Sunday, July 12, 2020

Gentrification and spirit

First, a shout-out to Olympic bronze medalist and former Crested Butte high school track athlete Emma Coburn, who medaled in Rio on Monday.

It is wonderful when the town stops for nine minutes, seven seconds on a Monday morning to watch one of the children of the village shine on the world stage—this time in an amazing race in the 3000-meter steeplechase. Just getting to the finals is phenomenal but bringing back hardware and setting a new American record is a bonus.

We are all proud not just of Emma’s athletic ability but her obvious graciousness, spirit, charm and positive attitude displayed in countless interviews after the race. She represents this mountain community and this country well. Thank you.

“No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”

—Yogi Berra

Is Crested Butte losing its coolness swagger? Is it getting so crowded that no one comes here anymore? Is it turning from the last great outlaw ski town into just another resort in the mountains? Are we losing our typical edgy guest to throngs of normal people simply wanting another pretty place with tons of amenities to cool off in summer swelters? Are we watering down our identity?

It was interesting to see the Crested Butte Town Council go into “water down” mode Monday night. They watered down the plastic bag ordinance by getting rid of a sign requirement that was the educational aspect of the plan, as well as some paper bag specifications. They loved the idea of watering down the Vinotok bonfire—which was good, given the very real concerns of neighbors near the Four-way Stop. The council didn’t even get to turn on the hose before they watered down the idea of a moratorium on issuing more business licenses for short-term rentals, by not even getting the proposal to a vote. That too was okay, given the council’s love for their own licenses.

Now, I’m not saying these decisions were wrong or right, but they were interesting in the context of a few of the Vinotok clan’s being worried that the overall community itself was getting too watered down. I’ve heard that a lot lately.

Kat Harrington and Chris Sullivan made a good point that there seems to be a shift in the Crested Butte spirit, from the fun and the funky to a more groomed and boutique experience.

They are not wrong. And while it’s worrisome in many respects, I would argue some gentrification benefits us all. It’s trying to find the balance that matters.

Gentrification toward the boutique experience comes in many forms. The fire will be less wild this year—but there are more colorful flowers on Elk Avenue to enjoy. There are now more coffee shops in town to choose from and more restaurant opportunities than 20 years ago for your family. Gentrification comes in the form of better grooming and faster lifts on the mountain. Gentrification comes as we lose the cheap old mining shacks that could be rented for $200 a month in the 1980s but that posed frostbite risks for the tenants.

Gentrification comes with more parks and more scheduled activities for the kids, bigger and more art centers, more access to the outside world with better internet, more stop signs and roundabouts to manage more traffic and more rules about manners.

Gentrification also comes in the less and fewer categories. Gentrification is evidenced with less fire at Vinotok, fewer horses or giant-wheeled off-road vehicles in the parades, less tolerance for weirdness in general, less opportunity to just sit and chat on a bench on Elk Avenue instead of working more to pay a higher rent. There is less tolerance for driving after imbibing a beer at the bar, less chance to live in town as a worker bee, fewer opportunities to see naked skiers or naked parade floats or naked sunbathers at Long Lake.

Honestly, some gentrification has made it easier for family and friends to stay here. I don’t mind that it’s not an easy hop, skip or jump to get here. You have to want to be here to be here. I like that and I usually like those who make the trek as long as they respect the people and the place. Now, while missing some of the wildness of the “old days,” that might be attributed to age and false memories as much as gentrification. I bet there are ski and bike bums having some wild times here right now. As for raising a family in Crested Butte, in the “glory days” there was no high school, no arts center, no radio station, no lift to the Headwall. The gentrification of just those elements has helped the place and the people here. I like the new (smooth) bike trails, the different coffee shops and bars, the grocery store and having a movie theater in town. The education available to our children and the arts available to everyone is because of change. Those things weren’t always here. I love the giant Vinotok fire, the more wild days of the Fourth of July parade, and the Alpenglows behind the Depot at lunch.

But there must be balance in good change. Instead of a group of residents getting together for a weekend to literally build a park in town or a Woods Walk, we have reached a point where we now just buy that stuff. The community has agreed to tax itself for more parks, more open space, more airline flights, more bus trips, more tourism promotion and more schools. That all leads to gentrification. Is that bad? Not always, but sometimes. More entitled attitudes, more speeding in town, more trash at Long Lake and more pooping in the woods isn’t better for anyone.

As we’ve written before, there needs to be a conscious awareness of when it is all too much. What is the carrying capacity of the valley in general before we ruin the experience for visitors, but more important, for us who live here? What is the tipping point of losing the raw elements that keep Crested Butte “funky” instead of just another boutique mountain resort? Or is that what we as a community want?

While on the Snodgrass trail last weekend, I chatted with some visitors who love this place above all other Colorado mountain towns. They saw beyond the beauty that infuses every old mountain mining town turned resort. Like me, they appreciated the open spaces, the plethora of sweet trails, the colorful downtown, the convenience of the buses and the mountain resort. They felt a spirit different from the Tellurides and the Steamboats. It is more outlaw but more friendly at the same time. Now, there’s a real balance.

So, let’s not gentrify ourselves and this valley to the lowest common denominator. But let’s not pine for the “old days” that never really existed without a lot of hardship. Things are changing for sure but let’s guide those changes in the spirit that is Crested Butte. The Vinotok people seemed to have done a good job at that, so the fire can stay at Sixth and Elk. Sometimes that means watering down what you want to do and other times it means being conscious of how to direct the changes and not let the changes direct you. That’s the challenge. We can hold on to the spirit that is Crested Butte while still remaining true to our roots in the inevitable wave of change. Sometimes the fire just needs to be a bit smaller while hopefully staying different and interesting and in the right spot.

—Mark Reaman

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