Sean Beckwith: Gaining access to Aspen’s excess
July 31, 2018
"What's the password?
"How about 'Gorsuch?'"
"Silver Queen Gondola?"
"Goddamn it! You elitist pig! I didn't want to come to this fake speakeasy anyway, you human waste of space. Nice idea for a bar. You know serving alcohol is legal, right? Nice fedora, Lucky Luciano."
"Right this way, sir."
"Really? I can go in? What was the password? Elitist pig? Lucky Luciano? Human waste of space?"
This is what I'd like a potential confrontation outside of the new speakeasy to be like. If you were unaware, the Hotel Jerome renovated the old Aspen Times building this summer, turning the upstairs into a barbershop and the basement into a speakeasy. I'll get to the exercise in idiocy that is calling a known bar with a liquor license a "speakeasy" right after I try to comprehend the most Aspen aspect of this new establishment.
Now, speaking of establishment, who decided Aspen needed another high-end glitch of a bar? From what I gather, you don't need a password to get in but you do need a reservation. A reservation. For a bar. That might be the most Aspen thing ever outside of popping Veuve on the Silver Queen Gondola while adorned in designer ski clothes (presumably from Gorsuch).
I don't understand Aspen's desire to so dramatically highlight the wealth disparity between visitors and workforce. The first thing a lot of people want to do when finishing a long day at the office is grab a cold adult beverage; the last thing anyone wants to do after sweating through service is call up the speakeasy to see if they have space at the bar.
When the project was first rumored, I had soaring expectations because I equate an underground bar to a dive bar. The number of bars with a lack of candied garnishes is dwindling and that's why I feel so extremely stupid. A project designed to try to feel like the old Aspen couldn't possibly bring the pretentiousness on new Aspen, could it?
Instead of a place where locals could get a foothold (and a barstool), it seems like the allure of alienating everyone without a Fendi handbag or a pair of Stefano Ricci shoes was too great. (Yes, I Googled "expensive purses" and "expensive shoes" but I don't feel like I'm that far off the mark despite only discovering those brands just now.) While I fully understand the decision (money) to make Chuck E. Cheese's for millionaires, the potential was there to reward locals for their contributions to town.
You get an in, you get your friends in and you have solace from bumping shoulders with bros for a Coors Light at Red Onion. There are little remaining advantages for working-class residents of Aspen to the point that just adhering to affordable-housing requirements gets developers acclamation. There aren't many places where a $17 burger is considered normal but, in Aspen's case, it's the standard.
It makes sense, though, because the Hotel Jerome was only recently established and ingratiating themselves to Aspenites takes a backseat to sound financial moves this early in the company's lifetime. The last time I was at the J-Bar, most of my group couldn't remember why we went there. (The consensus was nostalgia, but the physical evidence was the rate at which the free bar-mix disappeared.)
Enough about a squandered opportunity to lift the good workforce out of the squalor that is their watering-hole routine. I don't even have to do the corny "Webster's Dictionary defines a 'speakeasy' as …" shtick to know that whatever that thing under the old Aspen Times actually is, it's not a speakeasy.
According to Aspen historian Tim Willoughby (shout out to Legends and Legacies, which runs Sundays), there wasn't even much evidence of speakeasys in Aspen. The building that now houses the Red Onion had a saloon but was turned into a kitchen during Prohibition. People drank whiskey brought over the pass from Leadville and bootleg rhubarb wine.
If I were to charge people for beers from the kegerator and pours from the bar at my house, it would be more of a speakeasy.
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Aspen more and more is becoming an adult amusement park; there are rides (ski runs, horse-drwan carriages), a themed bar (speakeasy, sorry), mascots (Hotel Jerome valets in the cowboy hats), trained musicians (Aspen Music School kids) and rich people's equivalent to smoked turkey legs (oyster bars, steakhouses). What's next? Aspen Skiing Co. buying Zane's and converting it into one of those photo studios where you dress up in Western gear and hold a six-shooter?
The symbolism of a historic building in Aspen being hollowed out to make space for a kitsch speakeasy is fantastic. Unfortunately, complaining about ill-aimed development is like yelling into a void that only grows larger the more vitriol is thrown at it.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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