The party is officially over
Someone asked me last week what I would write about now that the Red Onion has finally shut its doors. Just because last call has been served doesn’t mean I’m not going keep crying in my beer and lament the loss of yet another watering hole in town.Saturday’s final farewell of the Red O was a great party, and its owners David “Wabs” and Ellen “Iggy” Walbert had a fantastic run over the past 23 years keeping the legacy of the 115-year-old establishment going.If we only knew what was going to happen to Aspen’s historic symbol in the future. Right or wrong, the building’s new owners, local attorneys Andy Hecht and Ron Garfield have been made out to be the town’s biggest villains. They’re being blamed for the Red Onion’s demise because they jacked up the rent, making it economically impossible for Wabs and Iggy to continue offering good and inexpensive food and drink to visitors and locals alike.Maybe they plan to keep the spirit of the Onion alive but we have no clue what’s in their little litigating minds because they have scrapped their community-minded mentalities and opted for the silent treatment. Yes, they have indicated to City Council that they plan to renovate the place, knock out the wall next door and expand the restaurant. But it’s doubtful the Red Onion will be a place where tourists and locals can co-mingle, since it’s going to take an enormous amount of money to pay the rent, resulting in high-priced menu items from the new operators. Forget the Bud drafts, cheap shots and lunch specials. Instead, expect foie gras and $16 glasses of Pinot Noir.As I sat at the corner of the bar on Saturday, I couldn’t help thinking of all of the characters that have walked through the doors, bellied up to the bar and leaned on that brass railing. From the mining days, to the quiet years to the birth of the ski industry and the wild ’70s and ’80s, the Red Onion has been catering to all types of people.The Walberts took the reins of the Red O when the party was really getting going in the ’80s and they finished it in true fashion on Sunday morning. The wet T-shirt contest was evidence of that, as well as the late-night jam that brought the die-hard partiers onto the dance floor until the lights went on. The place was packed all day long, with a line out the door for most of it. It wasn’t until later that the crowd thinned out and it felt more like the Onion, with plenty of space to sit at the bar and talk with old friends. Not everyone can close the Onion and either fortunately or unfortunately, I have been part of the ranks who are routinely blinded by the lights at 2 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning wasn’t any different. I wondered out loud that if more people had come to the Onion over the past few years, perhaps the inflated rent wouldn’t be so out of reach for Wabs and Iggy. Although I liked the fact that the place wasn’t packed all of the time, if it meant keeping it open I’d deal with it.I’ll miss the stinky bathrooms with the faded stencils that my friend stamped all over the walls two decades ago. I had never been in the men’s john until Saturday and I got a good laugh when I saw the names “Andy” and “Ron” written with magic marker above the urinals. For days, male patrons of the Onion pissed on the new owners’ names – symbolic retribution for feeling as though they’ve been pissed on by them. Yeah, people are bitter about it and rightfully so. It wasn’t just a bar for “dirt bags,” as a couple of anonymous readers wrote in Sunday’s issue of the Times. Ski towns need places like the Onion where people of any socio-economic class, creed and color can exist together. It’s a piece of history, a symbol of what Aspen was. But now, we fear that it will become a symbol of what Aspen is – greed, homogenization and gentrification.Last Wednesday’s alumni party was enough evidence for me that this place is special. Dozens of former employees (many of whom have moved away and traveled back specifically for the closing) spent some quality time together, reliving old times and wishing that the place that brought them together wasn’t dying.They were part of a generation that brought vitality and energy to town. I came in on the tail end of that generation, and I see how difficult it is to deal with change. Getting older isn’t any easier either. It wasn’t until Sunday at about 2:30 a.m. outside New York Pizza that I realized just how old I was. Aspen newest generation of revelers spilled onto the Hyman Avenue Mall after partying underground all night. They emerged from the “hot spots,” which happen to all be below street level. Their late-night antics proved to me that “Aspen Underground” is alive and well. Hopefully, they’ll embrace Aspen’s party reputation and take it another level.In a recent discussion with local architect Bill Poss, he told me that he’s been dreaming of starting a movement involving his rich, second-homeowner clients who could give back to the community by funding particular projects like employee housing. I suggest they pool their vast resources, buy back the building and subsidize the Onion because clearly Garfield and Hecht, who are longtime locals, aren’t interested in keeping our historic integrity intact. Maybe they are, but they sure haven’t proven it yet.I say we start a peaceful protest this week by lugging our coolers and lawn chairs out, packing them with cheap beer and creating our own gathering on the Red Onion patio. Us R.O.O.’s (Red Onion Orphans) can wear our vintage Red Onion T-shirts and keep the party alive. High people in low places used to be the standard for the town’s populace and I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.You can find Sack crying in her beer outside the Red O at happy hour on Thirsty Thursday. She would hate to drink alone. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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Aspen City Council’s recent actions are proof that you get what you pay for, argues Elizabeth Milias in her Red Ant column this week.