Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 14, 2008
The town of Basalt has been going through an identity crisis, so the town recently launched an effort to redefine itself and enhance its appeal. More than 150 town residents weighed in on this soul-searching public process and concluded that Basalt ought to be a “hip” place where people want to “hang out.”
The role models of Aspen and Carbondale were cited, but cultural envy bears a warning: Trying to replicate the social and cultural panache of Aspen or the homespun, organic vibe of Carbondale could produce a phony construct. A letter-to-the-editor made that point after an article appeared in The Aspen Times about Basalt’s makeover: “Why does Basalt aspire to be something they aren’t? One day they want to be like Aspen; now they want to be more like Carbondale. Basalt has its own place in the valley and should aspire to be Basalt. Unfortunately, Basalt looks outward for its identity rather than inward to be hip …”
Consider some history. Basalt has always been a stopover, a non-destination.
Starting with its earliest 19th-century dwelling ” the Lucksinger sod-roofed boarding house ” Basalt was a way station. During the railroading days of the 1880s and ’90s, Basalt served as a switchyard. Trains passed through on their way to other destinations.
Basalt attracts fishermen, but not to just hang out in town. Even the trout pass through in a spawning migration. It’s the same with cyclists who frequent the Frying Pan … with campers and boaters going to Ruedi … with hunters heading to the high country. Basalt is a great place to stop off for a meal or a fill-up or a specific shopping item, but hanging out is not part of the town’s allure.
Basalt’s image has to be about more than “ice cream parlors and burger joints,” which the Times reported were on the A-list of public input. Stronger visions called for a town piazza and farmers market, which are great starting points. But the first concern should be with the town’s persona. Is Basalt free and exciting or dull and pedantic? Is it creative and edgy or staid and utilitarian? Basaltines should be turning these questions upon themselves because, ultimately, the aggregate of resident personalities defines the personality of a place.
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Community identity derives from organic evolution, from the grassroots. It’s got to be fun and infectious, not mandated by government or, God forbid, the chamber of commerce. A magnetic community generates a natural vitality that’s unscripted and spontaneous.
When I lived in Crested Butte in the 1970s, it was alive with energy because the people were crazy, eccentric and wild. The best town planners in the world can’t inspire the “King of Hearts” kind of madness that enlivened such a unique culture.
Face it: Basalt is not a place to hang out; it’s a place to live. Many people have relocated in Basalt because it’s a beautiful place to raise a family, enjoy a quiet neighborhood, and share suburban-style, peer-based community warmth.
Basalt will never be as hip as Aspen, and it will never be as down-home and funky as Carbondale. Basalt has a rich history, strong real estate values, decent schools, wonderful restaurants, attractive shops, a great bookstore, a beautiful setting, and a long-term, intelligent, caring populace. If that’s not enough, then Basalt needs to re-evaluate success.
The town should concern itself with providing good infrastructure and pleasant, user-friendly amenities. It should strive to nurture Basalt’s social dynamic, not by sprawling, but by concentrating on resident-only, ethnically varied, income-diverse neighborhoods. If the town really wants to support downtown businesses, which this identity issue is all about, it should resist Willits-like developments that undermine downtown commerce and sap its vitality.
The worst move would be to contrive a cutesy marketing approach that simplifies the mysteries of soul, passion and cultural vibrancy. Window dressings are not the answer to achieving authentic identity and commercial success in Basalt.