There’s nowhere quite so Texan as West Texas. Cowboy boots are utilitarian, not kitschy. Tourists stick out like rental cars at the neighborhood FINA gas station, but locals are rarely less than welcoming. Life moves at a slow, easy pace in this pocket of the world where everything is three parts sky, one part civilization. Words ring foreign without a drawl, it seems, and I can only guess at what non-Texans, those distinct others, see when they contemplate this sparsely populated region of the Lone Star State.
Perhaps they envision border cities mirrored by Mexican counterparts that hover scarcely across an invisible divide. Maybe the allure rests in the picturesque isolation of once-booming oil towns constructed in hasty, gleaming expansion, only to experience a prolonged, nearly painful contraction over the span of decades. Sentimental historians may offer their own exemplars in the form of ghost towns such as Langtry that, dwindling in population, swiftly recede into canyons and deserts and fix one eye on the horizon into which they will soon vanish. And some cultural elites might distill this section of the state into the oft-glamorized and much-hyped city of Marfa, a microcosm of the global art scene nestled near the Davis Mountains. However, beneath such romantic notions trembles a current of problematic contradictions.
For instance, since mid-November, wildfires have ravaged some 3.3 million acres of Texas land with West Texas particularly hard hit, but the dire budget situation compelled lawmakers to pass bills cutting $34.2 million, or 40 percent, from the state Forest Service’s wildfire program. The bleak outlook is only compounded by the third-worst drought in Texas history and estimates that show some of the region’s cities could run out of water within two years, though in May the Legislature failed to pass a measure that increased funding for the state water plan. But, most national headlines tout the state’s job creation record and business-friendly economic climate; the most some people will see of Texas’ landscape has been touched by the Coen brothers’ directorial vision. Texas is a myth, and Langtry, whose reputation is built on the legends associated with maverick lawman Judge Roy Bean, and Marfa, on whose flaxen prairie its patron saint, minimalist artist Donald Judd, left an indelible impression, are no exception.
You can trace Judd’s influence on Marfa back to 1971, the year of his first visit since passing through as an 18-year-old soldier. Enchanted, he fell in love with the spare, remote town and settled in by purchasing various properties with help from the Dia Art Foundation. He opened his own nonprofit Chinati Foundation in 1986 at the site of the former Fort D. A. Russell, whose abandoned buildings would house permanent installations and exhibitions by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, David Rabinowitch, Claes Oldenburg, and others. Before Judd’s arrival, Marfa was best known for the mysterious lights that occasionally flicker just outside the city limits at nighttime; through his influence, it transforms into a mecca for his disciples and a haven away from New York City.
After Judd passed away in 1994 a provision in his will established the Judd Foundation, which operates in both Marfa and New York and competes with Chinati on more or less friendly terms. The legacy the sculptor left behind, not the least of which is his kilometer-long installation of concrete boxes (his literal mark on the earth) on a prickly stretch of Chinati’s main property, attracts artists, gallery owners, and chic entrepreneurs to a city whose residents in 1990 numbered 2,424 — less than one-one thousandth of Brooklyn’s population today. Businesses thrive as tourism pumps life into the economy, and Marfa, a magnet for weekend Texans and the art-world cognoscenti, is rescued from almost certain obsolescence.
But this hagiographic narrative omits much of what makes Marfa tick.
For example, you’ll rarely hear about how two of its biggest property and stakeholders, the Chinati and Judd foundations, are exempt from paying taxes on multiple lots because of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. According to Presidio County tax records, Chinati paid $1,189 in taxes in February on four properties valued at a total of $85,490. Another 14 Chinati properties, and all the Judd Foundation’s 19 properties in the county, are exempt from taxes.
Hardly contentious numbers, perhaps, but consider the size of each nonprofit’s coffers. An independent auditors’ report shows that Chinati’s net assets at the end of 2009 amounted to about $11.6 million, with revenue totaling $3.3 million. Estimates from 2008 place the value of the Judd Foundation’s assets at a whopping $240 million with $3.6 million in income. Not too shabby for an organization whose endowment of $27.8 million was funded by a Christie’s New York auction of 36 of the artist’s sculptures in 2006.
These mammoth (at least, mammoth for Marfa) nonprofits shoulder barely a fraction of the tax burden while the average individual faces not only standard property taxes but also skyrocketing property values. Demand for houses in the area has risen sharply under the high-profile glare of headlines: “The Great Marfa Land Boom.” “Donald Judd Found Perfect Canvas in Texas Town.” “Marfa as Masterpiece Theater.” “Couture in the Country.” “A Contemporary Retreat With a 100-Year-Old Soul.” Guided by market forces, many homes are now priced as vacation pads or investments to be claimed by those with deep, greenback-lined pockets, with some properties selling for four to ten times their 1990 value. The prospect of home ownership dims for residents of a town where an American Community Survey report from 2005-2009 places the median value of owner-occupied homes at $93,200 up from $49,000 in 2000, a 90.2 percent increase compared to the neighboring city of Alpine’s increase of only 37.4 percent over the same time period.
While a boost in property values benefits homeowners looking to sell, there’s an added risk of pricing citizens out of the neighborhood. And because many of these vacation residences remain vacant most of the year, fewer dollars are funneled regularly into area businesses or collected in tax revenue, which according to City Administrator James R. Mustard makes up roughly a quarter of the city’s income. The absence of permanent residents thus softens the impact of what might otherwise contribute to a boon for the city’s economy and minimizes the funds available for city and county improvements.
Marfa’s dire need for enhanced infrastructure and basic amenities is only exaggerated by its bewildering and tenuous juxtaposition with the establishment of haute culture. The style of Texas architecture that defines central Highland Avenue — resolute, elegant lines of buildings — also masks what otherwise might belong in the SoHo district or a spread in Bon Appétit, though ruined adobe casitas shackled by overgrown weeds still dot residential areas. Visitors can rove from point to point and hit all the high spots featured in The New York Times, but beware the occasional unpaved road and fractured sidewalk.
“Prada Marfa,” an art project conceived by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is located about 35 miles west of Marfa. An emblem of luxury in a patch of untamed desert, the sculpture has been vandalized repeatedly since its inauguration on Oct. 1, 2005.
Even Judd Foundation collections manager Craig Rember took notice of the clash between big-time culture and small-time convenience. An October 2005 entry on Artforum International magazine’s website says Rember “told [the post’s author] that Marfa is now a town where you can find Goethe at the local bookshop, drop $50,000 on some art, and spend $300 on supper but where it’s difficult to get a haircut or batteries.” Or even flag down a police officer: In 2009, a vote by the City Council and county commissioners effectively shut down the police department, leaving law enforcement in the hands of the two sheriff’s deputies in the area. Mayor Dan Dunlap, who originally backed the department’s closure, had underscored a need to pare down the city’s budget.
By most standards, Marfa is an aberration of the typical West Texas town. One would imagine that an influx of restaurateurs, artists, artisans, and business owners is a hallmark of growth. (In previous years, it’s been dubbed “the next Santa Fe,” Aspen, Missoula, and so on.) But census records show just the opposite: In 2000, the population decreased to 2,121, the number currently listed on city limits markers, then to 1,981 in 2010, continuing its decades-long trajectory of decline despite glowing media coverage and publicity.
One night at a low-key gathering of assorted twenty-somethings in Marfa, several residents hinted at one of the reasons for this development. A friend of mine who recently moved to the area commented on how expensive groceries were, even in comparison with average costs in major metropolitan areas across the state. A teacher interjected to ask which store he frequented, the unremarkable Pueblo Market or specialty-goods vendor The Get Go. Someone else told me he worked 90 miles away in Fort Stockton but chose to stay in Marfa, despite the rising cost of living, because his friends and family live here. Meanwhile, everyone scalped cigarettes from one another, and there was a general consensus on the ridiculous nature of beer and wine prices.
Marfa, the bare-bones city Donald Judd loved for its quiet seclusion and generous terrain, may have become too expensive for the people who call it home.
Soaring property values have forced many traditional retailers, now competing with artisans vying for tourist dollars, to relocate away from downtown Marfa because they can no longer afford to renew their leases at inflated rates or increase their prices. In February 2005 Mary Arrieta, whose store Ave Maria previously was located on Highland Avenue, had to find another space for her business as the new building owner reappropriated the location for upmarket lofts.
“For 29 years, I could afford to rent on [Highland]. Now I can’t,” Arrieta said in the August 2005 Salon article, “Showdown in Marfa.” “It is sad the way the art crowd is working it out so that they don’t have to lift a finger to put us out.”
Cleat Stephens, a Marfa native and co-owner of the Alamito Real Estate company, views the changes in a more positive light. Judd’s death generated substantial interest in the tucked-away art colony, and out-of-towners and investors alike — perhaps recognizing echoes of his vision in the landscape or eyeing the potential for new development — started buying up properties similar to those Judd held during his lifetime.
Stephens handled early sales for some of the Judd Foundation’s 15 to 20 central properties and witnessed firsthand the Doppler shifts in what he refers to as the “complexion of the town”: Once-derelict buildings were restored to polished glory, the city traded its ranching influences for added artistic flair, and the standard of living improved dramatically as the per capita income increased from $14,636 in 1999 to $23,756 to 2009. When I asked him about the figures pointing toward a diminishing population, I could almost hear a carefully reasoned furrow of the brow in his voice.
“My initial impression is that there have been fewer opportunities [in the area] for people who grew up in Marfa, you’d call them native Marfans, as far as professional careers and things like that go,” Stephens said. He went on to say that the data may not be an entirely accurate reflection of the number of permanent residents since Marfa has a fluid, fluctuating population of artists-in-residence (the average Chinati residency lasts between two and three months), service workers, and vacation homeowners.
A Chamber of Commerce employee elaborated on this phenomenon by citing herself as an example. If she needed extra money, she said, she could just move to Austin or Dallas for a couple months’ work and then return to Marfa; she wouldn’t even need to tell anyone she was leaving.
“But the community is so tight-knit that even when as few as 20 people leave, everyone notices,” she added.
Her casual tone implies this back-and-forth between Marfa and major cities happens fairly often, and as for myself I’ve heard countless stories about individuals who try their hand at Marfa living but return to their city of origin after a few discouraging months. The physical and social environments of West Texas can be jarring to those unaccustomed to the rolling landscape; the dry, thin air; or the rural concept of nightlife. Born-and-bred Marfans exude the brand of friendly warmth specific to small communities, but there’s an edge to the way some transplants carry themselves around fresh faces almost as if to say, “You don’t know how difficult this will be. I doubt you’ll last.” And indeed, many of them don’t.
Enter Tex Toler, the director of Marfa’s newly minted Department of Tourism, which is funded by the city’s hotel/motel bed tax revenue. A scant 90 days into the job, the former Austinite readily acknowledges how heavily the local economy relies on vacationers.
“It’s essential that we make a concerted effort, a coordinated effort, a strategic effort to reach out to visitors for our survival,” Toler affirmed, noting how the town’s upper-crust eateries aren’t exactly tailor-made for the ranching crowd. Pragmatically, he understands the vital role tourists play in sustaining the outcrop of vogue businesses, but he’s also quick to point out what Marfa needs to support a more permanent population. “We don’t have enough really affordable housing for interns, students, or people struggling to support their families. We could do more with that.”
When asked for his impression of the two Judd-related foundations, Toler praises their community outreach programs and current Chinati Director Thomas Kellein for opening a dialogue between the institutions and area residents. “Years ago, [the foundations] would get a bad rap,” Toler said, rattling off a list of denigrating monikers such as “ChiNazi” or “Chisnotty.” “But they’ve really turned it around. They do so many things for the kids and the youth in the community as far as art classes and projects go. They have become more welcoming to the community.”
While the tourism director commends the nonprofits that loom like beneficent Goliaths over Presidio County and attract thousands of visitors to the county seat each year, he also speaks with candor when he mentions the “distorted expectations” of some visiting art aficionados who, spellbound by a mythical Marfa and fantastical Judd, trek to the town and get less than what they bargained for.
“You open up the paper and read about the ‘thriving art scene.’ These galleries, they’re about as thriving as a funeral home or library,” Toler joked lightly. “People talking in hushed tones, people saying, ‘Hm, you know, je ne sais quoi.’ It’s not a nightclub kind of thriving. People get there and they’re like, OK, where is all of this ‘thriving’ I read about? It’s a slow pace here, and it takes some getting used to.”
The dim interior and undisguised pews of Padre’s Marfa hint at what the live-music venue and bar used to be: a funeral home. Housed in a renovated 100-year-old adobe building, the honky tonk opened in May 2009 and has hosted performers such as Sean Lennon, White Denim, and Grupo Fantasma, with Explosions in the Sky slated to perform Sept. 15.
Judd’s vision of an intimate artists’ refuge has been so distorted that finding traces of the sculptor in what Marfa has evolved into is nearly impossible. He is everywhere — among the “I ■ Judd” bumper stickers giving a sly nod to his installation of concrete blocks, the volumes for sale at Marfa Book Co. that track his life and work, and the foundation building downtown with “JUDD” boldly emblazoned on the glass door and building itself — but he is nowhere. The myth has outgrown the man, and I’m left wondering whether his assembly of painters, sculptors, and friends would recognize his vision or could afford to live there today. Whether this is still “Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas,” as a documentary by filmmaker Chris Felver asserted in 1996.
If we credit anyone with saving Marfa from becoming another nameless long-distance pit stop, we’d have to salute the two institutions dedicated to preserving Judd’s legacy. But, these are the very forces that might destroy it in the long run.
Some 170 miles from Marfa sits Langtry, a ghost town that has succumbed to the fate Marfa, for better or worse, may have escaped. As of 2009 its estimated population was 30, although if you discount the ranch employees living on its outskirts, the count comes down to a scant 18. The area is unincorporated, and its status on the Texas Almanac website simply reads, “Our records indicate that Langtry currently exists.”
Located about a mile off U.S. Highway 90 in the eastern afterglow of Sanderson Canyon, Langtry was named for railroad foreman and engineer George Langtry, who supervised a crew constructing a stretch of the nearby Southern Pacific line. The saloon operator who would become Langtry’s most notorious resident, Judge Roy Bean, moved there in 1882 and was appointed justice of the peace later that year. He claimed his title as the “Law West of the Pecos” River and held court in his storied saloon, and his reputation as a maverick would soon immortalize him in local folklore.
One story describes his release of an arrested man who reportedly murdered a Chinese rail worker. Responding to criticism, Bean explained his actions by pointing out that the law did not state specifically that it was illegal to kill a Chinaman. Another account details how, upon finding $40 and a gun on a dead man’s body, Bean fined the corpse for carrying a concealed weapon. Conveniently, the fine amounted to $40.
The judge’s mantra? “Hang ‘em first, try ‘em later.”
The incident that propelled him into infamy occurred in 1896 when Bean orchestrated a profitable plan to hold a world-championship boxing showdown nearby. As boxing matches were illegal in the both the state and Mexico, he arranged for the fight to take place on the southern side of the Rio Grande fully aware of the site’s near-inaccessibility to Mexican authorities. Reports of the fight’s extraordinary circumstances spread across the country, and Bean came away with a renegade’s celebrity and slightly augmented wealth.
He had a romantic side, too, as he was so infatuated with English actress and singer Lillie Langtry (no relation to the settlement’s namesake, though perhaps Bean took this coincidence as a sign of divine providence) that he named his saloon the “Jersey Lilly” in her honor. Hoping to lure her to Langtry for a visit, he christened his home “Roy Bean’s Opera House, Town Hall, and Seat of Justice,” never mind its paltry square footage of 800 designed for an audience of one. Lillie Langtry eventually visited the town, but not before Bean’s death in 1903.
“Judge Roy Bean lived a life in which fiction became so intermingled with fact that he became a legend within his lifetime,” reads a historical marker celebrating the rogue lawman. So intermingled, it seems, that his compelling narrative now dwarfs, even extinguishes, historical mention of events outside his lifetime. If everything is bigger in Texas, Roy Bean is bigger than Texas: Two-thirds of the State Historical Association’s profile of Langtry covers roughly twenty years of Bean’s time there. The rest of the article is devoted to the twentieth century.
Like Marfa, Langtry is top-heavy with tourists, albeit on a comparatively tiny scale. The visitors’ center dominates the area with just three buildings and five employees, compared to the Chinati Foundation’s 340 acres and $719,000 in 2009 employee salaries. On the strength of Bean’s reputation alone, Langtry draws 60,000 visitors annually, a startling figure for a place whose dwindling population prompted the only school to shutter its doors in 1970.
“We probably wouldn’t even have a post office if it weren’t for the reason that tourists buy stamps,” said Jack Skiles, who grew up in Langtry during the Great Depression and still lives there today. (Soon, Langtry may not even have that: On July 26, the United States Postal Service announced that declining revenues would force the possible closure of 222 of its Texas branches, including the Langtry office.) In the sixties, Skiles had set out to learn more about the “Law West of the Pecos” from anyone with a fable to tell, and the interviews he gathered with a secondhand tape recorder would eventually become the book, Judge Roy Bean Country, and land him the title of resident Langtry expert.
The tourism industry is what thumps Langtry’s pulse into life — of its few residents, one family runs the gas station, another the gift shop, one individual serves as postmaster, and another works at the visitors’ center — but things weren’t always this way, Skiles says. Railways and ranching once lay at the core of its economic base, but after the completion of the railroad and its relocation, many laborers fled Langtry in search of work. During most of the town’s spotty history the number of residents never exceeded 200, but the shrinking number of ranchers, is a more recent trend.
“[Ranching has] declined immensely due to the fact that in this hard, dry country, we’ve had less-than-normal rainfall for a few years,” Skiles said. “But the biggest factor is people from big cities, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, these people are willing to pay more for the land here than it can produce. People sold out.”
Lured in by the region’s striking canyons, brush, and views of the Rio Grande, city dwellers in previous decades started buying ranch properties around Langtry, though they do very little ranching themselves. What affects the area most, Skiles says, is that these individuals or families come out there for weekend or holiday visits and don’t put any money into the community. The land remains stagnant in squandered economic opportunity particularly since these landowners aren’t willing to sell, even to others who would reinvigorate Langtry’s ranching industry.
Another circumstance contributing to Langtry’s waning prospects is the deadlocked ownership of its vacant lots. Legal issues complicate the sale of some plots of land through disputed ownership while non-resident families own others. For example, the Dodd family, descendants of Bean’s contemporary William H. Dodd, owns most of the property in town. Preferring to sell the land in one chunk rather than piece by piece, the Dodds put their holdings on the market in 1970 and waited for an acceptable offer of $1.5 million to $2 million. None would ever be made, and a glance at the neglected buildings, left to decay naturally as the Dodds either couldn’t afford or didn’t care to maintain the structures, offers visual proof of what Skiles asserted to me: “Langtry has almost certainly died.”
Still, there’s a certain magic in Torres Avenue’s string of abandoned homes and stores, relics from a bygone era when there was more to Langtry than loneliness. The decades of indifference have created an eerie conflation of interior and exterior, the bones of a structure exposed to elements lacking surgical precision. You can easily identify the buildings from archived photos to the present day, although the years have not been kind to Langtry’s oldest residents. Floorboards sag and creak with age, but there’s no bureaucratic agency to condemn these structures or oversee their destruction. The windows were shattered long ago, and roofs crystallize in ever-worsening states of implosion. But at the same time the overgrown weeds lend a peculiar comfort to the crumbling adobe walls reminiscent of Marfa’s aged casitas. However, what passes for blight in Marfa is the status quo in Langtry.
The adobe building that housed the general store owned and operated by Jesus Pablo Torres, Bean’s rival and the first permanent resident of Langtry, sits on a Dodd lot and was nearly intact two years ago. Today it’s just a sneeze away from sinking into rubble, though the adjacent historical marker immortalizing Torres as part of the town’s founding family remains curiously erect.
Weighing Torres’ ramshackle store to Bean’s impeccably preserved saloon and house, it’s plain to see whose architectural and historical markers will endure the longest. But since the livelihood of the residents is bound so tightly to tourism and the legacy of one man, I have to ask, how long can Langtry survive on its foundation of tunnel-visioned ties to the past? What exactly is the half-life of wistful bronze — or for that matter, fifteen untitled works in concrete? Can Marfa, three hours from Langtry by car but exceedingly close in spirit, sustain its simultaneous growth and decline?
In 2009, the proprietor of Langtry’s gift-shop-cum-post-office had voiced her desire to sell the property and use the money to relocate. When I visited in June, a “Closed for business” sign hanged from the shop’s door, and excitedly I assumed she had found a buyer and moved on to bigger, perhaps better, things. But a conversation with a staff member at the visitors’ center revealed that the same woman still manages the store’s affairs and lives in the area; the shop was closed only for the day.
I suppose for all their similarities, one colossal distinction separates Donald Judd’s artists’ enclave from Judge Roy Bean’s former stomping grounds: Marfans are pushed out despite their best efforts to stay. Residents of Langtry couldn’t get out if they tried.
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Vicky Ho grew up in an indistinct Houston suburb and studied English and architecture at the University of Texas. After briefly flirting with graduate studies at the University of Chicago, she split and decided she preferred honest work to academia. She was engaged to actor Vincent Price, who died in 1993 before they could wed, and now works as a recreational copy editor out of Austin, Texas.
© 2013 7STOPS Magazine