Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column suggesting that the Aspen Saturday Market ought to return to its roots (pun sort of intended) as the Aspen Farmers’ Market.
To reduce my usual wordiness to the elusive kernel (pun, again, sort of intended) of meaning: I said the market needs more farmers and fewer artists and artisans.
I received a fair number of emails agreeing with me and one message – from a fellow who had been involved with the market – suggesting that I am an idiot. (Always a viable, if unoriginal, suggestion.) He thought the market was perfect exactly the way it was.
I replied to that cheerful correspondent by noting that a survey in a local newspaper had shown an overwhelming agreement with my position: more produce, less arts and crafts.
My correspondent replied, dismissing the poll, saying, “It is responded to by mostly locals – not by the visitor base the market and the Commercial Core and Lodging Council tries to reach, nor the local businesses that it helps.”
And that, in its wordy way, got to the nub of a major long-standing question: Who is Aspen “for”?
I mean, yes, this is a “tourist town,” and frankly I like it better for that, after all, better a tourist town than some place that is just a real estate investment).
But one of Aspen’s proud glories is that, even as we are a tourist town, we are also – we have long been – a real community. And that history creates pressures and responsibilities and debates over the “heart and soul” of the community (and allows us to use words like “heart” and “soul” when we talk about this place).
I remember a discussion decades ago with a friend who was born and raised in Aspen and was getting ready to move away for good.
She told me that, for her, the downtown pedestrian malls had ruined the city.
“That’s all for ‘them,'” she said, meaning the tourists. “It’s not ‘our’ town anymore.”
It was that same basic question: Who is Aspen “for”?
When she grew up here, the town was all hers – and she couldn’t stand to see that changing.
A couple of weeks ago, Tony Vagneur (who gets my vote for this newspaper’s best columnist – if you don’t read him every Saturday, you should) wrote, “Having grown up here, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I would wake up one day and discover that this isn’t ‘my’ town anymore.”
And I think that really puts the perfect point on the question: Whose town is this? Mine? Yours? His? Theirs?
Tony, whose family is into its fifth – or maybe sixth – generation here, manages to mourn and celebrate both past and present.
Aspen’s not what it was, but it is what it is. It’s not the town he grew up in, but it’s still “his” town.
Oddly enough, just a day before Tony’s column ran, the paper had a letter to the editor that was significantly less cheerful.
That correspondent, who proudly proclaimed that he hadn’t set foot in Aspen in 50 years, had nothing good to say about the town after a very brief recent visit.
“Goodbye, Aspen,” he began, then went on, “I am so happy that we knew each other when we were still young. … What has happened to you over the years? I am so glad I wasn’t around to see you get mean and old. … You looked like a high-priced, over-the-hill hooker. I was so shaken as to what I saw I decided not to stay or even say hello.”
So, clearly this isn’t “his” town anymore – and he’s pretty cranky about it (although I suspect that if he looks in the mirror with the same unstinting vision, he will notice that he also is in no way as cute as he was back in 1963).
The changes over the years have reflected a long-term struggle – although our dyspeptic letter writer left before the struggle really began.
Back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, as Aspen was trying to claim its place as a world-class ski resort, the main focus was on doing whatever would bring visitors to town. And those visitors, of course, would bring prosperity with them. Not everyone agreed, but the town was pretty united.
Then, once the prosperity juggernaut really got rolling in the 1970s, people suddenly began to realize the dangers of swinging that double-edged sword of prosperity with wild abandon.
I hope we don’t have to recap the entire painful history of growth control yet again. So let’s just note that back in the 1970s it became clear that making a town entirely “for” the visitors (and, by extension, the developers) would result in the destruction of the very qualities that brought the visitors here – and kept the residents here.
And ever since then, we have been involved in a seesaw battle between those who would run the town “for” visitors (and, in some but not all case, developers) and those who favor residents.
And, of course, none of us really knows what is best.
Certainly, we try our best to do our best. But history makes fools – and often inadvertent liars – of us all.
We save the town for residents by restricting growth, and then we lose the town to billionaires because growth restrictions drive prices sky high. But a town of billionaires – love ’em or hate ’em – has got to be better than a town with 100,000 condos between Difficult Campground and Basalt.
Do I have an answer – aside from more produce, less arts and crafts at the farmers’ market?
No. So maybe I’ll let Tony Vagneur have the final word today:
“Rich people and celebrities come, and some stay, houses get bigger and more opulent, locals become more and more indistinguishable from tourists … but none of that has provided a clear sign that Aspen has evaded me, not yet.”
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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