Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Over spring break Susie and I visited Marfa, Texas, a town of just of 2000 people that serves as a gateway to the Big Bend country but that is interesting in its own right. The drive from El Paso took us about 3-1/2 hours. We stopped for lunch at the McDonald's in Van Horn, where the diners included, as near as I could tell, the members of the metalcore band Miss May I (I had to learn from Wikipedia that metalcore is a subgenre of heavy metal music combining elements of extreme metal and hardcore punk), apparently on their way from California to perform in Austin at South by Southwest. I'm not sure whether I'm happier that Susie and I dine in places favored by heavy metal bands or that heavy metal bands actually eat at McDonald's like the rest of us.

The seat of Presidio County, Marfa has transitioned from a fate like that of the town in "The Last Picture Show"--both of Marfa's movie theaters seem to be long closed--to becoming home to an eclectic mix of ranchers and artists. The highway through town runs east-west, paralleling the railroad tracks. Crossing the tracks to the north brings you along North Highland Avenue into the heart of the town, facing the courthouse.
Along North Highland you'll find the offices of the Big Bend Sentinel, the region's weekly newspaper, and classic buildings like the Brite Building.
The family that built the Brite Building also built a large house on the edge of town west of the courthouse.
Just off North Highland sits the Hotel Paisano, a classic hotel designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost. The hotel was built in 1930, in anticipation of an economic boom that never arrived. The Paisano has style elements that recall several of Trost's best buildings from El Paso.
Today, Marfa serves as the central town for the region's cattle ranchers. Ranches abut the town, and cattle trucks drive down its streets. For the outside world, Marfa is best known as an arts community, which developed after the abstract sculptor Donald Judd moved here in 1972 and later created the Chinati Foundation, which is one of the world's major sites for modern, especially minimalist, large-scale art installations. We spent an entire day at the Chinati Foundation, and I'll describe our visit in a later posting.
A single railroad track divides along an east-west line, with downtown and most of the residential district to the north and with the Chinati Foundation and the Border Patrol station to the south. There's a large public shed on the south side of the tracks that at lunch serves as home to the Food Shark truck, which serves meals so popular--at least during spring break--that we waited in line for 30 minutes to order, then another 30 minutes for the food. The food was worth the wait, I'm happy to report.
On Saturday mornings the shed hosts a farmer's market that, although a little sparse, offers a terrific breakfasts, punctuated by the roar of passing trains.The farmer's market's clientele reflected Marfa's eclectic population of inhabitants and visitors, including this occupant of a motorcycle side-car.

Marfa's dining choices range from the Dairy Queen, where locals hang out to chat, to friendly funky spots like the Pizza Foundation, to upscale restaurants like Cochineal, which serves elegant, imaginative meals. The days and hours of restaurants--and stores--in Marfa are atypical, reflecting the town's life as a weekend destination. It's best to check ahead before heading out.
Susie and I were fortunate to be in Marfa for the opening of a terrific exhibition at Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit space for contemporary art and culture. "The World According to New Orleans," curated by Dan Cameron, presents interesting work by artists from New Orleans, some of whom are dead and some of whom are living. The living artists were there for the opening reception, which was a huge success. I was particularly impressed by the works of Skylar Fein and Bruce Davenport, Jr., and talked with both of them about their art. After the reception, everyone decamped for a community dinner at the Capri, which turns out to have multiple signs, none of which say "Capri," as far as I could tell. This is a great refurbished space, still announced by signs of the establishments that used to be there, such as the Thunderbird Restaurant. In the event, the food was a wonderful and copious rendition of Southern cooking, and the meal was followed by a concert by Little Freddie King, who played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for 32 years, along with his band.

The people attending the reception, dinner and concert appeared to reflect Marfa's mix of residents and visitors. Many wore western wear, some more plausibly than others. Among women, a skirt and cowboy boots proved a popular look.

Marfa is a work in progress--still declining, still growing, still changing. The Dollar Store has moved into a new building on the east side of town. Older buildings, like the Ballroom and the Capri have been rebuilt and repurposed. Other buildings reflect a stasis of old construction and modern hopes.

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