Andersen: Unequal in Aspen
Those of us who work here for a living dare not view our material accomplishments through the lens of Aspen. That lens amplifies a somber realization that can diminish even the most revered of Aspen lifestyles.
“I’m cash poor, but lifestyle rich,” remarked one of my neighbors up the Fryingpan. “When you work in Aspen you can see how far down the economic ladder you are.”
Economic inequality in Aspen is blatant. The haves have so much more than the have-nots that the distance from a Basalt trailer park to a Red Mountain palace seems insurmountable. The bridge between the two is only open if you’re a maid, a landscaper, a hot-tub repairman, a caterer or some other form of servant.
When you talk to Aspen old timers, one of their biggest regrets is the loss of cultural diversity that defined the early years. A woman in her 80s who lived in Aspen in the early 1950s and raised a family here, described a hard scrabble, but endearing existence.
“We were all poor,” she mused, “and we all ate venison and elk and trout caught in the rivers. I got so tired of venison in those days because we ate so much of it, but that’s what we had living off the land.”
She wasn’t complaining about the bond of poverty that cemented a community with the glue of necessity. She was describing how Aspen locals supported one another in a time of scarcity.
In the old days, people of different social strata blended as equals, celebrating a mutual love of place. With the gradual shift of resort over community, heightened expectations for service have eradicated much of that former sense of equality and equanimity.
There were wealthy people back then, but they chose not to draw attention to their riches. They didn’t wish to distance themselves materially from those with holes in their pockets because it was often the less economically motivated who brought the most vitality to the community — artists, philosophers, poets, athletes, actors and writers.
Even though many of Aspen’s menial workers had college degrees and pending professional careers, they washed dishes or taught skiing because they enjoyed it without judgment. Shared poverty was a sign of social humility, and Aspen provided benefits beyond the material.
Today those people are regarded as quaint oddities, if they are regarded at all. You won’t find them at exclusive holiday parties on Red Mountain or the Sundeck because Aspen is no longer the melting pot it was.
Where the wealthy of earlier times were magnanimous and humble and interested in diverse ideas, values and lifestyles, today they are often insulated, buffered and aloof. Separate restaurants at the Sundeck speak directly to the bifurcation of the Aspen community. Same with private clubs with high dues and door guards.
This polarization has engendered a strange kind of class strife. It’s not the French Revolution model of guillotines and barricades, but rather a simmering discontent in a place where the classes share the same playground.
The disparity between community and resort can be seen in the parallel universe of private jets streaming one every minute into Aspen while worker bees jam Highway 82 just a stone’s throw from the private-jet terminal.
Lee Mulcahy has been risking terminal pariah status by pointing out the income gap where it’s most visible — Aspen Skiing Co. Could the Crown family afford to spread the wealth among its most visible workers on the hill? Community and customer relations could improve markedly and establish Aspen as an egalitarian model.
Income inequality is rising in the national spotlight and has become a cause celebre for liberal-minded pundits. They point to soaring stock markets and outrageous corporate CEO salaries while middle-income families are tightening their belts. The riches of the richest country in the world are not enriching all with equal measure. The average American family has not had a pay raise since 1999, Time reported last week.
Being lifestyle rich is great, but only if you can look beyond the acclaim of vast material wealth perched upon every hillside while tightening your belt.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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