February 20, 1998 Features & Images » Feature Story

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Aspen: Affluence, American Style... Don't dream it, be it – The Rocky Horror Picture Show By Andy Stonehouse On a cold and clear weekend, the air around Aspen's Sardy Field airport shimmers with the ultimate cologne of affluence: $4,000 a hour worth of jet fuel exhaust, streaming from the engines of a line of private Jetstreams parked as casually as the pickups outside the PemHo on a Saturday afternoon. As the sun gaily glimmers off the hillside second-home palaces of luminaries like Calvin Klein and Mike Ovitz, Aspen's real residents stand at the bus stop, catching the downvalley local back to their shared one-bedrooms after a day on the slopes, or preparing for a split shift at Aspen Sports or New York pizza. Welcome to the Aspen extremes. Take the highest and lowest ends of the American spectrum, squeezed together with equal servings of Dom Perignon and Kraft Dinner, and let the result softly bake in the dry, thin 8,000 foot altitude of the Rockies. It's a glee-filled playland where Long Island trust-fund babies saddle up to the bar at the Bentley with Louisiana-raised snowboarders. If you want to, market yourself as a home-care professional in one of two free-circulation daily papers and you could end up as Kevin Costner's caretaker. Anything is possible. And it all makes Whistler seem perfectly normal, which is particularly scary. Situated an ungainly four hours from Denver (or many, many more, depending on the passability of the Coquihalla-styled Interstate 70 through the Eisenhower Tunnel or Vail Pass), Aspen's golden slopes and electrically-heated sidewalks have beckoned the cream of the skiing world since 1947. That was the year a Midwest venture capitalist and his art-minded wife teamed with an Austrian ski bum to fund the construction of the Aspen Mountain ski area, featuring what once was the world's longest ski lift. Their efforts brought back to life what had been the United States' largest silver producer and home to 10,000 people in the 1890s. Aspen's over-the-top, cosmopolis in the mountains spirit dates back to those silver boom days, when East Coast industrialists used the profits from their million dollar claims to build hotels, an opera house and the red brick commercial blocks which stand to this day. Streets once wide enough to turn a mule-drawn ore-cart now accommodate untold numbers of Land Rovers (some still sporting their Eco-Challenge/Camel Adventure paint jobs), unloading the glitteratti as they head for the gondola or line up at Mezzaluna for aprés-ski. A century after the silver crash, Aspen proper still contains only 6,000 residents, the Darwinian pressures of $1.3 million U.S. average single family home prices doing their finest to attract the right folks. Spurned by rents rivalling New York and San Francisco, the downvalley sprawl now sees some 70,000 people living within commuting distance in the Roaring Fork Valley, some making a two-hour drive each morning from the Squamish-style utility towns of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs to work in Aspen. While neighbouring communities like Leadville and Crested Butte had practically disappeared by the turn of the century, Aspen persisted, largely as a quiet ranching community featuring a series of well-preserved buildings. And as skiers began to flock to Aspen Mountain, which was followed by the development of Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and the Snowmass ski areas, the community began its slow climb to becoming the quintessential Jeopardy answer for "expensive but elegant Rockies ski resort." There was a time, long-time locals say, when Aspen was still a relatively understated and cheery mecca for hippies and ski bums. Like gangly would-be folkie Henry Deutschendorf, who arrived in the still sleepy and affordable town, changed his name to John Denver and became the poster boy for the Aspen experience. Remnants of those quieter days remain, such as children's entertainer and frequent poem-writer Hinton Harrison II, the Peace Clown, or the Aspen Police department, whose uniforms consist of blue Levi's and whose ranks have been consciously recruited from local ex-bartenders and ski racers. Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, a hulking, laid-back buddy of Gonzo journalist (and famed local) Hunter S. Thompson, has even imposed a no-undercover work policy for his deputies, creating an unusually hemp-friendly community. What the community lacks in drug prosecution, it makes up for in DUI charges, as Thompson and the late John Denver have discovered. As Aspen has transformed from Colorado Rocky Mountain High to the Beverly Hills, things have certainly changed. The false veneer of the Entertainment Tonight-style Aspen can be difficult to handle, although year-round residents know that except for a visitor explosion over the Christmas holidays, it's pretty easy to avoid the throngs of fur coat-clad Brazilionaires lining up to outfit themselves at the new Louis Vuitton luggage shop. The battle between providing services for ordinary locals, who are forced to drive 45 miles downvalley to stock up at Wal-Mart, and the "unique boutique culture" of Aspen's excessively expensive downtown shops recently came to a head in Aspen city council. A cadre of downtown merchants were scared witless by rumours that high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus or Sak's Fifth Avenue were planning to come and open a similar storefront operation. The merchants seemed to believe the best policy was to set up a 1970s Romania-styled Politburo and to dictate which stores would be able to open alongside theirs. Like Whistler, Aspen has seen a bloom in international chains, with the Gap, Eddie Bauer and Banana Republic providing locals with a relatively affordable alternative to what is provided by local merchants, such as five optical stores specializing in $450 Jean-Paul Gaultier eyeware. In the end, the lingerie boutique owners got their way and the city clarified its rules, limiting the size of new department stores. So the contrast remains. Like Whistler, Aspen's biggest political footballs are housing and transportation, and there’s no easy solutions for either, even with one of the world's highest concentration of university-trained residents sitting on dozens of public boards and steering committees. It is often possible to attend four public meetings a day as local politicos continue to struggle with light rail proposals and zoning applications for a variety of affordable housing projects, but progress is slow in coming. Considering the political convolutions at work in the community, the fact that Aspen has such well-developed infrastructure is quite miraculous, and apparently worth the continued investigative junkets by RMOW and WRA executives. Aspen is part of an enormous and successful valley-wide public transit system, providing free year-round bus service within town and shuttles to the four area ski hills. The city government has its own child care administration office and offers $300,000 a year in sales tax revenues to promote high quality and affordable daycare for parents throughout the county. The Aspen Institute brings world-class scientists for study and dissertation (including Albert Schweitzer's only American appearance, back in 1949), and the community boasts a three-storey public library and performing arts facilities the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts would die for. While Whistler's marketing money (and a 45 per cent exchange rate) have kept it at the top of the Snow Country charts, Aspen doesn't make a big deal about being number one — it simply is, especially amongst those rich enough to keep third and fourth homes in the Hamptons, Baja California and St. Moritz. Vacancies at Aspen's downtown stores are practically non-existent, and the town's two toniest hotels, the Little Nell and the Hotel Formerly Known as the Ritz-Carlton, were booked solid through the holidays with rates starting at $750 U.S. for a basic room. The Aspen Skiing Company consciously sets its single-day ticket prices to be the highest outside of Japan, and while a day on the slopes will set you back $59 U.S., the hills are never bare of skiers. An understated country home recently hit the market for a record $17 million U.S., while Aspen's favourite Saudi prince keeps adding wings to his 55,000 square-foot mansion, which he visits for a few weeks a year with his 100 person entourage. Local galleries boast originals by Robert Mapplethorpe and recently hosted a visit by 13-year-old painting prodigy Alexandra Nechita, whose $46,000 U.S. canvases sold out in an evening. The valley supports nine newspapers, including Aspen's two rival dailies, and the airwaves boast almost a dozen radio stations, all of which primarily feature Phish, Widespread Panic and Live as their playlist favourites (gotta appease the young hippies somehow). The times have been fat and the resort thrives. But this winter saw a new phenomenon for Aspen. After years of having more bodies than jobs, the local service industry hit the wall as the ski season began and personnel managers discovered it was practically impossible to get staff. And little wonder: with free-market rents averaging $2,000 U.S. for a one-bedroom apartment, housing is practically impossible to land. Those who are lucky to find staff housing still need to bring in the bucks, where a room in a two-bedroom 30-year-old apartment-styled block of condos retails for $480 U.S. a month. So as it is in Whistler, if Whistler landlords suddenly decided to double their rents, those who choose to make a go of it here apparently do not do it for the money. Despite spending all of their money on rent, however, the young locals always seem to have enough spare dough to buy some fuel for the bong or go out and have a heavy throw-down at Cooper Street or the Double Diamond. And two-dollar beers and happy-hour pricing goes a long way in that direction. Like the Whistler exodus to cheaper locales such as Sun Peaks or Fernie, many of the would-be Aspenites are now skipping their freshman year in town and heading for more affordable communities like Steamboat Springs or Breckenridge, which offer more normalized living costs and less of the Gianni Versace pretensions. Even Vail seems cheap compared to Aspen, although the prospect of living in what is essentially an oversized mall with a freeway running through the middle of the valley does not hold much appeal once you've spent some time on Aspen's historic and generally quiet streets. Aspen's isolated and not-quite affordable appeal seems to be the prime draw for the local celebrity community, who do really come and live and play in the area. After the wonderfully perverse Whistler spectacles of Tony Curtis Day and the whole Regis Philbin debacle, it is comforting to look up from your burrito at The Cantina and spot Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn and their families a table away, and see that nobody cares. I stood next to Ivana Trump at a post-Christmas Christian Dior fashion show at the community's legendary Caribou Club, and the holidays brought Steven Spielberg, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Cindy Crawford to town, none of whom came with free tickets or the urging of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. They just did. Even standing next to Hunter S. Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern was a bit anti-climatic, as two of my counterparts chatted him up as casually as you might talk to Paul Burrows in the Nesters fruit section. Everything takes on a different perspective, said one who lives in the caretaker suite of Thompson's neighbour, John Oates (of Hall and Oates), where she finds herself awaken by frequent late-night gunfire from Thompson's battle with his own personal demons, or has discovered members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wigged out of their minds and rolling in Oates' driveway. Again, completely Aspen. Michael Kennedy's New Year's death was a particularly interesting moment in the community's lackadaisical approach to the beautiful people. Local media only learned about the accident when reporters from the New York Daily News started phoning a few hours after the crash (the SkiCo was surprisingly mum about the whole affair), and soon the satellite trucks appeared and Geraldo was hosting panel discussions on whether skiing should be banned. Aspenites went about business as normal, withstanding the temptation to play further games of ski football on the slopes of Aspen Mountain. And so it goes. For those who are affluent (or lucky) enough to buy into the dream, the community works like a charm. Actually, if you were able to move the decimal point in the local rents one place to the left, Aspen would even make sense as a home for normal people, a ski resort where it does not rain in the winter and the downtown feels like it has been suitably unwrapped for almost a century. Aspen has accepted that it is boring to be normal — or to appeal to normal people — and so it will remain the real playground of the stars, or at least until Whitefish, Montana gets a bigger runway.

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