The cover of the 'The Slums of Aspen.'

Editor’s note: Above is a three-and-a-half-minute audio news story on “The Slums of Aspen” with Professor David Pellow, and below is a second audio track containing a 23-minute interview with Pelow conducted on August 5, 2011 and produced by Brent Gardner-Smith.

ASPEN – Two professors of sociology at the University of Minnesota have written a scathing analysis of Aspen’s use of immigrant labor to service its wealthy visitors and property owners, especially in light of two anti-immigration resolutions passed by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County in 1999 and 2000.

In the book, “The Slums of Aspen, Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden,” David Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park position Aspen as a prime example of global “environmental privilege,” which they call the other side of the coin of “environmental injustice” and “environmental racism.”

“If environmental racism and injustice are abundant and we can readily observe them around the world, then surely the same can be said for environmental privilege,” they state in the book’s introduction. “We cannot have one without the other; they are two sides of the same coin.”

And the sociology professors suggest an image of Aspen should be on one side of that coin.

“We believe in order to understand poverty we need to go not to the ghetto but to Aspen; in order to understand the Mexican border and immigration politics, we need to move beyond the barrios and instead go to Aspen; in order to understand the ugliness of racism and nativism, we need to go to Aspen,” they write.

The pair of academics found that the inequalities of Aspen “are stark and ever present. The visual images that gloss Aspen magazine covers feature stretch Range Rover limousines, black-tie fund-raisers, world-class ski slopes, and film celebrities who live part of the year in multimillion dollar, single-family homes.

“At the same time, Aspen is also a place where foreign-born workers drive thirty to one hundred miles round-trip daily to work in low-status jobs for low wages with few benefits. Many of these workers live in deplorable housing conditions, including cars, campers and even caves. Our research focuses on Aspen and Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley as an entree to a larger discussion of the place and persistence of the immigrant working poor in the global economy.”

Making the case against Aspen
A small trailer in one of the two trailer parks in Basalt that primarily house Latino workers.
A small trailer in one of the two trailer parks in Basalt that primarily house Latino workers. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The authors of “The Slums of Aspen” say that the resort’s slums are best represented by the crowded and dilapidated mobile home parks between Basalt and Parachute where many local Latino workers live. But while their research showed them that Aspen’s slums are indeed slums in the traditional sense, the sociologists say it’s now more important to look at the top of the Roaring Fork River valley.

“The case of Aspen illustrates the importance of understanding poverty and environmental inequality by getting out of the ghetto and into places where racial and economic privilege are enjoyed,” the pair of academics write in “The Slums of Aspen.” “That certain communities face greater environmental harm is indeed a social problem, but the accompanying social problem is that others benefit from this harm through environmental privilege.”

And they say resolutions passed in 1999 and 2000 by Aspen and Pitkin County demanding federal limits on immigration were racist and hypocritical given the resort’s heavy reliance on Latino workers to make beds, cook meals and mow lawns.

“The luxury goods and services that distinguish Aspen, that make it a ‘world-class’ resort town, are possible in large part because of workers from all over the world who clean the goods and deliver the services and care for the people who buy them,” the authors write.

“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 live.”

In a recent interview, Pellow said that he and Park began working on the book after they got a call from someone in the Roaring Fork River valley about a resolution passed by the city.

The duo, who were working on another book at the time about environmental injustice in Silicon Valley, were intrigued. And over the past 10 years, they’ve visited the Aspen area several times to conduct field research and log interviews.

“As we spent time in Aspen, we found that many people use the environment as a way to promote a particular romantic image of the Roaring Fork Valley as a pristine, post-industrial refuge,” the pair writes. “Such romance, however, is built on the backs of ‘unskilled’ immigrants.

“There is nothing romantic about a Mexican dishwasher or landscaper who makes just enough money to scrape by, or the trailer park in a flood zone on the outskirts of town where many of these workers live. These conditions are both essential and invisible to the production of Aspen.

“Immigrant labor makes Aspen, according to its wealthy residents, ‘heaven on earth,’ but keeping immigrants in the back room, as it were, away from the public eye allows elites a chance to enjoy the natural surroundings without the distraction of undesirable social elements,” the scholars write.

Many valley residents have perhaps gotten used to the disparity between the lifestyles of those who sleep in Aspen, and those who commute to the resort town from downvalley. But the two sociology professors found it disconcerting.

“Aspen feels quite artificial indeed,” they state. “Imagine walking through a neighborhood in Aspen and realizing that the owners of many of the homes live there just two weeks each year, and that the immigrant workers who service the town are present but socially invisible and are being targeted for exclusion. This is a new kind of ghost town.”

The anti-immigration resolutions
One way downvalley

The city of Aspen resolution that sparked Park and Pellow’s interest was proposed and promoted by former Aspen City Council member Terry Paulson.

A staffer at City Market in Aspen, Paulson considered himself a staunch environmentalist and almost always voted “no” on development proposals before the city council. Paulson found a like-minded citizen in Aspenite Mike McGarry, who made no secret of his contempt for Latinos who worked in Aspen illegally, according to the authors, who quote from one of his many vitriolic letters-to-the-editor on the subject.

Paulson’s resolution was based on the concept that immigration – both legal and illegal – was a primary cause of population growth in the U.S. and that population growth was a primary cause of environmental degradation, both nationally and locally.

One of the “whereas” clauses in Paulson’s resolution states that “population growth generated by mass immigration to the U.S. causes increasing pressures on our environment and forces local governments and communities to spend taxpayer dollars for additional schools, health care facilities, waste disposal plants, transportation systems, fire protection, water supplies, power generation plants and many other social and environmental costs.”

The resolution also calls on the U.S. government to enforce “our immigration laws against illegal immigration, thereby promoting the future well being of all the citizens of the nation and of the City of Aspen, Colorado.”

The resolution was approved by a 5-to-0 vote. Those voting yes included Paulson, Jim Marklunas, Rachel Richards, Tony Hershey, and Tom McCabe.

Richards is now a Pitkin County commissioner. Tony Hershey is a deputy district attorney in the 9th Judicial District. And Tom McCabe is head of the Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority, which rents apartments and sells home to local workers, including many Latinos.

The Pitkin County commissioners approved a similar resolution in April 2000, at the urging of Paulson and Hershey.

Mick Ireland, who was on the county commission at the time and is now mayor of Aspen, voted in favor of the resolution. As did Leslie Lamont, a fellow commissioner who later asked for the board to rescind the resolution.

Ireland argued against doing so.

“I think the resolution is fine,” Ireland was quoted by The Aspen Times as saying. “The fact that people are afraid because we’ve said something that’s true should not be the guiding light of government. I don’t buy into the notion that people have an absolute right to move freely across borders.”

The county’s resolution included some language that the city’s did not, including the sentences “we specifically reject the notion that immigrants, (legal and not), are disproportionately criminal or bad people. Nonetheless, we believe immigration, both legal and illegal, should be restrained.”

The motion to rescind failed on a deadlocked 2-to-2 vote.

The original Pitkin County resolution had been passed on a 4-to-1 vote with Ireland, Shellie Roy Harper, Patti Kay Clapper and Leslie Lamont voting yes and Dorothea Farris voting no.

The city and county resolutions caught the attention of many in the valley, including Basalt town council member Jonathan Fox-Rubin.

In May 2001, the Basalt town council approved a resolution put forward by Fox-Rubin.

Orange patio

“The Town of Basalt wishes to acknowledge the economic and cultural contributions of its Latino members,” the resolution stated in part. “The Town does not advocate or encourage unlimited immigration into the United States, nor does it take a position on what the appropriate rate of immigration should be. Rather, it demands humane treatment of all people regardless of immigration status.”

The measure passed 5-to-2.

“We found that very interesting,” Pellow said. “The kind of conversation and the kind rhetoric and discourse, and frankly, ideology, that went into supporting both the Aspen and the Pitkin County resolutions was problematic and it was narrow-minded and I think they perhaps could learn a lot from what happened in Basalt.”

In the book, Pellow and Park write that “what is interesting here is that these are privileged communities claiming victim status. A Roaring Fork Valley-area progressive activist and educator told us: ‘Environmental racism is when people of color are dumped on. But here, especially in Aspen, we have rich white folks who are saying we’re getting dumped on! So it’s like the idea has been totally turned around and upside down.’”

And Pellow said that while many people who worked on the resolutions went out of their way to say the legislation was not meant to target or harm Latinos, that’s what happened.

“Whether or not somebody sort of bears ill will to any particular population, sociologists, or at least social scientists, have to ask the question ‘What’s the institutional or collective impact on a particular population?’ And there is no doubt about it, the effect would be anti-Latino.”

Pellow said the Aspen and Pitkin County resolutions likely increased fear and paranoia among local Latino workers, and he points to the day in 2004 when many workers stayed home because of a rumor broadcast on Aspen’s Spanish-language station Radio Tri-Color about an immigration checkpoint on Highway 82 above Basalt.

“People, Mexicans, and other newcomers throughout the valley decided to keep their kids from going to school, many people didn’t go to work, and many employers were left simply holding the bag and calling people and wondering where there workforces were,” Pellow said. “People were really afraid.”

Pellow said the incident reminded him of the movie “A Day Without A Mexican,” where Mexican workers mysteriously disappeared and a local economy in Southern California collapses.

The gilded resort’s workers
If someone is working hard in Aspen's West End with a shovel or a wheelbarrow or a piece of heavy equipment, there is a high likelihood they are Latino.
If someone is working hard in Aspen’s West End with a shovel or a wheelbarrow or a piece of heavy equipment, there is a high likelihood they are Latino. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Pellow and Park visited
the Roaring Fork River valley several times over the last decade to seek out the point of view of local Latinos.

“It was clear in our interviews that depending on one’s social position and immigration status, Aspen is an entirely different place for different people,” they write. “It was evident that one’s privilege and position within the very distinct racial and class hierarchy dramatically affects one sense of geography.

“As one interviewee replied in response to our question as to whether he finds time to the enjoy the famous Rocky Mountains that surround the valley: ‘Mountains? What mountains?’”

And they describe the sense of invisibility that many Latino workers feel.

” … many immigrants expressed the sense that they were wanted in Aspen and the surrounding towns only for their ability to do the work no one else was willing to do. Aside from that, they felt as if Anglos just wanted them to disappear.”

Pellow said he talked with one immigrant woman who remembers being in a high-end clothing store in downtown Aspen with a friend, also an immigrant.

“They were looking at various items of clothing and an employee of the store came up and said, ‘Look I just want you to know that these items are probably far out of your price range, so you might want to go to another store,’” Pellow said. “Now whether or not that was true in terms of their purchasing power – and I suspect expect it was – it was that kind of direct insult that people feel and reinforces their foreignness.”

In their book, Pellow and Park put it this way: “For the great majority of immigrants and people of color in the valley, they are there to work and make a living so that the wealthy of the world can play, relax, unwind, and enjoy nature, unsullied by hordes of brown folks who remain off the social radar but always be available for a good housecleaning, a hot meal, condo construction, or a landscaping touch up.”

Immigration vs. environment

Pellow acknowledges that immigration is in fact fueling population growth in the U.S., but says other factors, including capitalism, militarism and federalism, cause far more harm to the environment than population growth does.

“Concerns about immigration’s environmental impacts generally include such broad issues as urban/suburban sprawl, the loss of urban green space, and overdevelopment of wilderness and agricultural lands,” the authors write.

Community sign

“In Aspen, more specific complaints include everything from car exhaust pollution associated with older model vehicles may immigrants drive (since workers drive anywhere from thirty to one hundred miles to labor in Aspen’s tourist industry), littering in mountain caves where some homeless immigrant workers sleep since affordable housing is nonexistent (the average sale price of a single family home in Aspen in 2000 was $3.8 million), to having too many babies (i.e., overpopulation), which some fear will contaminate the pristine culture that accompanies the stunning ecology of the Rocky Mountains.”

The authors make several references to the lack of “affordable” housing in the Aspen area, but seem tone deaf to the reality that the phrase “affordable housing” is commonly used to describe the extensive stock of below-market rental and ownership housing provided by the city and the county in the Aspen area. It’s also called “employee” housing or “deed-restricted” housing.

“We didn’t take a close look at that in the contemporary sense,” Pellow said when asked if they looked at Aspen’s affordable housing, where many Latino workers live.

Pellow said they reviewed Aspen’s historical debate about affordable housing, and he acknowledged that the city and the county had made “an enormously positive” effort to address the housing shortage.

“But what we really focused on was people’s social perceptions,” Pellow said. “We really think it’s perceptions that drive reality.” And the common perception, Pellow said, was that there was no “affordable” housing in Aspen.

“As one person told us directly, ‘affordable housing in this city is a contradiction in terms,’” Pellow said.

The mention of immigrants living in “caves” also doesn’t sound necessarily accurate, as caves are scarce in the area. On the other hand, “bandit” campsites on Forest Service land were common during the periods of peak labor demand.

And Pellow and Park make other small errors in their academic manuscript, such as using “Snowmass” for “Snowmass Village” and suggesting that the town is directly on the way downvalley from Aspen.

Regardless of such quibbles, what does come through quite clearly in “The Slums of Aspen” is the professors’ intent to hold Aspen hold up as a textbook case of environmental privilege. This, they do with force.

Aspen’s environmental privilege
A view from Red Mountain, one of Aspen's wealthiest enclaves and a place where many Latinos find work.
A view from Red Mountain, one of Aspen’s wealthiest enclaves and a place where many Latinos find work. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The authors of “The Slums of Aspen” argue “that environmental privilege results from the exercise of economic, political, and cultural power that some groups enjoy, which enables them exclusive access to coveted environmental amenities such as forests, parks, mountains, rivers, coastal property, open lands, and elite neighborhoods.”

And they say that “Aspen is environmental privilege at work.”

” … Aspenites and others in privileged places across the United States want to protect their ‘quality of life,’ which includes resources and wealth derived from the ecosystems that only they have access to and from the hard work of others,” they state. “This is what makes environmental privilege work: the disconnection between the way of life in a place like Aspen, and the social and environmental relationships that make that lifestyle possible.”

Pellow and Park also skewer one of Aspen’s sacred cultural cows, the concept of “the Aspen Idea,” where Aspen is promoted as a place where economic, cultural and physical opportunities come together in a place where people can rejuvenate their mind, body and spirit. Instead, they suggest that the reality of the community should be called “the Aspen Logic.”

“We believe that the rarefied, glorified notion of the Aspen idea often hides a whole mountain of ugly truths, both in the Rockies and in cities around the world,” they write. “Peel back the ideals of the Aspen idea and you’ll find the Aspen Logic – a way of seeing and shaping the world that preserves systems of inequality and injustice in a manner that allows one to justify and feel good about them. It is capitalism with a green facelift.”

And they state that “the Aspen Logic is not just corporate environmentalism or a green wash, though; it is also a white wash because it includes social, environmental, and economic claims to pureness and goodness, to whiteness.

“The Aspen Logic suggests that unfettered market capitalism is just fine as long as we give some of our profits to a charity for the downtrodden or to a fund for greening the city. As we pat ourselves on the back, we ignore inconvenient truths and the roots of innumerable social and environmental problems.”

In the book, Pellow and Park do not offer specific steps for how Aspen and other communities in the Roaring Fork River valley might address the social inequities they shine a light on, but they do address broader concerns.

“If the future of democracy is at stake, then clearly the problem of white privilege impacts whites at the bottom and at the top of the social structure,” the authors write in the book’s conclusion. “But those at the top seem increasingly impervious to the realities of racial and environmental injustice, precisely because their privileges have distanced them from these experiences and, because to seriously address these injustices they would necessarily have to give up those privileges.”

And the academics, who are not afraid to also label themselves “activists,” are not shy about stating a lofty goal.

“We look forward to a future in which people work to create something as outrageous as social justice and ecological sustainability,” they write. “A good place to start might be to name the social forces that obstruct this vision. Let us name these forces out loud. Let us look at ourselves honestly, question our own assumptions, and acknowledge the various forms of privilege so many of us take part in and benefit from. Let us listen to the voices that come from all corners of our communities, especially those that come from the innumerable ‘down valleys’ all over America.”

Editor’s note: It should be noted that “The Slums of Aspen” prominently features local philanthropist George Stranahan, who helped fund the Stepstone Center and Asistencia Para Latinos, two local organizations that have worked to improve the lives of Latinos in the valley. Stranahan is also a primary financial benefactor of The Manaus Fund, which is currently the largest donor to Aspen Journalism.

We have not yet discussed “The Slums of Aspen” with Stranahan, or with the two Manaus Fund board members, Tim McFlynn and Michael McVoy, who also sit on the Aspen Journalism board of directors. We became aware of the book through an article posted on June 30 by “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal called “A tale of two Aspens.” Ryssdal came to Aspen this year for the Aspen Ideas Festival.

We felt that not only were the issues raised by “The Slums of Aspen” relevant to Aspen’s citizens, but that the book was also newsworthy given the publicity it might well receive and how that publicity could then shape the perception of the resort and potentially have a negative impact on the local tourism economy. That, ironically, could hurt local Latino workers who depend on tourism.

When we interviewed author David Pellow on August 5, we had not yet received an advanced copy of the book and were not aware of Stranahan’s role in the book.

With all that duly noted, it is also relevant to point out that the Manaus Fund has recently purchased one of the trailer parks in Basalt that is home to many Latino workers. The organization plans to sell the portion of the trailer park that is in danger of flooding to the town as open space and then re-develop the balance of the park in a manner that allows the current residents to obtain new rental or ownership housing in Basalt. The deal was covered recently in an article in The Aspen Times.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...