It's holiday week in Aspen, and this New Year's weekend is shaping up as the busiest party binge at the resort in years -- a time for Hollywood celebs and other one-percenters to pack the slopes and the clubs, to ogle and to be ogled, and call 911 about Charlie Sheen's ex-wives. But the prevailing buzz in this Gucci-padded wonderland this season is about slums.
A new book by two sociology professors at the University of Minnesota, blasting the Aspen way of life for fostering "environmental racism," is stirring up indignation and mea culpas among the glitterati. The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America's Eden, by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, is a ten-year study of the use of immigrant labor in the ski town that focuses on the stark contrasts between the good life of superwealthy "locals" -- many of them absentee landowners who are around only a few weeks of the year -- and the legions of foreign-born workers who live in trailer parks and dilapidated rentals "down valley" and commute to menial but essential jobs at the resort.
The authors contend that the privileged have ample use of the beauty and recreational opportunities of the Roaring Fork Valley while systematically excluding the lower-income workers from sharing in that bounty. "This is a bizarre story of a town that prides itself on being environmentally conscious," they write, "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 live."
According to this article, Park and Pellow began their research a decade ago, in response to a local resolution linking mass immigration to environmental degradation. That led the two authors to conduct extensive interviews with Latino workers, who talked about how locals sought out their services but also "just wanted them to disappear."
Response to the authors' charges have been heated, with some locals denouncing illegal immigration and "scab labor" -- while others have pointed out that the book doesn't give much attention to the town's efforts to develop affordable housing and improve living conditions for seasonal workers. The town of Basalt recently signed off on a deal to purchase a trailer park in a floodplain, redevelop it as open space and relocate the residents to better housing.
But Park and Pellow see the notion of "affordable" housing in Aspen to be problematic, at best -- kind of like the prissy locals who complain about the older, high-polluting cars driven by immigrant laborers while tooling around themselves in shiny new Range Rovers. Nothing about a bubble of privilege like Aspen is simple, especially at this time of year.
Someone else might have made your bed, baby, but you still have to lie in it.
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