Monday, August 01, 2005

The Taos-ification of Marfa

For anyone who has spent time in West Texas -- and it's always capitalized as if it is its own country, because it is -- the region leaves a singular impression, no matter where you've been; Big Bend, Terlingua, Fort Davis and Balmorhea, and certainly Marfa and the Lights. Rustic, remote, desolate, its sprawling sparseness -- "wide open spaces", as the cowboys (and girls) sing -- always seemed, to me, to be at the very end of the Earth.

Or so I thought. Salon notifies us it's being taken over by the Californians:

A classic Western showdown has come to the hottest little town in the country. Set amid the cedar-shaded, yucca-dotted lands of West Texas, surrounded by grasslands as wide as the Serengeti, Marfa may be the last un-Starbucked place in America. In the past few years, a covey of A-list artists, corporate players and real estate speculators have descended on the tiny town (pop. 2,121). Enchanted by its spare beauty -- think "The Last Picture Show" with a Christian Liagre makeover -- they're also drawn by elite cultural institutions like the Chinati Foundation, dedicated to hip installation art, and the Lannan Foundation, a prestigious literary organization.

Trailing in the trendsetters' wake has been the national media. Marfa's press clips glow like newly lit luminaria. Publications such as Vanity Fair, Elle and ArtForum venerate Marfa's Victorian ranch houses and Texas Territorial adobes, the burgeoning art scene and its rich patrons. The movie "Giant" was filmed in Marfa 50 years ago, when its stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson could be seen kicking around town. These days, the scene makers include Dan Rather, Frances McDormand, Dwight Yoakam and Tommy Lee Jones. A National Public Radio station is coming. The real estate madness already has. Four years ago, Marfa adobes were selling for $40,000. They're now $200,000 and no doubt a good deal higher after the recent New York Times story, "The Great Marfa Land Boom."

It's a familiar pattern. Western havens like Aspen, Colo., Taos, N.M., and Missoula, Mont., were Marfas once, playgrounds for coast-hugging hipsters who could slip into jeans and the rustic camaraderie of the outback. But those towns are full up now, victims of their popularity. Now the sagebrush Medici come to Texas, piloting the corporate Gulfstream into tiny Marfa Municipal airport and bellying up to the jes-folks atmosphere of Joe's Bar, where the Bud Light costs $1.75. The town remains an aesthete's dream, devoid of Olive Gardens, Best Buys and any sign of the suburban middle class. Rather, Marfa is the honest texture of adobe and fine art set against a big sky. It's the simplicity of line and the haunting emptiness of the land.


Today, on Marfa's main street, tony art galleries and wine shops are driving away traditional cafes and shops, whose local owners can't afford the new sky-high rents. Everywhere you go the townsfolk, independent Texans to the core, lament the changes to their community. The term "ChiNazi" is used locally to describe anyone from out of town who arrives with artistic ambitions and a superior attitude. Observes one local cattle rancher, who asked to remain anonymous: "We're filling up with triple A's -- artists, assholes and attorneys."

Rest at the link.

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