The Rocky Mountains are the crown jewel of Colorado and have been a tremendous driver of the state's economy since the beginning of travel to the American West.
In the late 19th Century, miners and other fortune seekers flocked to towns like Aspen, Durango, and Vail in search of mineral wealth. Riding along with the miners up those steep mountain passes were a large number of merchants and tradesmen who settled the Rockies while providing services to the men who scratched out a living from the actual rocks in the Rocky Mountains.
Back then, the riches of the Rockies were buried beneath the ground. These days, the riches of the Rockies come in the form of the ground itself by way of scenic vistas and recreational activities such as skiing and hiking.
In towns like Aspen, miners have been replaced by wealthy tourists and their vacation homes that have driven the cost of living in Pitkin County through the roof. Currently, the average home price in Pitkin is just a shade over $1.5 million.
While million dollar homes are great for millionaires, they're generally not accessible to the people who do the work that makes Aspen such an attractive spot to visit. This disparity has created quite a problem for the people who live in Aspen and the people who provide them with essential goods and services.
Not surprisingly, much of this labor is performed by recent immigrants (both documented and undocumented). Even less surprising is the fact that these immigrants don't always find themselves welcomed in the town that was founded by working miners.
One particularly egregious example of this phenomenon came in 1999 when Aspen's City Council passed a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to, kindly, limit the number of immigrants that are allowed in the country. Though this was hardly the first time Americans had asked for limited immigration, Aspen's nativist resolution had a uniquely Aspen spin.
The Aspen City Council's resolution asked that immigration be limited to reduce impact on the environment. In their eyes immigrants who drove older, less fuel efficient cars and their (by Aspen standards) oversized families, were harming the pristine alpine atmosphere.
This mindset is the starting point for Lisa Sun-Hee Park's fascinating study of immigrant life in Aspen titled, The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America's Eden (New York University Press, 2011). In this one, slim volume, Park tackles the thorny issues of immigration reform, income inequality, classism, and economic privilege.
The Slums of Aspen is heavy on first-person narratives from Aspen Valley residents on both sides of Glitter Gulch's economic divide. Oral histories from working class residents spell out exactly how hard life can be for the middle and working class families who provide the essential services that make life comfortable for their well-heeled neighbors.
Though Park takes pains to present a balanced story, it's impossible to miss the inherent hypocrisy of wealthy Aspen residents and their interest in protecting their own use of the mountain, in the form of massive vacation homes, air travel, etc., while actively working to keep others out of the picture as much as possible.
Or, as Park says:
In some respects, this is a bizarre story of a town that prides itself on being environmentally conscious, whose city council can approve the construction of yet another 10,000 square foot vacation home with a heated outdoor driveway, and simultaneously decry as an eyesore the 'ugly' trailer homes where low-income immigrants work.
While Aspen's elite take a pretty heavy hit in The Slums of Aspen, the story described in Park's book is hardly unique to Colorado's high country. Similar issues surrounding affordable housing and income equality are quite common in urban areas, including Denver, where soaring property values have made affordable rentals as rare as jackalopes.
Besides its value as an economic/environmental text, The Slums of Aspen is a rare social history of life in Colorado's mountain towns that includes the stories of modern day, working and middle class people. (Though life in Colorado's mountain towns during the mining years is well documented.)
For more information on life in Aspen - and how development of all kinds has impacted the land there- check out some of these other titles from DPL's Western History/Genealogy Department:
- Manifest Destinations: Cities and Tourists in the 19th Century American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014)
- Aspen: Ecology and Management in the Western United States (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1985)
- Aspen, the Quiet Years (Red Ink, 1994)
- Discovered Country: Tourism and Survival in the American West (Stone Ladder Press, 1994)
It's quite a paradox. Not only is it nearly impossible for the average working class person to live in Aspen but it's hardly affordable for a visit!
HI Suzanne! Thanks for your comment...I agree with it 100%!
Great article. I have a slight quibble with it though - when you're talking about historic mining communities, you shouldn't include Vail. Vail got its start in the 1960s as a town to support a new ski resort. As far as I am aware, it has no significant mining history, unlike Breckenridge, Frasier (which hasn't seen quite the housing increases that the other towns have), and Telluride. Lots of food for thought in this article and I look forward to reading the book.
Hi Bonnie - Thanks for both the kind words and insights. You bring up a really good point and we appreciate your ability to see the bigger point beyond it. Also, this is a very interesting and extremely timely book - in addition to being a pretty good read.
Great post, Brian--much food for thought! Now many of those Aspen millionaires are taking over & destroying lovely Telluride :-( Guess they have already eaten the pear that was once pristine Aspen...gotta move over & out!
Thanks for the kind comment Leigh Ann! There are definitely some parallels between what you're describing and the children's classic, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"!