Lush Places

02.26.14

The Second Life of San Miguel de Allende

For decades, Americans have escaped to San Miguel for the culture, climate, and to pursue their artistic passions. But can the city retain its charm even in the spotlight?

So what do you do after you’ve been anointed the best city in the world? Is it a jinx, like being put on the cover of Sports Illustrated? How do you appreciate the new money and interest coming your way without changing what made visitors love you in the first place?

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Monica Galera in her all organic studio. (Michele Willens)

That’s the quandary facing San Miguel de Allende, the quaint mountain town 166 miles northwest of Mexico City. According to Condé Nast’s discerning travelers, this is the número uno place to come for the climate, the culture, the countless roofs with a view, and the friendly, laid-back ambience that seems to reignite personal talents. After a rather magical week in “SMA,” I came face to face with what residents and recurring visitors call the inevitable test: “No one only comes once.”

It’s interesting to ask Americans how they ended up in San Miguel de Allende. “I was on my way somewhere else,” said one man, who ventured here from New York 19 years ago. “Failure,” said another, who has lived in Philadelphia and Maui but has made this his home for the last decade. Doc Severinsen, when he retired from The Tonight Show, came for solace and relaxation and got that and much more. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady came through for the booze, and Cassady actually died in SMA in 1968.

San Miguel may be a new idea for many trendy travelers, but it is hardly a new location. Founded in 1542, the town was the birthplace of the victorious Mexican War of Independence against Spain. The visionary most responsible for making SMA what it is today, Stirling Dickinson, was a Chicago art student who got off a train—and then a donkey—in 1937 and saw natural beauty and amazing potential. He spent the rest of his life there, founding art institutes and centers, charitable organizations, and even a baseball team. His name is right up there with Allende and Hidalgo as the town’s beloved heroes.

A lover of the Mexican way of life, Dickinson was already sensing the town’s loss of innocence near the end of his own life, lamenting how new residents were destroying the native flavor. If only he knew that in 2014, among the 100,000 residents, about 11,000 would be Americans. Coldwell Banker realtor Greg Gunter, who moved here five years ago from Colorado, says, “The renewed interest in buyers has really been in the last 18 months, since the new Mexican president was sworn in and the daily headline-grabbing news about cartel violence stopped scaring away the travelers’ market. We have also definitely seen an increase since the Condé Nast award.”

Indeed, the city comes perilously close to having a Hamptons-ish feeling on the weekends, with the increased sound of car horns and money pouring in from out-of-town visitors. A gorgeous but controversial Rosewood Hotel has recently opened overlooking the city, striking the locals and regulars as “soulless.” One can hardly sit on the Rosewood rooftop bar without seeing $200 flip flops and overhearing name and place-dropping. Could Peso-trash be a serious threat to the lively and tactile scene down the hill?

That is where SMA enjoys its true ex-pat appeal, as compared by many to that of Buenos Aires. While Buenos Aires has generally attracted a younger crowd, those seeking to begin lives, San Miguel feels like the capital of the next-pats, those hoping to find new, or recover, old passions. John Scherber, for example, suffered from writer’s block for 37 years before settling here six and a half years ago. He has since written numerous books, including Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off The Beaten Path. “I’m doing what I love, and, at 70, I’m having the career I always wanted. My wife rediscovered her equestrian interest and rides three times a week.”

The city is, without question, an international arts community, and artisans of all types have found inspiration—and rejuvenation—amid SMA’s cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. Doc Severinsen was invited to one of the city’s many clubs to hear guitarist Gil Gutierrez. With three others, they now constitute the San Miguel Five and play a combination of Afro-Latin, classical, and gypsy jazz.

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San Miguel de Allende residents Mayer Shacter and Susan Page. (Michele Willens)

Monica Galera, 41, came from Mexico City 11 years ago, but it wasn’t until she moved into a house just outside town—replete with untended greenery, orange trees, and its own river—that she created a home-grown gallery called Fibras Naturales. “I was not even an artist before,” she says, “but when I came here, art found me.” Dawn Gaskill, 66, was a corporate strategist in Dallas before giving herself a year in SMA to see if the artist inside her would emerge. “I used to do mission statements for companies. When I came here, I did one for myself.” She’s been in San Miguel 13 years and is thriving.

Lulu Torbet, an artist and photographer, was raised in New Jersey, spent 25 years in New York, and 15 in San Francisco before arriving in Mexico nine years ago. “The beauty here is in the details,” she says, “the luminous tarpaulins in the open markets, the battered cars, the tangled wash lines…which convey with lively immediacy the spirit and essence of everyday life.” In 2001, a large textile factory was transformed into an artist’s collective called Fabrica La Aurora, a blissful center of galleries and eateries. It has a waiting list of 200 artists hoping to rent space.

If there is a power couple—though they would cringe at the description—in town, it would be Mayer Shacter and Susan Page. They moved here permanently 11 years ago and have a beautiful spread that includes a contemporary house and the Galeria Atotonilco, his world-famous collection of Mexican Folk Art. Shacter, too, claims he discovered his passion upon arrival: “I didn’t come here intending to do this.”

“When I first got here,” Valerie says, “I was told all the men are either married, gay, or leaving on Tuesday.”

What he’s doing for folk art, Susan is doing for literature. She created the Writers Conference and Literary Festival, which met for the ninth time in mid February. “The first year we had 26 participants,” she says, “and this time we had 286. And 1000 people showed up for the keynote speakers.” (They included Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, and Calvin Trillin.) When the dogged Page—“I milk my network to death”—tracked him down, Trillin responded by saying, “If this were Youngstown, Ohio I would say no. But San Miguel de Allende…”

Page and Mayer are next-pats who have totally integrated with the “locals.” Another couple, Robert and Karen Adams, did the same when they bought a home in San Miguel 13 years ago. “Frankly, we find many of the ex-pats insular and boring,” says Robert, an anesthesiologist who goes back and forth between SMA and San Diego. “They bring in good income to the tourism business but don’t really interface.” The Adamses—who pride themselves on being the only  “gringos” on their street—began their love affair with SMA 50 years ago when, as college students, Karen was doing a semester in town studying art, and Robert came to visit during his spring break. “I got drunk, sunstroke, and dysentery,” laughs Robert, “but I also got the girl.”

The truth is, you can live here and have a great time without offering more than the basic kindnesses. “San Miguel is Mexico on training wheels,” says Gunnar Erickson, who left a successful career as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles to move here about 13 years ago. “You don’t need to speak Spanish, there are familiar amenities, and lots of other people with a sense of adventure.” He admits it’s not for the kind of type-A people he used to make deals with in Hollywood. “We had one friend come, and, in 24 hours, he felt he’d done and seen it all and was ready to move on.”

That said, there are countless activities, from lectures, walking tours, and readings to yoga and gallery openings. “Every day we have a list of about eight things we might do and maybe we get to half of them,” says Valerie Tapscott,” who hails from Houston, fell in love in—and with—SMA eight-and-a-half years ago. “Or you go out to do one and you end up doing four. But you’ve always had a good day.”

Her mate, Monty Dennison, is almost an “honorary mayor” of San Miguel’s next-pats. Now retired at 74, the former journalist sums up what people love about this place. “There is just a courtesy here that we lack in the states.” Caroline Elam visited 27 years ago and “fell in love at first sight. I lived in Nashville 60 years and never just bumped into people, here you do all the time. No one comes here just once,” she says. SMA seems like a mecca for single women, of which there are reportedly seven for every one man. “When I first got here,” Valerie says, “I was told all the men are either married, gay, or leaving on Tuesday.”

What SMA also offers—so far—are great prices. John Scherber owns a 5000-square-foot house and pays $120 a month for all utilities. “A couple could live very well here on $25,000 a year,” he says. One night, I bought drinks for five and the bill amounted to $15 (less than one drink in Manhattan). Dinner for three at The Restaurant, arguably the best eatery in town, was $150. That one, by the way, was started by 41-year-old chef Donny Masterton, who grew up in Los Angeles and trained in New York under David Bouley before taking the plunge in SMA. “I came to visit ten years ago and basically never left,” he says.

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A painting by Peter Leventhal. (Michele Willens)

Masterton may have brought nouveau cuisine to a town best known for its hearty Mexican fare, but he also honors SMA’s sense of giving back. One month a year, The Restaurant donates 10 percent of its proceeds from Sunday dinners to the San Miguel Literary Sala, one of more than 100 highly active non-profits in the area. John Scherber and his wife became friendly with neighbors and paid for their son’s $130-per-semester high school tuition. (Education, while highly regarded here, is only compulsory through middle school.) “How many places can you really make a difference and change someone’s life without bending your own budget?” Scherber asks.

While they are proud of all the attention, those who came long before it was trendy know their city is on a cusp. “Whenever a place gets discovered, what made it so great can get lost,” says Lou Christine, who has been living here for 19 years and created the VIP Club Card, which offers 10-20 percent discounts at many restaurants.  “When I first came, it was more vibrant with the local people creating amazing art. Now every Long Island divorcee thinks she can come and be a sculptor. I just don’t want to see it become Disneyfied.”

It’s a legitimate concern, but for now, the next-pat spirit remains, confirmed on one of my last nights in San Miguel. I attended a gallery opening for Peter Leventhal, a 75-year old painter who was born and raised in New York but found his real home here decades ago.

Leventhal contracted Parkinson’s disease in 2001 and lost all use of his right hand. Rather than give up, he learned to paint with his left. His colorful, glorious expressionist new works include numerous nude women. Leventhal pointed toward a second room, which featured only self-portraits. “It’s my favorite,” he smiled,  “it’s all about me.”

“Nudes?” I asked.

Eyes twinkling, he said, “Next time.”