Guest Opinion - Elizabeth Key

My childhood home was built around a blue spruce in Aspen’s West End. It wasn’t a good climbing tree — its bark rough with budding pine needles, slathered in sap and opportunistic ants. Still, we struggled up the trunk, planning tree forts and pretending to be pirates peering out of our crow’s nest across the neighborhood, two stories below. As the years passed, the pine gripped deeper into the soil, its spine shooting upward and its crown presiding over prime real estate.

When our home went on the market decades later, the buyers wanted to raze the house and the pine along with it for the paydirt beneath. But that old spruce has spent decades reaching out for stability, and the land beneath was ensconced in its roots. The offers fell through because the tree refused to be felled.

Aspen is steeped in a history of exploitation, mined for its resources by the original opportunists. The mountains stand witness, hollowed out by silver mining and skinned of their timber. Those homegrown locals stand witness to a frenzy of construction and destruction, all at once. Opaque corporations add Aspen’s zip code to their portfolios while the super-wealthy buy housing out from under locals.

Our roots are as deep as that old blue spruce, but we have lost our purchase. Gone is the heyday of the ski bums, the characters and the untamed west. Generations of aspens lie felled in the dump.

The housing crisis in the Roaring Fork Valley has pushed many locals into the almost-homeless category. Absent the music students, the refrain plays on, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” The paradox is that there is plenty of housing in Aspen, but the mega-mansions stand mostly vacant, dusted by workers who commute from far-flung communities.

The collective indifference of capitalism has made Aspen a sanitized snow globe that is nearly unrecognizable. For those who have opted out of the construction and real estate boom, most have been swept down the valley by the current of wealth. With few other choices, many locals have ceded the territory, reuniting with our community on the valley floor. Some of us have blown into adjacent valleys like dandelion puffs, finding happiness in the displacement of our “dandelions days,” our vulnerable roots reaching ever deeper.

For those without purchasing power, big money is escaping the upvalley snow globe and flooding down, once again ripping our rentals and roots away. Many locals have become valley nomads, carrying communities and homes on their backs.

The wealthy bemoan the staffing shortages caused by the housing shortage, caused by the wealthy consuming the inventory. The drought of compassion for the displaced grows in circumference with the seasons, cyclical as the rings of a tree. With a nanny per child, a handful of houses, a jet and more money than they can spend in a lifetime, the wealthy balk at paying a living wage. The cost of living far outstrips the wages in this valley. There are only so many hours in the day to juggle multiple jobs.

I washed my sap-stained hands long ago, but that blue spruce still stands defiant within me. As development ripples downvalley and again weeds out displaced locals, we can still hear: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

What do you do when you have no home?

The homeless local looks like everyone else in the community. Some recently homeless locals are camping or living illegally out of their cars. Some are couch surfing like modern-day ski bums who can’t afford a lift ticket. Behind the scenes, they shower at the rec centers, pay for food with WIC cards and dine at Subway. Big money has gentrified some locals to Battlement Mesa and beyond. The working class misses their families, and I-70’s frequent closures at times block their passage to upvalley income.

The echo of the hollowed mountains and the faint quaking of the aspens is muted by traffic and the moan of empty fuel tanks. The Roaring Fork Valley is rapidly losing its most valuable resource: its community.

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