Two sociologists study inequality in Aspen ‘Slums’

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A pair of sociologists, in their new book, paint a damning picture of the stark inequalities between local immigrant laborers and Aspen vacationers and the wealthy homeowners they serve.

Titled “The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden,” the book by University of Minnesota professors David Naguib Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park was published in September by NYU Press.

The authors spent 10 years studying the haves and have-nots of Aspen. They concluded that the rich and mostly white ruling class here has used its economic and political power to gain exclusive access to the environmental amenities the area offers, at the expense of immigrants who work as landscapers, housekeepers and line cooks.

They define the phenomenon as “environmental privilege.” They argue it is similar to the better-known practice of “environmental racism,” where minority neighborhoods are burdened — by governments and other powers that be — with toxic waste dumps, power plants and other potentially dangerous pollution centers.

“The case of Aspen,” the authors write in their introduction, “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. 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.”

Pellow and Park argue that the largely Mexican laboring class here is forced into less-than-desirable living conditions further down the Roaring Fork Valley, while the upper crust, through social and economic power, keeps the upper valley largely to themselves.

While they argue that the prohibitive cost of living in Aspen has driven immigrant workers downvalley, their book makes little effort to do so within the larger context of affordable housing issues in the resort, or how ski bums and the white working class have likewise been pushed downvalley.

Aspen is the prime example of a worldwide issue, Pellow said in an interview.

“Aspen is a wonderful case study in what we see as a more global problem,” he said, adding that environmental privilege is common in other forested areas in California, Colorado and Vermont.

In the 210-page narrative, the sharp social divide is painted through interviews with migrant workers who live largely between Basalt and Parachute. One such worker, when asked about how much they enjoy the local mountain lifestyle, replies: “Mountains? What mountains?”

That dichotomy of lifestyle is at the center of the professors’ argument.

“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,” they write.

The result is a rarely-discussed but nonetheless corrosive form of social injustice, Pellow added in an interview, which society needs to recognize to make itself more fair for its members.

“Social inequality, for us, is really the problem here,” Pellow said of the study. “People tend to think about it in strict economical terms, but we’re interested in thinking about it in environmental terms as well.”

Throughout “The Slums of Aspen,” the authors point to resolutions passed by the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners, in 1999 and 2000, calling on Congress to pass federal limits on immigration. That the local governments’ reasoning for the resolutions was largely aimed at curbing pollution and energy use, Pellow and Park argue, is hypocritical and racist. The same elected bodies, they note, had approved 10,000-square foot homes with heated driveways and other pollution-heavy resort amenities.

The council and commissioners targeted immigrants, the professors argue, because they don’t have the resources to fight back as other Aspenites, who own energy-sucking homes or private jets, might.

“It’s a political calculation,” Pellow said. “They’re focusing on the low-hanging fruit of people who have little power to resist. Politically it makes sense, but not ecological sense.”

The pair began studying Aspen after Carbondale Trustee Scott Chaplin informed them of the resolutions when they met at a conference in Boulder.

Research for the book was completed before this year’s resolution by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to call on Congress to allow a legal working status for tax-paying, law-abiding, but illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

“That illustrates the complexity of the immigration debate,” Pellow said.

Before they studied Aspen, Pellow and Park collaborated on a similar look in the Silicon Valley, titled, “The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy.”