The Atomic City 

Los Alamos ("the cottonwoods," according to the Northern New Mexico brand of Spanish) is most notorious as the national-laboratory home of World War II's Manhattan Project and, afterward, of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Of course, neither of these research and development efforts could have happened without a cadre of scientists and engineers, supported by administrators and assistants and technicians and all sorts of other folks, all of whom had families. And these people had to live somewhere, so, in conjunction with the laboratory founded in secrecy on a remote mountainside northwest of Santa Fe, a new town grew up.

At first, the entire place was "behind the fence," meaning that everyone needed the right credentials to get in and out. Now, that phrase is used to refer to the laboratory's fifteen-foot, razor-wire-topped security fences, behind which classified work takes place. But in the early days it meant everything—the laboratory, the town, the forests, the mesas, everything. Richard Feynman's memoirs include amusing anecdotes about his (and others') gamesmanship with the guards during the war—he and his friends would exit through an unauthorized hole in the fence, then walk around and enter through the regular gate, conversing with the guards on the way in. Doing this several times in quick succession never failed to cause consternation—and reversing the process by making repeated exits through the regular gate caused even more heartburn, for it implied that (gasp!) people were somehow sneaking in.

Now, though, Los Alamos sits on its plateau open to the world, and, along with the laboratory, the town has grown far beyond the original military-base-style installation. Yet much of the housing in the original parts of the town remains re-re-remodeled military buildings, absurdly overpriced [in 2005] at $150 per square foot and more for what amount to 60-year old wood shacks with modern amenities. Ironically, the Cerro Grande wildfire, which burned the fringes of the town in May of 2000 (and obliterated the beauty of the mountain backdrop), took mostly newer houses. While it's clearly not appropriate to use the word "luck" in this context, it's still true that many of the people whose houses were burned have rebuilt—and rebuilt in grand style, as they won what is referred to around town as the "wildfire lottery" when the Federal Emergency Management Administration gave out checks like politicians give out campaign promises.

Los Alamos sits on the Pajarito Plateau, a shoulder of the Jemez Mountains formed when an ancient volcano blew up, leaving more than a thousand feet of ash that settled and cooled into what's called tuff—a very soft, gray rock that erodes quite easily. As a result of the erosion, the plateau is scored by canyons, and a reasonable facsimile of the area is represented by your left hand sitting on a table pointing east, wrist bent slightly backwards. Your fingers, each a thousand feet or so thick and perhaps a mile wide, are the mesas on which various subdivisions have been built, with the original town site, the airport, and downtown, such as it is, on your index finger. Los Alamos National Laboratory is across Los Alamos Canyon on your thumb and points farther south.

We lived on the back of your hand, a little way up that vein that climbs from between your index and middle fingers.

Just up the hillside from us, our subdivision abutted national forest, a thicket of charred ponderosa and lodgepole trunks that have been dead long enough that they're dangerous to walk among when there's wind. But the grasses and shrubs—mountain mahogany, scrub oak, prickly things that are various types of berry bushes—are coming back, and the wet spring the year we lived there gave everything a boost. Still, we felt fortunate that our main views were toward the other direction, across the Rio Grande Valley, 2000'feet down and 6000'feet back up to the high mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range, 30 miles to the east. At night the lights of Santa Fe were nestled against their base.

As spectacular as this sounds, we saw it from only a few windows on our second floor. The other windows revealed houses, almost within spitting distance. After twelve years of living on an acre, both in Boulder and in Santa Fe, in Los Alamos we were on a lot that was barely twice as big as the 1200 square-foot footprint of the house. That part of the subdivision was condos, town-homes, duplexes, and, like ours, what are called "garden homes"—so at least we didn't share a wall with the neighbors. But we missed the elbow room.

That's the way things are in Los Alamos, though, because land is so valuable that only a few, very high-end houses have real yards, at least among the newer construction. And, as noted, the older ones are WWII-era shacks with new siding and roofs—and retro-fitted insulation, modern electrical capacity and plumbing by now. Mostly, that is—a friend is negotiating to purchase one of those $150 per square foot shacks that still has only 40-amp electrical service, so there is yet work to be done.

Housing is expensive up in Los Alamos because it's limited and because the salaries paid by the laboratory are factors of two and three higher than any others in the region—and this refers to salaries for clerical and administrative jobs for which there are comparisons. For scientists and engineers, it's the only game north of Albuquerque and south of Denver, so there are no comparisons. But because of the salaries, prices for everything are high. It's the perfect example of an inflationary spiral—high wages cause high prices, which cause pressure for higher wages and cost-of-living adjustments, which boosts prices, and so on. It doesn't help the cost of housing that the town is surrounded by land owned by one nation or other, either the U.S. or one of the local Pueblo Nations. Whenever federal land is released to developers, the bidding war is ferocious—and that's why our yard was so small.

Although not everyone in Los Alamos works directly for the laboratory, the entire town is completely dependent on it for its prosperity—indeed, all of New Mexico north of Santa Fe sees the economic benefits from the $2 billion a year budget "on the Hill." And because such a large fraction of the town's population of about 12,000 does work for the laboratory (which employs about 14,000 people overall), calling the laboratory the 600 pound gorilla is a serious understatement—it's more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a herd of dairy cattle. In addition to the economic effects of the laboratory, its effects on the town's culture and its topics of conversation are also overwhelming.

Can you say "gossip"?

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