Is anybody home?
Aspen Times Weekly
It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet.
Main Street traffic noise is a distant hum, thanks to a few blocks’ distance and the muffling effect of piled snow.
The wind blows.
Somewhere a crow caws, and I hear a dog bark. There are houses all around, but no sign of human habitation.
It’s not T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” or a post-apocalyptic landscape; instead, it’s Aspen’s West End, a grid of streets lined with mature cottonwoods and spruces, outside tidy, suburban homes.
In the past, I’ve joined Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad to hunt bears in West End alleys. But today, we’re looking for people. Any people.
Longtime West End residents remember a time when the area was a thriving family neighborhood. And though the West End, known for its Victorian architecture and tree-lined residential streets, has been a popular second-home area for years, real estate speculation and redevelopment continues to transform things ” enlarging homes and yet shrinking the full-time population.
Today you might zip along streets such as Bleeker, Smuggler or Francis to make an end run around rush-hour congestion on Main Street, but how many people really live in Aspen’s West End?
That’s what we set out to find out. In a somewhat random, nonscientific survey, we went door-to-door to prove what we thought we already knew: The West End is empty.
On Tuesday shortly before noon, we rang the bell at a home on Smuggler Street.
At the next house, the path had been shoveled, but there were no footprints in the windblown snow.
Sure, it was the middle of the day and some folks might be at work or out skiing, but signs of life were few.
Then we meet Christie Kienast and her son unloading groceries from the car to their Smuggler Street home. Kienast has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. Her parents owned a home there since the 1950s, and she and her husband, Dick, a former Pitkin County sheriff who died in 2004, built their own home next to her parents’ house in 1972 (the Kienasts moved the house from a lot on Hopkins Avenue).
“Those of us that are here sort of stick together,” she said.
Just a dirt street and vacant lots with a smattering of small Victorian homes when she first arrived, the West End that Kienast remembers was quiet but friendly, with kids playing on the streets.
With increased redevelopment in the 1980s, many of her neighbors built massive structures that stretch from lot line to lot line on every side. And while she’s close with a few immediate neighbors, the feel of the West End has changed, she said. The homes on either side of her are usually empty and a rental property across the street fills with a new group each week: a situation she called “strange.”
“I miss people ” we don’t have any neighbors,” Kienast said with a laugh. “But we do have a lot of traffic on Smuggler Street in the afternoon because people use it as the alternate way to get out of town.”
Kienast then pointed us across the street, where we met Sara Finkle who, along with her husband, Marc, has lived in the West End for 20 years, first as a part-time visitor and now year-round.
“People used to really live here,” Finkle told us, and kids walked to school along neighborhood streets. “If you want that community now, you have to live in Basalt.”
Beyond the empty homes, Finkle agreed with Kienast that the afternoon traffic frustrates her the most.
“The sense of neighborhood has been destroyed more by the traffic pattern,” she said.
Deserted second homes are nothing new in Aspen, nor in many ski towns and resorts around the world.
Mountain Village, a satellite community near Telluride that doubles as an alternate base for the local ski area, grew so deserted in the offseason that a local filmmaker produced a documentary titled “The Lost People of Mountain Village.”
“A lot of people live in wonderful small towns in the West, and they have no idea that the same thing could happen to them,” said John McBride, an Aspen developer and founder of the Sopris Foundation, which strives to bring innovative ideas to the Western communities.
McBride recently commissioned his own short film called “Nobody’s Home,” which explores the phenomenon of Aspen’s deserted West End.
“It’s very strange what it does,” McBride said of second-home development. “It sort of sterilizes, dehumanizes it.”
Europeans have a better handle on the situation, McBride said. The big resort towns of Europe allow only limited growth.
In Aspen, McBride hopes public officials will devise a buy-down program to impose resident-occupied restrictions ” where homeowners are required to actually live in a house for the majority of a year ” on current free-market homes.
“Nobody’s Home” could help alert public officials in other Western towns about the paradox of lifestyle amenities and increased development, McBride said.
“The more attractive they make it, the more threatened,” McBride said. And despite forward-thinking public officials and high-minded locals in Aspen, the town has been bought out.
“You lose your town,” McBride said.
“It’s deserted in on-season too,” said Maggie DeWolf, who has lived in the her West End home since 1970. “That’s how people live now ” it’s the way of the world.”
DeWolf cited a John Updike poem, “Slum Lords,” which she keeps posted on her refrigerator. Updike writes that the “superrich” buy houses, tear them down, build new ones and leave.
“Don’t let them in,” Updike warns of the ultra-wealthy. “Their money is a kind of poverty.”
“It was a neighborhood,” DeWolf said of the West End in earlier times, when kids skated down the incline near her Bleeker Street home.
“You knew who your neighbors were, and you could borrow something if you needed it,” DeWolf said. “It ain’t like that now.”
And, just as Updike wrote, it’s happening all over, DeWolf said.
She compared the West End to her native Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, which was once a vital community and is now empty because of the many part-time residents.
DeWolf said she understands that Aspen is a high-end real estate spot that attracts well-heeled people from all over the globe, but added, “I miss having people here.”
We met only a few other people as we canvassed West End homes. There were no frolicking school kids, no neighbors swapping recipes or tidbits of gossip at curbside. The few doors that opened revealed friendly cleaning workers who wondered why we had all the cameras, or rooftop snow shovelers and property managers suspicious of our snooping around.
“I think I’m the oldest resident in this part of town,” said Jim Markalunas, who saw us coming and greeted us at the door of his North Street abode.
Raised in Aspen, Markalunas has been living in the West End since 1957. He remembers a time when blue-collar guys working with city and county departments could afford a West End house, but said many of his friends and neighbors have either died or moved on.
“It’s a shame we’ve kind of lost that sense of small town,” Markalunas said. “Now it’s mostly second-home owners.”
Markalunas does know some of his neighbors, he said, but it just isn’t the way it used to be. “The old-timers are gone,” he said.
The former city councilman and city water superintendent still loves Aspen: “It’s still my town, always will be,” Markalunas said.
His children, however, just can’t buy anything or live in the town where they grew up.
“They can’t afford to buy into the West End,” Markalunas said. “That’s the sad part about it, is that fourth and fifth generations of Aspenites are priced out of Aspen.”
“Ever since I first moved here, there were second-home owners,” said Bill Stirling, an Aspen real estate agent, former Aspen mayor and longtime West End resident. “It’s been empty for a long time now.”
Stirling lives near the Kienast family in what he called a “micro-community” of a few close friends and neighbors who watch one another’s homes on vacation, for example.
“When you get sick, you don’t call the doctor, you call your neighbor,” Stirling said. “We kind of watch out for each other.”
On morning walks, Stirling still runs into people he knows, he said. But, for the most part, the neighborhood is empty. In the late 1960s, Stirling lived in a cluster of houses on Francis between sixth and seventh streets across from what was then the Baptist church (now Crossroads church).
“They were funky and they were colorful,” Stirling said. “They were high-rent but they were affordable at the same time.”
And many young families were attracted to the neighborhood because of the schools ” the middle and elementary public schools were in the West End ” as well as the summer music festival.
Early second-home owners spent more time in town, Stirling said.
“They were well-known, high-profile, successful business families in Colorado, and they were up here all the time,” Stirling said, adding that there was a small “Chicago Diaspora” that included the Paepcke family.
Young couples and seasonal workers rented affordable apartments and caretaker units, Stirling said. And early incarnations of Aspen’s now-extensive affordable housing program were just low-cost free-market rentals.
“Then things began to change in the mid-1980s more dramatically as the second-home-owner phenomenon began to pick up speed,” Stirling said.
Early second-home owners tended to integrate into the “very eclectic mix in Aspen,” Stirling said. And whether rich or poor, young or old, employed or not, everyone coexisted.
But later second-home owners were more interested in showing off their jewelry and large vacation homes, Stirling said. And there developed a certain Aspen elitism.
Just as many locals bought lots and lived on Red Mountain in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later sold for big profits, slowly West End residents sold out as real estate prices and property taxes skyrocketed, Stirling said.
As mayor of Aspen, Stirling fought to save the many Victorians in town by offering incentives ” such as basement square-footage exemptions ” to preserve the local character, he said.
A city of Aspen map marking tear-downs in red, however, shows the grid of the West End polka-dotted with construction and decades of rebuilds and remodels.
“By the time the mid-’80s came around, we started calling it the ‘ghost neighborhood,'” Stirling said. “That wonderful sense of community just wasn’t there.”
Stirling remembers telling local developers: “You guys are ruining the neighborhood … What you’re bringing in here is something that is out of character with the style and feel of it.”
Stirling believes in making the entire downtown a historic area, and requiring every builder to go before the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission before doing any major renovation. But Paul and I couldn’t find anyone else to discuss his opinions. In fact, we couldn’t find anyone else at all.
At the end of the day, Paul and I wandered the empty streets of the West End like a couple of haggard petition-circulators, Fuller Brush salesmen, or wandering evangelists preaching the gospel of “who’s paying to heat all these boxes, anyway?”
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Pitkin County public health officials are working toward opening a free, drive-through COVID -19 testing site in Aspen that will not require a doctor’s prescription.