The evolution of a tourist town

Roger Kahn’s new book dives into the socio-economic anthropology of the inevitable

By Dawne Belloise

Roger Kahn’s reading and signing of his new book, How Crested Butte Became a Tourist Town: Drugs, Sex, Sports, Arts, and Social Conflict, will be at the Crested Butte Heritage Museum on Saturday, July 20 at 7 p.m. The book is a deep look into the social history of Crested Butte, based on extensive research through numerous interviews with a wide range of locals who lived in town from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s.

According to Kahn, the concept for the research and consequent book began about 45 years ago when he wrote a proposal to a social science research group, the Russell Sage Foundation, where he was a consultant.

Kahn explains, “They were trying to make their research more relevant to what was going on, the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. I was part of the Union of Radical Sociologists, trying to get sociology to look at the power structures and to do research that would help the working class people and people of color, information that would help them in their struggles for social justice. We were trying to change the focus of the grant-giving parameters to change their policies in order to be useful for civil rights activists. People of color, women’s rights, civil liberties, activists, and trade unionists were all being studied but few were studying the powerful people of society, the elected officials, heads of banks, ultra-wealthy, and the power elect.”

Kahn wrote the proposal shortly after moving to Crested Butte in the late 1960s. “We were living in a unique and dynamic community and I wanted to study the community I was living in. They turned it down. They couldn’t put it together, they didn’t get it.”

The book addresses the formative period of the mid-60s to the late 1970s, which helped to determine what would happen in the future of this town.

“My research was very extensive. I read every single word in the Crested Butte Chronicle, also the Crested Butte Pilot. I mean every word, every letter, editorial and even ads during that era,” Kahn says.

Kahn also conducted unstructured interviews. “Basically, I asked five questions: Where’d you come from, why did you come here, what did you do for work and play, what were some of the wildest craziest things you did? The latter question led to some remarkable answers about drug use, marital indiscretions and stories about mushroom gathering. I interviewed a broad section of people, a cross section from radicals to the politically conservative.”

Through his research, Kahn realized that the same cultural phenomenon was taking place at resort towns across the nation. “The development of those tourist towns and their proliferation following WWII was the same thing that happened to Telluride, Tahoe, Bear Lake and Laguna Beach, California, all the tourist towns. I understood that all the tourist towns emerged from tiny towns that were ethnic—mining, logging, fishing towns—all of these towns emerged as tourist towns in the 1960s and ’70s in conflict with the populations and cultures of the previous residents who were all working class blue collar. A large portion of counter culture people of the era, whether hippies or social activists, came from parents who were the new middle and upper middle classes in America. They (the counter culture) were the first generation offspring of middle class, highly educated and widely traveled people. They were what socialists and anthropologists called ‘downwardly mobile.’”

Kahn’s book encompasses these concepts.

Kahn says he used to think Crested Butte’s evolution was unique, but he now believes, “We are not and moreover, Crested Butte evolved for the same reasons and in the same way as the other tourist towns. I make a strong point about talking about these places as a tourist town and a recreation community. People go to these tourist places for their recreational needs but they don’t understand that it’s also a tight-knit community. That the workers who allow them to happily play and give them a great experience are themselves a community. They don’t realize there’s a local community and many people who visit haven’t the faintest idea there’s a community here.”

In his book, Kahn identifies three distinct groups who arrived after the coal mines closed. “First, the trailblazers from Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado who mostly came with the opening of the ski area [CBMR opened in 1962]. They were younger than most of the old timers and culturally were comfortable with the Old West. The second group is the tourist town pioneers, who were anti-war and pro-civil and equal rights, clean up the environment, pro-personal growth, and back to the land. Some were outlaws, escaping the law and were anti-authority movement. They were interested in finding more ways of living than making a living.

“The third group,” Kahn says,  “is the recreation community settlers. Culturally, they were very similar to the pioneers in that they were pro-civil rights, anti-war, pro-women rights. The big difference is that they were here for the local election of 1972, the most important election to the rise of Crested Butte as a tourist town. That election saw a complete turnover with the hippies elected and, with that, everything changed as all the resources were put toward building a tourist town. Word spread that there was this little town in the mountains that the hippies took over and people started to come because they heard housing, food, and living were cheap and there was a great ski area. New people started coming, from New York, Aspen, California, Michigan, and Chicago,” to name a few, he says, “the disgruntled of the cities. This third wave started pushing for more growth.”

To address the current changes, Kahn included an epilogue. “I summarize that today’s locals see the billionaires driving out the millionaires. It’s the prevalent conversation and opinion on the street these days. The most recent change really began with the recession of 2008, when the demographics started to flip because a lot of properties, especially condos, couldn’t sell and prices dropped to about half of what they were. People started buying those up for what was considered cheap. Now, they’re selling those at current market price.

“When Vail came in, the price of real estate jumped 25 percent just upon the announcement that Vail was buying. Whenever there’s a change of ownership in any major resort, these turnovers lead to an acceleration of pricing,” Kahn noted.

Kahn’s book beckons to people to understand that this is a new social cultural phenomena that has emerged in the past 50 years all across the country. “Crested Butte, and this study of it, is a unique work but the changes are a typical example of today’s recreational ‘Xurbs,’” he says, a term Kahn coined to reflect a more accurate picture of the tourist town evolution, and, he adds, “I would hope people have a lot of fun reading my book and learn a lot from it.”

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