Aspen. It’s one of the most riffed-on ski towns out there. From Aspen Extreme to Dumb and Dumber, Us Weekly to The New York Times, the widespread image of Aspen is a glitzy celebrity playground, where the billionaires pushed out the millionaires and where no regular Joe could possibly afford to live.
While this stereotype is based in some fact—at least 50 Forbes billionaires have homes here, Paris Hilton and Mariah Carey (among many other celebs) keep the paparazzi well employed, and man-fur is a fashion staple over the holidays—peel back the layers of this 145-year-old former mining town and you’ll find a surprisingly diverse society.
The fact that a rad ski mountain rises out of downtown Aspen, and three more are quick, free bus rides away, is enough to attract—and retain—many a ski bum. So while a sizable freshman class comes to town every ski season, equally well represented are older-generation lifestyle-prioritizers, some of whom have abandoned Ph.D.- or MBA-track careers to live the dream, and many of whom hit the slopes and bars with an intensity that belies their age. Ski bums of all ages may be working three jobs to pay their way in this pricey resort, but on a powder morning, no matter the potential wages lost, you’ll find them in the gondola line—itself an interesting cross-section of Aspen society.
Then there are the Aspenites who don’t ski, the growing number who came for reasons other than the recreational richness. Aspen’s vibrant arts and culture scene, for example, comprises dozens of art galleries, a year-round stream of high-caliber performances, a good chunk of Aspen’s 200-plus nonprofits, and its new anchor, a $45 million, 33,000-square-foot contemporary art museum housed in a giant latticework cube that stands out in this Victorian and Bauhaus-inspired downtown.
In a town where single-family home prices average $5 million, waiters, plumbers, and ski instructors (and doctors and Realtors) benefit from ski country’s oldest and most robust government-subsidized housing program, which covers some 2,800 units. This means a good balance of duct tape and Dior in town after the evening commute—and a particularly civically involved population. Over 97 percent of Pitkin County voters cast ballots in the 2012 election, and Aspen is home to two thriving daily newspapers—never lacking in letters to the editor—plus a mélange of politically diverse columnists, gadflies, and concerned citizens who regularly spout from their soapboxes on the issue du jour.
If there’s any place that reflects all the strata of the local society, it’s the Thrift Shop of Aspen, a three-story repository of barely worn designer castoffs and an ungodly amount of other unwanted stuff. The Thrift Shop’s customer base is everyone in town (there’s no real affordable retail otherwise), and Aspen’s philanthropic spirit is reflected in the 140 volunteers who work there (all women, most regular Janes). Thrift Shop sales translate to about half a million dollars in scholarships and nonprofit grants doled out annually. Now that’s Aspen’s wealth going full circle.
>> Distance to the Nearest Target: 42.4 miles
>> Signature Event: Winter X Games
>> Most Famous Residents: Kevin Costner, Mariah Carey
>> Male/Female Ratio: 53.5:46.5