Five people from Aspen who I’ll meet in hell
“He knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” – Ansel Adams, emerging from a meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan
It’s a good thing Ansel didn’t walk out of that meeting with President Reagan and into Aspen, Colo., in the early 21st century. If he wasn’t sufficiently bummed out already, then we would have fixed his wagon but good. This town was built on silver mining, then skiing, and is currently undergoing a complete remodel with dollar signs.
When I moved here in the early 1970s, Aspen had a democracy about it. The wealthiest folk mingled freely with the working class (something the working class would never put up with today), all with a common appreciation of what Aspen was and had. What it had was character ” more character than any place I’d ever been. There are lots of ways to measure a town’s character; the simple look of a place is one. In the old days, an Aspenite being confronted by someone raving about Vail’s back bowls could always think, “Ah, yes, but Aspen has character.” Something new can never have the same feel as something that’s been around for more than 100 years; you can’t even imitate it. Witness the multimillion-dollar neo-Victorian monstrosities that people have been building here for the last couple of decades ” sad attempts to fit in, and pathetic monuments to architects’ capacity for denial.
Aspen Highlands used to have character. A nice muddy parking lot (try finding a place to park there this winter, then tell me what you’d give for a muddy prking space) and a decaying base lodge full to the brim with young people having a terrific time. The place was nowhere near 100 years old, but still it had character. Now, one is greeted by cavernous gloom with the ambiance of the maximum-security wing at an institution for the criminally insane. The mountain is still as spectacular as ever, but the joy seems to have been sucked out of it.
The good news is that there are plenty of timeshares at Highlands. There’s really no such thing as too many timeshares; there just aren’t any actual human beings around. I would suggest that the people making decisions about what’s going to happen to Snowmass take a good look. They might start out thinking that they’re going to compete with Beaver Creek and end up with a bigger, uglier Highlands. I don’t know, maybe that’s what they want. As long as you sell lots of timeshares, who cares?
Another way of gauging the character of a town would be the sort of individuals who live there. Aspen used to be full of characters. Some of them were almost legendary: Ralph Jackson, No Problem Joe, Freddy Fisher. Others were just the people on the street, the ones who kept the machinery of the town grinding along. Whatever their stature, Aspen treasured them; they were, as much as the buildings, what made Aspen unique. First Aspen embraced these types, then it tolerated them, and now it wants to purge itself of them. No more cobwebs or cluttered corners, just a nice clean town built out of dollar signs so that greedy landlords and developers can put bigger numbers behind their personal dollar signs.
This is what’s happening to one local named Pete Luhn. The big-money types have pulled out the sofa to vacuum behind it. Luhn is being purged for being a character, for having character. He screwed up. He made a deal with a developer. Then he screwed up again; he believed the developer. We’ll miss Pete when he’s gone, even those of us who’ve never met him. There are few of his breed left in the upper valley. He’ll be replaced by a pusillanimous twit who needs him out of the way, and the fetid human detritus that will be the customers for his multimillion-dollar homes. This is what we have to look forward to ” zero character.
Tiny Victorian miner’s shacks will continue to be dwarfed by “additions” 10 or 20 times the square footage of the original building. The rich will continue to build their mansions on dirt roads because they’re quaint, and then demand that the county pave the roads because they think it will increase property values. Mom-and-pop businesses will continue to be gobbled up by the big chains, and the Ski Company will continue to think it’s more important to pander to one jerk eating a lobster in a private club atop Aspen Mountain than 100 snowboarders buying hamburgers.
In the past, other ski towns couldn’t possibly compete with Aspen; the raw material wasn’t there. Now they can, because Aspen is becoming more like them. The bar is being lowered, and we’re lowering it. One morning in the not-too-distant future we’ll all wake up, locals and tourists alike, and say “I came to Aspen, but I’m in Vail.”
The five people I’ll meet in hell? They’re all here, in this column, and in this town. Unfortunately there’s a lot more than five of them. They’re the ones who don’t know the difference between the price of things and the value of things.
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