Paul Andersen: Fair Game
Aspen has more in common with its namesake trees than the many groves of populous tremuloides for which the city is named. History reveals an interesting parallel that links aspen trees to the way the city has grown and prospered.Aspen wasn’t the city’s original name. The tent camp that sprang to life from a tertiary glacial moraine in the Roaring Fork Valley was first named Ute City as a nod to the original, soon to be dispossessed, natives.Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin, for whom Pitkin County is named, advocated a genocidal final solution to the “Ute problem” unless they were effectively removed as an obstacle to development of the state. Pitkin played on a bitter mood resulting from a Ute uprising known as the Meeker Massacre of 1879.The Utes were spared, only to be sequestered on reservations, where they live today as a cultural remnant of a fiercely independent people who were once masters of the “Shining Mountains.”Aspen was renamed by town surveyor and entrepreneur B. Clark Wheeler, who asserted his plat with the help of Josiah Deane, Aspen’s first lawyer. The town was incorporated in April 1881, and it grew the way aspens grow, through the roots.The silver mines of Aspen furnished the root system by which the city spread. Soon, subdivisions, streets, businesses, mills and smelters covered the valley floor. Aspen was irrigated by a system of ditches that functioned like an arterial network and still do, in parts of town.Fast forward through the Quiet Years to the late 1950s when the mining era had faded and tourism was ascendant as the economic driver. Skiing was only part of the equation as Aspen nurtured an arts culture that today shares prominence with athleticism. Performance arts, which were centered on the music tent, are a legacy of the Paepckes. The visual fine arts, however, were mostly free-lanced by an eclectic group of creative spirits who convened in Aspen serendipitously.One of these artists was Paul Soldner, a ceramicist who was instrumental in founding the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. As time went by, Soldner was chagrined to witness Aspen morphing from a free-spirited arts community into a hard-driven commercial commodity.Soldner, who was interviewed in 1996 for an oral history, said that the biggest change in Aspen was the loss of small, local businesses to big national chains, making Aspen “like any other city USA, whereas it used to have its own individual look about it.” Prosperity polished the town’s amenities while driving out many of its creative and formative characters and influences.Solder reflected on a metaphor coined by his wife, Ginny: “Aspenites are like aspen trees,” he said. “In a sense, they are not considered very valuable: they’re weed trees, they don’t live very long, but they are able to establish themselves in very harsh situations where nothing else will grow. In growing, they hold the ground from erosion, they make oxygen from carbon dioxide, they hold moisture, and they lay down compost from their leaves. All of this shade and richness finally encourages and allows more exotic things like pine trees and spruce trees to take hold, and when they take hold, they get so crowded that there isn’t room anymore for the aspens.”Soldner said that old Aspenites struggled here, working two or three jobs to survive. “It was harsh, but we laid down the conditions that made this place really special; simple things like no neon lights and no billboards and height limits. Aspen became so nice that everybody wanted to live here, and that made it very expensive.”As the evolution of forest ecology progresses from aspens to a climax forest of conifers, so did modern Aspen progress from a root system of artists and creative thinkers to a more commercially-based commodity. Soldner acknowledged the value commercial success brought to Aspen with financial support for the arts, but he was saddened by the loss of his cherished aspens.Aspen owes a large part of its identity to divergent root stocks nourished by the vitalizing fertilizer of creativity. As the city plans its future, this fertilizing influence, the so-called “messy vitality” of serendipity, should always be encouraged. Aspen’s cultural future and social vibrancy depend upon it.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.
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