Dave Danforth is on assignment so we are running one of his past columns. This one originally ran June 25, 2006.
His cell phone answers after a few rings, but it’s mostly static.
“Who’s this?” the voice barks.
“Where exactly are you?” I counter.
“In an underground cavern in Aspen. I’m researching the next revolution in life here. Welcome to the great new frontier of livability.”
It is my friend Pete, whom I’d expected to find in Chicago, not Aspen. But here he is, up to no good, exactly where you’d expect him, burrowing into trouble.
“Hang on. I’ll go topside,” Pete announces. “I’ve got to tell you about this revolution.”
Pete, a finance genius, once worked in Snowmass Village, but fled years back when he figured half the contents of the Resort Association might get indicted for financial irregularities. But the audit report was burned, the sackings ended with a few lopped-off heads at the top, the selling of Snowmass continued, and Pete landed in Chicago, making book on the Cubbies and dabbling in urban planning.
Or, at least, so I thought.
“The secret of urban design in Aspen,” he proudly gloats, “is the ability to house the underclass completely underground.”
“We saw it in one of the redevelopment proposals downtown,” I note. “Didn’t go over too well. The idea of burying the employee class seemed a good way to create class warfare.”
“The devil was in the details,” Pete says. “When you have ritzy development, complete with high-gloss commercial and chi-chi penthouses, there’s only one place to go to meet the employee housing requirement.”
“Down,” I translate. “But no window space?”
“As I said, details,” Pete repeats. “You can build perfectly luxurious spaces on a subterranean level. Think about it. Think how much potential housing there is between one and twenty feet underground. Can’t go up. City Hall won’t put up with that. Can’t go around town, because it’s always in somebody’s back yard. So put it underground, out of sight, out of mind.”
“A public relations problem,” I prod.
“Exactly,” Pete affirms. “But it’s what Aspen bargained for. Underground, where they can’t see it, is exactly what they want. Put it above ground, and you have a beef about blight. So dig down, create some nice artificial light atriums, with a few strategically placed light wells. You’ve not heard of the garden level?”
“You’ve never been a sociologist,” I observe.
“Everyone in Aspen gives lip service to employee housing,” Pete says, “as long as it’s someone else’s problem. You need it to get elected. You need it to get anything developed. Where did you expect it to go? Can’t go up. Those views are reserved for $10-million-plus penthouses. Can’t go ground level, among the Pradas and the Guccis.”
“You see a backlash?” I inquire.
“I truly hope there is,” Pete says. “It will point up the contradictions in town, how Aspen really is. Centuries from now historians will arrive. They’ll wonder how exactly this place produced any commerce. Sure, there was money, lots of it. But they’ll find little evidence of the working class. Then the excavators cry “Eureka!” They’ve dug it out from underground. The class system revealed.”
“Condo bondage, completely underground,” I suddenly see.
“Why stop there?” Pete asks. “We’ll put the hottest night spots, eateries, and wine bars down there too. The trendy ones are already underground. Think Chicago. Think Atlanta. Now think Aspen. Elevators going subterranean have ‘P’ or ‘G’ levels. Here they will be simply ‘ST,’ as in Sub-T, the place to be.”
“Nobody will want to see the light of day,” I think.
“Aspen’s loaded with huge underground caverns, mining stopes,” Pete lectures. “You ever wonder why your old-timers never built any heavy brick buildings east of St. Mary’s church or the courthouse? Rumor was they worried about the big ones falling in. Should make excavation a little easier. And that’s before the rights.”
“I should have known,” I say.
“Transferable subterranean rights,” Pete announces. “You never knew the earth beneath your home was so valuable. You live on top, somebody else lives down there, and never the twain shall meet. Aspen wants its working class underground, but they won’t really say it. So we have a Subterranean Authority, administering the plans and rights, making sure everybody’s got a tiny bit of light, enough to be socially acceptable.”
“All underground,” I affirm.
“Right,” Pete confirms. “At first, it will be out of sight. But we’ll market the hell out of it. Soon enough, it will be hot. We’ll get the Ute Indians re-certified so they can fund a few casinos. They’ll be zoned so they can’t be seen or heard, but drop a couple of stories Sub-T, and presto!”
“A desirable commodity,” I follow.
“At first, slums. Now, must-haves,” Pete dreams. “The next big housing boom. We’ll have an entirely independent authority handle it, so it will exit politics. Casino taxes will fund it. Aspen’s at 7,900 feet. Who says much of its life can’t go on at 7,800?”
“Why hasn’t anybody thought of it?” I ask.
“They have,” said Pete. “Look at the Isis. Do you care how far Sub-T you go to get down there? There’s only one problem.”
“Just one,” I say acidly.
“Homeowners associations,” he says, lowering his voice. “A grand idea, the future of class relations, an economic solution. But it will never survive its first homeowners association meeting.”
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here each Sunday.