What makes a town liveable? 

Character, for one

"Real town" is used often when talking about ski and other resort towns of the West. Crested Butte is invariably described this way, and frequently so is Breckenridge. It has also been used to describe Steamboat Springs and even Telluride and Aspen, despite their nose-bleed real estate prices.

I cringe whenever I hear that expression, because what constitutes a "real town" for most people seems to rely upon cosmetics or inheritance, not substance. People who would never be caught dead saying, "That Jessica Simpson, she’s a real woman," can, based on superficialities, say "Crested Butte (or insert your favorite), that’s a real town."

Don’t get me wrong. I like Crested Butte a great deal. I find it very friendly and pleasantly goofy. It is real, and it is a town. But to call it, or any other town "real" implies that others are not. I don’t buy it.

What do these "real towns" have in common? First, they’re old, mostly dating to the 19 th century when miners and ranchers, flooding in after (and sometimes before) the Indians had been scuttled, were settling the West. In those times of early exploitation – not unlike our own – there was a great influx of money.

That colourful history is still evident. As mining towns go, Crested Butte was somewhat second tier. But the wealth was sufficient that the main drag, Elk Avenue, today remains a treat for the eyes. Buildings are mostly wood, painted brightly, with ornate trimmings that characterized Queen Anne and other styles of architecture of the Victorian era.

The same can be said for the original business districts of Aspen, Telluride and Park City. Residential districts in these towns also have wonderfully ornate homes, colourful and elegant, that were originally built for mine superintendents, mercantilists, and others. Most worker bees of that era lived up at the mines in dormitories, not at these painted ladies, and the worker-bee housing in these towns have mostly been razed or remodeled beyond recognition.

But not all. For both better and worse, Crested Butte largely escaped the great influx of wealth during the 1980s and 1990s. It still has small houses just off Elk Avenue that retain the tar-paper shingling – I am guessing asbestos – that was so prevalent 50 years ago in lower-cost housing. Of course, whenever I hear about "real towns," I don’t see photos of small, butt-ugly houses with shingles for siding. It’s always the gaudy Victorian stuff.

I happen to live in a bungalo built in 1889. My backyard is filled with history: old license plates, old plaster, and lots of glass. My forbearers used it as a landfill. As well, my neighbours tell me of eccentric inhabitants of the house who have preceded me. (They kindly do not add editorial comment about whether I continue the theme). But does that make my house a "real house," and your house that is only 30 years old somehow not real?

At other times, when talking about a "real town," people mean the broader history, not just the architecture. Breckenridge, in its claim as a real town, likes to point to its roots as a place of mad-for-a-muck-called-gold miners. The irony is that Summit County, where Breckenridge is located, today wants nothing to do with modern, less destructive mining techniques. And, if I’m not mistaken, the Wellington was the last mine, and it closed a good many years ago.

In fact, any boom time is likely to have skeletons rattling around the community closet, as well as true stories of fortitude, civic enterprise, and occasionally even heroics. But all of this can be true of a town that is 30, 40 or 50 years old. There’s just no moss yet on the history.

The pattern seen in the so-called "real towns" of the ski world is this: These old towns mostly lie at the ends of roads. They are different than towns located along interstate highways, which tend to be, like the interstates, new. Highways accommodate dispersed settlements, creating a different dynamic. And yes, I do like centred places with old architecture.

But is a 50-year-old town made of architecture borrowed from the Alps any less "real" than a 125-year-old town with architecture borrowed from the British Isles?

Not in my book. There are cute towns and old towns, and yes, towns filled with mistaken notions about architecture from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. But alas, my ears refuse to recognize the sounds of "real town."

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