Who Has the Right to Shelter in a Small Town?

People are fleeing big cities for rural areas in an attempt to outrun COVID-19. In Marfa, Texas, that has divided the community.

Marfa, Texas.
Epics / Getty

Spring break typically marks the start of tourist season in Marfa, Texas, when the streets fill with families from Dallas and handsome Los Angeles couples. College kids host late-night parties in Airbnbs. Influencers pose in front of crumbling adobe ruins. And every few weeks, we get a celebrity sighting: Guy Fieri riding a bike down the potholed streets, or Matthew McConaughey hunkering down to complete his book of poetry. A few years ago, a friendly street cat brushed up against Heidi Klum’s ankles at dinner, and a few days later, it was on her private plane, heading to its new home in Hollywood.

Until a month ago, complaining about the tourists was a low-stakes bonding activity around town. We grumbled about how they stood in the middle of the road taking pictures and how they wore bathrobes in public, as if they saw the whole town as an all-inclusive resort. (Maybe that cat really wasn’t a stray after all.) Even the tourists resented the tourists. “I was here during spring break two years ago and it was kind of disgusting,” a visitor from Los Angeles told me last year. “I just didn’t want there to be too many people like us here,” his friend added.

Now the streets are empty, as they are everywhere. But when the tourists disappeared, so did most of the service-industry jobs, which has been financially disastrous for some locals. Still, not everyone is unhappy with the situation: “I was out in town yesterday and noticed how quiet and calm it was, and couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief to feel that old feeling of what Marfa used to feel like before all the tourists and craziness of random people walking around,” PJ Serrano posted on Facebook.

I moved to Marfa eight years ago. In the finicky taxonomy of tourist towns, that makes me a transplant—not a native or a local, but not a visitor either. I did what I could to immerse myself in the community, joining the volunteer fire department, delivering lunches for Meals on Wheels. Still, I’m aware that my roots here are shallow. I may live here, but I’m not of here. That tension was mostly tolerable until the coronavirus—and the fear of the coronavirus—amplified these fraught insider-outsider dynamics. Now I sit in my house and wonder: What does it mean to belong somewhere? And how much pressure can you put on a community before it starts to fracture?

Small towns are hotbeds for gossip. Now that we can’t gather at the bars, we exchange what snippets we can at the post office, on Facebook, and on socially distant walks by the railroad tracks. Our friends who work in the grocery stores are the best sources. They know who bought 18 rolls of toilet paper. They keep tabs on the unfamiliar faces that are still showing up. “There are definitely people hiding out here,” a cashier told me last week.

In Marfa, as elsewhere, the crisis has inspired grassroots mutual aid, but also a creeping mistrust. The other day, from across the fence, my neighbor told me that he was busy filling shotgun shells with salt—he doesn’t want to maim anyone, but he figures he might need them to intimidate. Last week, the county sheriff announced on Facebook that three people would be flying into our tiny municipal airport from New Jersey on a private plane. The post didn’t make this clear, but one was a full-time resident who’s lived here for decades; the other passengers were long-standing second-home owners. The group had been trying to get to Marfa from New York City for more than a week, but no cars were available to rent, and all the commercial flights had been canceled.

The information was not received well among Marfa’s permanent residents: “This could wipe out the entire population of Marfa.” “Why were they in NJ if they are ‘from Marfa’?” “How long have they been in NJ?” The original post listed the three people’s home addresses. One commenter threatened to keep watch with a shotgun to make sure they stayed inside.

At a city-council meeting, the mayor suggested putting limits on what nonlocals could buy to prevent resources from dwindling. But how can we define who counts as local, a council member asked? “You know, local,” someone else said. “It’s a small enough town. I think we all know.” I felt a twinge of unease; my driver’s license may identify me as a resident, but did that really count?

The resolution didn’t pass, but it pointed to the darkening mood around town. When a case of COVID-19 was confirmed across the border, in Ojinaga, Mexico, some people began to argue that the border should be shut down completely. A local property owner posted an advertisement for his rentals, encouraging people to “escape to Marfa during COVID-19”; in response, the city council banned rentals—short- or long-term—to nonresidents. The stores were for the most part fully stocked, and there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the entire Big Bend region, but the feeling of imminent scarcity persisted. Never mind the local developer whose construction crews were still working in close proximity to one another, or the pointed lack of social distancing at the hardware store, or the governor’s slowness in issuing a stay-at-home order—the threat came from outside, and you could spot it by its out-of-state license plates.

The pandemic brought these bad vibes to the surface, but their roots predate the current crisis. Highly touristed rural areas are often treated as not quite real by the vacationers and second-home owners who flock to them, as Anne Helen Petersen wrote for BuzzFeed News. Marfa is described by visitors as an escape, an oasis, a retreat. Seen through a vacationer’s eyes, it’s a place without politics and problems—it’s also a place without ventilators. There’s no hospital in the entire county, which is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. You wouldn’t know it from the travel-magazine write-ups, but Marfa’s population is older, poorer, and in worse health than most Americans; it’s also a majority-Latino community.

In 2012, when I moved here, Marfa had one coffee shop, one liquor store, one gym, and two bars. Although income inequality was a persistent issue, we at least had a shared context. In the past several years, though, galloping gentrification has spawned a parallel set of businesses catering to tourists and transplants: first a fancy coffee shop, then a fancy gym, a wine bar, another fancy coffee shop. Slowly, these businesses have begun to crowd out those catering to locals. Marfa has transformed into a town where you can purchase a $15 cocktail but not spark plugs. The second-home and short-term-rental market drove real-estate prices up so high that it is practically impossible to buy a Marfa house if you make Marfa wages. These are the preexisting conditions, as it were, that underlie the current atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Maybe it doesn’t feel as though we’re all in this together because it hasn’t felt like that for a while. Waiting out the pandemic 2,000 miles from where I was born, I feel a heightened awareness of the overlapping, contradictory roles I play in my adopted community: gentrifier, taxpayer, transplant, neighbor, friend, stranger.

Last week, I spoke with a woman who lives full-time on Block Island, a popular vacation spot off the coast of Rhode Island. When the second-home owners started flocking in, things got tense on the island, she said—someone threatened to blow up a transformer to keep nonlocals away. She knew things were really bad when her friends stopped waving to passing cars, a tried-and-true small-town tradition. Her story gave me some hope; in Marfa, at least, we’re still waving.

When I don’t spend time on Facebook, things feel less dire. Like everyone else, my pandemic fantasies are mundane. I think about July, when everyone’s peach trees will explode with fruit all at once, and I think about the box filled with surplus fruit in city hall. In my daydream Marfa, there are some tourists, but not too many, and when I go to pay my utility bill in person, I fill up my bag with peaches and leave some zucchini behind. The room is full of people, some who’ve lived here a year, some who’ve lived here their whole life. We smile at one another. We’ve been through something—if not together, then at least in proximity to one another. That’s not enough, perhaps, but it’s not nothing.