place for park regulars.

“We’ve witnessed people using drugs in the park, which is not a good thing for our guests,” Nenninger said. “But I haven’t heard of anybody being hurt, or of any violence or those types of things.”

Aside from the drug use, the park regulars and even the police point out that they self-police a bit, and some of them claim to take care of their spot, cleaning it up regularly.

Nathaniel Ortiz, aka “Care Bear,” is a park regular. He’s 25 but looks much older. He said he clears the park of trash every day at 6 a.m. of his own volition.

Police also claim to get a lot of cooperation from the older, longer-term park crowd. Mooney said many of the people who have frequented the park for years take care of the newer, younger arrivals. The younger group tends to be less cooperative, he said.

Emily Folks, head of outreach at Youth Shelters, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and other services to homeless youth, puts a more positive spin on the park scene.

“It’s a great community with lots of people who have found each other, and I feel privileged to work with them,” Folks said.

Folks said she felt she could not divulge anything else because it was private and personal, but she did say there were “some people there who are at various stages in their lives, various situations.”

Officer Mooney expressed sympathy for teenagers. “There’s nowhere else for these kids to go,” he said. “They’re too young to have jobs and too young to go to bars.”

“It’s a meeting zone for the kids, because there’s nothing else to do in Santa Fe,” said Brady, one of the older regulars. “There’s nothing for people their age. And if there’s nothing for them to do, what are they going to do? They’re going to congregate.”

True or not, many of the people who hang out there are well beyond their teen years.

The businesses surrounding Cathedral Park have a less benign view of the crowd. Owners and workers at several stores along Palace Avenue declined to be quoted by name because, according to them, the teenagers in the park can be “vindictive.”

Some said they were retaliated against in the past for calling police and for speaking out about vandalism. In October, business owners were quoted in The New Mexican commenting on damage to the de Vargas statue in the park.

As recently as a few months ago, some business owners said, the windows of several stores were splattered with eggs and paintballs in the night. They also complained that many of their customers get “scared away” because the people in the park catcall at passers-by.

Mike Reynolds, manager of La Casa Sena restaurant, said homeless people sometimes come into the interior courtyard garden of Sena Plaza, unpack their bags, and try to move in for the night. The encounters can get unpleasant. One homeless man came in and tried to spit at him before security removed the man, Reynolds said.

He also said people from the park now make use of the alley behind La Casa Sena for drug dealing, smoking and even sleeping when they get kicked out of the park.

People from the park have been spotted urinating in the parking lot of The New Mexican and hanging out in smoke-filled cars near the corner of Otero Street and Palace Avenue.

“We’ve talked to tourists who’ve said they really want to come in here enjoy this park, but they won’t because it’s kind of intimidating,” McCord said. “When you come in here and you see … the 50-plus kids that are all rude, they’re all cussing. There was one kid … throwing knives at a tree, chucking them into the tree. No tourist is going to want to come in here if that’s happening.”

McCord said police don’t mind the kids being in the park, but “take care of it. Don’t trash it. Nobody’s going to come visit this when it’s trashed.”

A growing problem?

Many business owners and managers, including Reynolds, believe the situation in the park has gotten worse in the last two or three years, and problems have ramped up this summer.

Reynolds believes the recent construction at the Drury Plaza Hotel forced people out of the almost-abandoned property and parking lot, which had been a regular hangout for many of the teenagers and adults who now frequent the park.

Many of the business owners and employees said they also believe that the lack of police attention to the area adds to the problem.

“It seems like the police are not patrolling past the Plaza anymore,” Reynolds said. “I’ve had customers come in here yelling that there’s a fight going on in the park. … It seems like it’s become more of a problem.”

The city’s emphasis on policing the Plaza also has pushed many people a block away to Cathedral Park, a shady oasis which became even more inviting about a decade ago, when lush sod was added as part of a beautification project that created a centerpiece monument to Spanish colonial families.

“People just don’t want to be sitting ducks with the police all around them,” Wolf said.

McCord and Celina Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe Police Department, said undercover officers perform roughly two operations per month, looking for everything from illegal drug activity to buskers without licenses. The city closed the park for three days in June after receiving a report about discarded syringes on the grounds.

“We’ve tried to enforce as much as we can, but it’s just getting worse and worse,” Espinoza said.

There has also been a push for surveillance cameras at the park. Councilor Trujillo, who also pushed for Santa Fe to have unmanned speed-enforcement vehicles take photos of drivers exceeding the speed limit, has pushed to get funds to install cameras at Cathedral Park.

“We’ve had the idea of putting cameras,” he said, “but sometimes you have people in this community that the minute you say ‘cameras,’ they think Big Brother is watching.”

Tauseen Malik, general manager of the Drury, hopes increased commercial and tourist activity from the new hotel will encourage more interest in the park.

“My office is right next to the park, so I see it every day,” Malik said, referring to the drug use. “A lot of people have just given up on this. They’ve just accepted that this is how it is.”

The cleanup for Drury

The park historically was connected to the property that is about to become the Drury Plaza Hotel. The iron-fenced park once served as the formal entrance to St. Vincent Sanatorium, where the Sisters of Charity housed tuberculosis patients from back East who took in the clean air and helped provide revenue for the nuns to run Santa Fe’s first hospital and an orphanage.

Now the park is an integral part of the new hotel’s design.

“We have a promenade that starts from the Cathedral Park that goes through the hotel,” said Malik. “That entrance to the hotel is actually an important piece of the project.”

The promenade will be an extension of Cathedral Park’s center path, and the stairs on the west end of Marian Hall, currently occupied by rotating groups of vagrants and teenagers, will be a back entrance to the hotel.

“We aren’t the only ones which are affected by this,” Malik said. “There are other businesses, other hotels. So, I think there is a more collaborative approach, as in, everyone wants to work together with us, since we are the new ones on the block, in solving this issue.”

Indeed, the new push to clean up the park was sparked in part by concerns as the new hotel prepares to open, Espinoza said.

She said police had also “noticed an uptick in people doing illegal activities” at the park.

“We want the park to be nice for when the inn opens because there are going to be more people in the area,” she said. “We don’t want to give the impression that there’s always illegal activity going on there.”

Even before it began, many of the park regulars seemed to know a cleanup was inevitable.

“It was just a matter of time,” shrugged Wolf. “There’s a big upscale hotel going up. We all know what’s going on with downtown.”

Espinoza said police are only targeting people they know to be drug dealers and users. But by Friday, the park was virtually empty of any regulars, many of whom told The New Mexican that police had told them to leave.

Nenninger of the Drury said it’s fine for those regulars to remain in the park as long as they conduct themselves properly.

“I would say to the extent that folks are enjoying the park and refraining from drugs, not using foul language, not being boisterous and intimidating, using the park in a civil, peaceful manner, we’ll be just fine,” he said. “It’s when we get into those types of behaviors that you’re almost forced to react — as a community, not just as our hotel.”

Today, just days after the cleanup began, the park is a very different place. Many of the business owners expressed relief at what they called a long-overdue effort. But even as the park suddenly looks starkly different, one thing seems clear: The city has not so much solved a problem as pushed it somewhere else. Many of the same people who frequented Cathedral Park were already taking up residence in other areas, including Thomas Macaione Park at the corner of West Marcy Street and Paseo de Peralta — just blocks away.