The desert town of Joshua Tree has always attracted artists and solitaries - but now, it’s being transformed by a new wave of tourists and festival-goers. That’s good for the economy - but some long-term residents feel the town’s identity has completely changed. Benjamin Purper reports.
Poet and educator Lauren Henley reads from her book of poetry, Starshine Road, in her Yucca Valley home. Henley grew up here, in the High Desert - but not in this particular town. Her real home is the Village of Joshua Tree.
Henley grew up when Joshua Tree was still called a village. Back then, it was a sleepy desert town. There was so little light pollution that you could see the Milky Way, clearly visible every night. Everyone knew each other.
“It wasn't a city,” Henley says. “This village was occupied almost entirely by the people who lived and worked there.”
“The locals went to the one little Mexican food restaurant that was downtown, where my dad could write a check and where he had once arrested the cook, and so we'd get free dinners sometime.”
But that Joshua tree, the village of her youth? That’s gone. Now, it’s something else.
“There is currently a land grab happening out here, and everyone wants their piece,” Henley says.
“There are locals who are happy with the festivals and attend them regularly, and then there are people like me who are most concerned about the ways wildlife are affected by 5,000 extra vehicles, 5,000 extra people with their snack wrappers and soda cans, and the subwoofers and the festival lights adding to noise and light pollution.”
Joshua Tree and the surrounding desert cities have experienced an explosion of popularity in the last few years. There’s a couple factors at work: the growth of outdoor music festivals, the advent of Airbnb, and the desert’s sudden popularity among young people all over Southern California.
That’s been good for people looking for a job in Joshua Tree, but not for people looking for housing. After leaving the area for a while, Henley returned this year to find the housing market drastically changed.
“We left this area about six years ago. When we left, there were tons of long-term rentals, in really desirable spots near the national Park. And upon trying to return, found it very, very difficult,” she says.
When Henley left the High Desert in 2012, the average sale price of a home in Joshua Tree was about 60,000$. Six years later, the median price is about 170,000$.
Housing availability has also taken a huge hit. At a height in 2008, there was an average of 400 listings; now that number is about 75. The same trend is true for surrounding cities like Yucca Valley, where Henley lives now.
“And it took us several months to find this long-term rental, that we're in right now,” she says. “And we had to live in a really crappy, small, over-priced Airbnb for 1,600$ a month until we were able to secure this place.”
But not everyone mourns the old Joshua Tree. Some people are happy with the new status quo.
Jennifer Finch is the President of the Joshua Tree Gateway Association of Realtors. I met her at a Mexican restaurant in Yucca Valley which, she points out, wasn’t there a few years ago.
From a realtors’ perspective, Finch says, all this change has been a pretty good thing.
“I think everybody's happy,” she says. “I think everyone who wants a job out here has one. Property management, food, catering, the wedding scene is huge. And I've seen a lot of people come out here to get married, and they spend like $20 thousand to rent a little place with rocks on it. The contractors are busy again.”
Finch attributes all this change to a couple key developments over the last two decades: the rise of massive events like the Joshua Tree Music Festival, the growth of Airbnb and vacation rentals, and the surge in popularity of Joshua Tree National Park.
“Ever since the music festivals came here about 14 years ago, that seems to have put this place on the map, along with Joshua Tree National Monument becoming Joshua Tree National Park,” Finch says. “
And then, I would say about 8 years ago, the vacation rental situation started, because the park is always full, and there's nowhere to camp when you get there.”
Joshua Tree National Park had over 2.8 million visitors in 2017. That’s an increase of nearly 340,000 from 2016 and double the 1.4 million who came in 2013.
A lot of locals can’t stand this many people coming into the park. But Finch says all this tourism has cleaned up the place, modernized it.
“They've definitely made the place look a lot better,” she says. “A lot of artists, lot of people with money, they've fixed things up and made them beautiful. They spent money on landscaping. So the place doesn't look so Dog-Patch USA anymore, so I love that. It's a mixed bag.”
It’s also made the desert exciting, Finch says. Even for locals.
“It used to be a really boring place to live, but now we can't even keep up with all the activities. There's parties and famous people and movie stars.... there's always something.”
At the Beatnik Lounge in Joshua Tree, Lauren Henley hosts a poetry reading with her husband Jonathan. It’s a space for locals to gather, away from the festivals and party scenes, and reminisce about the way things used to be.
“I think a lot of us are looking up now, going, what happened to our small, sleepy village?” Henley says. “That was so quiet at night, and so dark at night that you couldn't see your own hand.”
Henley says she acknowledges the desert’s transformation has brought good things along with the bad. But she still mourns the village of her memory.
“The only constant is change,” she says, “but I really can't help but feel that something has been irrevocably lost in the name of progress. Something that's really essential to the spirit of the desert, something that brought a certain type of people out here to begin with.”
“I'm just really grateful that I knew Joshua Tree before everybody else found out how cool it was.”