Andersen: Are we community or commodity?
For decades people have been selling Aspen — capitalizing mostly on real estate and construction. Fortunes have been made by marketing the alluring characteristics of this unique municipality, incorporated in 1881 on far different fortunes.
But how different? During the silver-mining era, real estate and construction were fundamental to the extraction of silver, that “lustrous, white, ductile, malleable, metallic element” that first put Aspen on the map.
Instead of monster homes, real estate was all about mining claims. Construction was focused on mine tunnels, mills and railroads. Aspen stood for a single commodity: silver.
But there also evolved a community born of mutual need. Last week a conference was held in Aspen to discuss whether high-end chain retail stores are damaging that community’s enduring soul.
Some feel strongly that Aspen should resist Prada, Gucci, etc., that local businesses ought to appeal to a clientele discerning enough to recognize, appreciate and underwrite local character.
Like Aspen, Snowmass was built as a commodity, but based on snow, not silver. Community is strong at Snowmass, having flourished around a commercial, formulaic resort that is overshadowed seasonally by tourists who that community is destined to serve.
In Basalt, the community versus commodity debate has seen both sides dig into uncompromising trenches where internecine warfare has been brutal and any victory Pyrrhic. Some seem intent upon destroying Basalt in order to save it, leading to a stalemate.
Across the Elks, Crested Butte is trying to redefine community through a conflict over short-term vacation rentals versus long-term worker housing. Is Crested Butte a community that happens to be a business, or is it a business that happens to be a community?
To most Butteicians, community comes first. Community is the civic glue, the soul, which holds the town together and cultivates the charm that makes it attractive to business. But when locals want to capitalize on their primary investment and rent their homes short term, it is deemed exploitive of the community they otherwise stridently defend.
“The nature of Crested Butte,” wrote a longtime local to the Crested Butte News, “is that we are family, friends, neighbors who live and work here year-round. We are not just here to serve the tourist and short-term population on a seasonal basis.”
This makes off-seasons in resort communities cherished because the population is condensed mostly to locals. The commodity fades and the heart and soul arise. The people you see actually live here, and most are invested in creating a sense of beauty through the unique character of the place in which they are emotionally invested.
“You get the idea,” explained the Crested Butte letter writer. “Add to the community, don’t just take from its commodities.”
Try telling that to an Aspen landlord who profits on brand-name chains instead of endorsing local businesses and community character. They may appreciate the benefits of community, but profits come first because commodity is king.
On the national scale, President Donald Trump, the alpha materialist, is making a commodity of everything. A million women marched in protest, but afterward they fueled up at gas pumps and flew on airlines, all entwined within the American business model that often devalues women, social justice and environment with patriarchal power.
The Monday after the march, the Dow went up, pushing the 20,000 mark and revealing an ultimate and sobering truth: The power of capitol is beyond ethics and morality in a society where community values are routinely subsumed by stock portfolios and capital gains.
Community may be defined as love, commodity as finance. This reflects a truth that Aspen Institute philosopher Mortimer Adler stated 50 years ago. Aspen, he said, is torn by competing triads: the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power; the Platonic triad of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Historically, America has long been an exploited landscape, a colony valued for commodities that enriched various treasuries. The cost of exploitation, however, is not only borne by human communities; it is suffered by the natural communities that make up the biosphere, upon which all life depends.
Undermining community on any level imperils the very foundations upon which everything of value is built.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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