Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Making it, or not, in Aspen
October 10, 2012
I got myself in over my head this time. If I had to explain why or how it all began, I would most likely say it evolved out of a curiosity to see who sleeps under our bridges and carries all their belongings in trash bags, those who work three doubles at the restaurant every week to pay rent, those who spend their last dollar on a ski pass.
Going into this story, I was confident I would find a handful of people of different income levels and lifestyles to explain to me why 7 percent of our population makes more than $250,000 a year while 84 individuals roam the streets without homes, why Aspen sits at the top one-tenth of the 1 percent and why some people find that $60,000 a year in this town truly isn’t enough to raise children or own property.
This is a story filled with conversations I had with people I met: influential people of our community who pass us on the streets who serve us drinks at the bar, who handle our money, who watch our children and who were willing to tell their personal truths about what wealth in Aspen is and what it isn’t.
This might surprise you. According to data collected by Sperlings Best Places, Aspen’s current unemployment rate sits at 9.8 percent, higher than the national average of 8.6 percent. At age 62, Stephane Peltier, a legal French migrant who has resided in and out of Aspen for the past 22 years, is part of this percentage.
Living out of an old Jeep and spending just $6 a day, Peltier claims that after filling out more than 60 applications for work and finding no success, it is evident that his time in Aspen is quickly coming to an end. The only thing left for him to do is sell his belongings and move out of the state.
“Since living here, I have learned many skills and have had many jobs,” said Peltier, who sits behind his MacBook computer at the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s Day Center with loafers, khaki shorts, a polo shirt, a gold watch and thick-framed George Burns glasses. “I believed for a long time my skills would bring me success here, but now I have made the decision to abandon it for good.”
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Resembling some kind of authoritative figure with his sharp dress and intelligent dialogue, Peltier can easily be mistaken as a shelter employee rather than someone in need of a meal. The son of a French admiral, he served in the French military, taught himself English and came to the States with hopes of achieving the American dream. With a daughter who serves as a navigator in the U.S. Coast Guard and a son who enlisted in the Army for duty in Iraq, Peltier has put his hands to work as a medic, a chef, a ski instructor, a builder and a massage therapist – all of which have, at some point, left him falling through the cracks here in Aspen.
According to Peltier, who frequents the Day Center for an Internet connection, laundry facilities and an occasional hot meal, his homelessness is a direct result of mistakes made over the years and of people sometimes misunderstanding who he is as a person.
“It is difficult for me to explain just how this community has changed,” he said. “I believe now that the politics here are slanted, they are misleading, and I am tired of feeling proselytized for what I should believe and who I should be.”
Carrying with him a sense of humor and passionate speech often associated with that of European descent, Peltier finds it difficult to comply with those who force their “misguided truths” on him, something he says happens more and more often with those he comes in contact with here, and he no longer wants to be a part of it.
“I am not going to try to change this community,” he said. “I would rather leave the crap where it is. Instead I will move to a place where I can be myself. … I will work my ass off, but I will be happy doing it and happy helping other people, too. … I will no longer be here underneath someone else’s thumb.”
Many argue that when it comes to diverse industries with climb-the-ladder career opportunities, Aspen falls woefully short. On the other hand, building a life around the service industry by seeking jobs in hotels, restaurants, retail stores and child care can prove both comfortable and rewarding, especially in a place that takes the gold for being the playground of the rich and famous.
At 25, Chelsea, whose name was changed for this story to protect her identity and employment standing, has found a way to fit in with the lifestyles of the super-rich by serving as a nanny for a wealthy Aspen family. Since beginning work for the family in 2010, Chelsea has been given a “service” house to stay in rent-free and a car for the purpose of driving the kids to and from school and other activities.
“When I first came here three years ago, I was living with my boyfriend and paying $2,000 a month for rent. My job type is difficult because you can either start out working inconsistently with an agency or find a family right off the bat. It was a whirlwind for me at first trying to make it in Aspen, but finding this family really was a financial blessing.”
Chelsea is one of four nannies for the family and begins her day at 6 a.m. to get the kids off to school. She sees the expenses of Aspen as “not that bad” when compared with other resort communities. For her, it was much easier to spend money in beach towns, where she had to pay for most recreational activities.
“I think people can easily find success here,” she said. “It might not be a place you can live forever, but you can definitely learn a lot. They say Aspen is so difficult to survive in, but a lot of other towns I’ve seen have a much harder sense of reality than we do here.”
“Poor people come into my bar and tip 20 percent just like rich people tip 20 percent, so when we talk about what wealth brings to Aspen, it truly holds no weight in my personal life,” said longtime bartender Bryan, whose name also was changed for this story.
Living in Aspen for a couple of years in the ’90s and returning full time in 2003, Bryan holds strong opinions about the lack of “normal jobs” Aspen offers and claims the only reason he came back to live here was because he owns none of the things that people deem important in their life – like money, a house and kids.
“Name five of your friends who came here and became successful,” he said. “Right now we have the lowest concentration of 20- and 30-year-olds to ever live in this valley. It used to be that people came here and they could make it work, but now it is no longer available to them.”
And from Bryan’s experience, Aspen isn’t the only place that has followed through with the gated-community model. In the past five years, Avalon, N.J., has bought into the elite real estate sector, leaving those who lived their entire lives there no choice but to get out.
“Rich people see a nice town, and before you know it, it’s overrun with wealth,” he said. “People say it helps the economy, that it brings jobs, … but now you have a town like Avalon that is only busy for a month and a half as opposed to all year round. How does that make any sense?”
But then again, Bryan does see the advantages to living in a town with a lot of wealth – advantages most illustrated through things like music and the arts.
“I doubt you could go to a place like Jackson Hole, experience no lift lines and see a free concert,” he said. “But are these festivals, food and wine and public speakers all provided for because people bought houses here? I’m not so sure.”
Chris Ryan owns his own investment firm in Aspen. When it comes to the advantages and disadvantages that wealth brings to town, Ryan says it makes all the difference.
Moving to Aspen 15 years ago with a wife and two kids, Ryan was right in the middle of a market defined by declined interest rates and financial assets like stocks, bonds and real estate that all worked to launch Aspen’s wealth to a greater level. In 2007, however, both stocks and real estate declined, which hurt the Aspen wealth market for a while. Luckily, Ryan said, the stock market is back to 2007 highs, and Aspen real estate – especially the high end – is back in full force.
“Aspen has long been a wealthy place,” he said, “but there is a really, really wealthy segment here now, as well.”
So what advantage does it have for the rest of us? For starters, a beautiful, well-maintained town with great public facilities, great open space, great schools and great culture.
“I’ve never seen such a small town with so many well-funded nonprofits,” Ryan said. “Aspen is a special place, and we should be grateful that the wealthy fund a lot of it.”
Commenting on the stat that says 7 percent of Aspen’s population makes more than $250,000 a year, Ryan attributes most of that money not to wages but rather to investment income. According to him, big wealth doesn’t come here to work – it comes here to relish natural beauty, recreation and cultural events and gain easy access to other like-minded wealthy people.
So what about the ones who come here without a financial cushion?
“I wouldn’t recommend that most people come here to start a career,” he said. “Let’s face it – it’s really expensive. … I’d rather my own kids start their own careers in a bigger city, get established, make some money and after 10 years consider coming back.”