Marfa, Texas: Mayberry Meets Greenwich Village

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Photo Courtesy Dschwen
The main drag reflects Marfa’s Mexican heritage.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2013 installment of 9 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard of.

Marfa, Texas. Being off the beaten path isn’t mere geography in Marfa, Texas (though, given its location in the Chihuahuan Desert in way-out-West Texas, the description certainly applies). It’s also a state of mind and a cultivated lifestyle. If you were to say Marfa’s in the middle of nowhere, many residents would respond, “Isn’t that great?”

In Marfa, both traditional Hispanic and weather-beaten Southwestern styles take their place alongside Texas kitsch, as well as world-class music, film, visual art and multimedia installations, all in less than 2 square miles among the high-desert creosote and silver sage. It’s a place chock-full of emptiness, one resident says, and the people attracted to it are a proudly eclectic lot.

Jon Johnson grew up on a cotton farm south of Marfa and moved away for several decades before returning in 2004 after his retirement. The residents he knew in his youth were primarily ranching families and the Hispanic community — which makes up about 70 percent of Marfa’s permanent population. Johnson now owns Planet Marfa, a combination beer garden and salon space where wide-ranging discussions and ad hoc philosophizing take place in an enormous tipi. Since moving back, he’s observed three other distinct threads emerge in the town’s human tapestry.

“There’s a diverse and lively retirement community,” Johnson says. “The merchant community is also vital and energized, and our latest community is the artists, who have contributed so much to Marfa’s quality of life and its personality.

“We all get along because it’s like a small high school: You can’t have a really good party unless you invite everyone.”

Marfa’s role as an arts town was born in the late 1970s when American minimalist Donald Judd began spending summers there and ultimately created the Chinati and the Judd Foundations, both nonprofit art organizations. The artists’ creative approach and occasional sheer outrageousness combine with the existing small-town culture to create an atmosphere sometimes described as “Mayberry Meets Greenwich Village.” Lifelong resident Ann Dunlap says residents just call it “The Marfa Mystique.”

“Everyone has a different idea of what Marfa is,” she says. “But add it all up, and it’s a really dynamic, really fun community.”

Green initiatives, such as composting, are taking hold in Marfa as much out of practical necessity as environmental enthusiasm, Dunlap says. Given that their garbage contractor has to commute 60 miles each way to the town of Presidio, residents have decided it’s in their best interests to start recycling in a major way.

“No one’s dragged kicking and screaming to these initiatives,” Dunlap says. “People see that it makes sense and everyone pitches in to make it happen. That’s how this community operates.”

Stats: Marfa, Texas

Population: 1,998
Climate: 15.4” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 60 degrees Fahrenheit; July avg. high: 90 degrees F
Median household income: $37,663
Median home price: $256,500

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on .