Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 28, 2010
For almost anyone who has lived here, now or in the past, there’s a part of Aspen deep inside that will never die. You can hate her today for the lovely past she’s let slip away, or love her in the present, not knowing what fate befalls either of you.
Aspen’s history is full of big names, very few whose descendants still live here. There was a ton of mining money to be made, but it took a lot of people, living in small Victorian cottages and boarding houses, to carry water for the big boys. We hear of Jerome B. Wheeler and the rest going belly up after the silver crash of 1893, but it’s hard to sympathize, for they already lived somewhere else, eh? It didn’t happen overnight, not like Exxon’s Black Sunday, but happen it did.
Soon, wind whistled through the windowless clapboards where children once played and dry, blowing snow built up around the lonely, second-floor cotton mattresses where some of the last of the old miners took refuge. Like horses out the gate, the town had left for better pastures. Except for a few.
It took a while, but insult finally followed injury in the 1950s and early ’60s. Widows of men who had played the silver boom and bust to the bitter end or ranched their lives away, remained, with little other than their tiny Victorian houses and grand gardens to show for a lifetime in Aspen. City water and sewer lines needed to be upgraded to assuage burgeoning growth and between special utility assessments and the rising tide of real estate taxes, these frail, bewildered women with nowhere to go were driven from town. We barely noticed.
The 1970s saw the great exodus, still talked about, of longtime, hard-working folks from town, many of them unremarkable natives who had lived through the “quiet years.” Firemen, cops, plumbers, hospital workers and business owners left for less-expensive lives downvalley or from whence they’d come. For some, it was difficult to resist the spiraling real estate prices; others soured on the prolific new breed of people who had arrived; and still others found it hard to live in a town that was getting more expensive every time they looked around. A low mill levy doesn’t mean much to a working man when the value of his house increases exponentially every two years.
Countering that, in the 1970s and ’80s, many free-market condominiums and houses were built in an attempt to soak up an abundance of young workers who had arrived on the wings of the wind, reaching for the Aspen dream. The Pitkin County Housing Authority was still finding its legs and people needed shelter of all types. There was also an influx of women who, as time has shown, were smarter than the men they married or had relationships with.
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These folks gambled their years in Aspen, figuring they’d never lose, but life shuffles the deck with blinding fury. Many of them single men and women, living in houses and condominiums 25 to 30 years old, are facing expensive upgrades and tough choices. Unlike the ’50s and ’60s, times today are much different. Real estate prices are tumbling, making the decision to leave a difficult one, for after a lifetime of work, you only get one shot to leave this town whole.
Uncertainty clouds the skies of common sense and prosperity has become a threadbare hope, but yet the taxing districts are still on full-throttle, what with the airport and hospital expansions unfolding, not to mention interest due on existing debt. The school district is ringing its bell for more, too. What taxes?
The miners and widows who got pushed out many years ago were fairly obvious. Those in the path of today’s game-changing wrecking ball are quiet players, the last threads of our inherent local vitality. If we lose them, it’ll be a tragedy. Don’t kid yourself.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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