She only has a few more months to go before she has to step down and become a private citizen again. She says she’s looking forward to it. But I can sense that Helen Klanderud is not entirely resigned to her fate. “It’s the law,” shrugs the feisty First Lady of Aspen. “The voters of Aspen could remove the three-term limit provision, but although people talk about it, there never has been an initiative to do so.” She leaves the: “But I’d run again in a second…” hanging. Its presence is palpable throughout our conversation.
And what a conversation it turns out to be. Part Margaret Thatcher, part Florence Nightingale — and entirely, and refreshingly her own person — Mayor Helen Klanderud offers up a vision of modern mountain living that is both provocative and progressive.
She’s lived in Aspen for over 35 years and loves the town deeply. Loves it in a knowing and profound and respectful way. For she also understands the cultural challenges inherent in the modern community/resort conundrum. Knows first hand how brutal it can be for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Klanderud first arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley in 1971, a single mother with four young kids in tow and a job offer as social worker in a local clinic. “Nobody moved here to work in those days,” she says with a throaty laugh. “Everybody was here to ski…”
But finding accommodation in Aspen was no easy matter — even back then. “I knew we’d need a fairly big place for the five of us,” she explains. “And when I looked at the rentals available I realized I was better off paying a mortgage and owning my own place.” So she bought a house — for the princely sum of $59,000. “My dad thought I’d gone crazy — literally,” she says with a laugh. “Back in Nebraska, that was a lot of money…”
But she never looked back. Never questioned her decision. “I now have the great good fortune — through dumb luck and practicality — to have a place to live that is worth over a million dollars ,” she says. And snorts in amusement. “In fact, it is not the house that is worth that much, but rather the land. It is my home, I love it, but it needs work…”
Like so many other people who moved to the mountains in the 1960s and ’70s, Mayor Klanderud came to Aspen looking to start a new life. “I wanted my kids to grow up in a healthy environment,” she says. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, however, Helen wasn’t afraid to immerse herself in the maelstrom of every day life. She’s been the director of a mental health clinic. A social worker for the local schools. She founded Alpine Legal Services, a program that helps those who can’t afford legal aid. She is also a board member of the Right Door, a program for substance abusers and their families. For nearly four decades, she’s been working deep in the trenches, dealing with Aspen’s human issues. You’d think she’d be a raving socialist.
Yet when it comes to the way government should intervene in how her beloved town develops, she’s a minimalist… totally confident in to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.
A vocal opponent of the building moratorium imposed by Aspen council in April of 2006 (in effect until May 31 st of this year), her official position is that, “such decisions always seem to lead to additional unintended consequences.” It’s an issue she’s passionate about. “A lot of the councillors have this romantic image of Aspen that they say they’re trying to ‘protect’,” she says. And then she laughs. “They want to legislate their vision into reality. But that’s not the way this town developed. That’s not what Aspen’s history is all about.”
And then she cites one of those unintended consequences. While everyone in Aspen is quick to give lip-service to the issue of resident housing, she tells me, the moratorium actually killed a public/private partnership project that would have provided 22 affordable housing units to a town badly in need of them. “The Housing Board even made a special request that this project be exempted,” she says. It was a request that she fully supported.
“This partnership deal was providing a clear community benefit,” she explains. And sighs in frustration. “There is no passion in what city council is doing now. Creativity is all about allowing things to happen, not crushing what is evolving. Over the years, Aspen has evolved in harmony with its character. I’m afraid that the current focus on government regulation to preserve Aspen’s character likely will have the opposite effect.”
Her outspokenness on this issue has gotten mixed reviews from residents. She has her supporters, of course, but she also has her critics. And in a town of 6,000 — with two dailies, a radio station, a weekly paper and a bevy of monthly magazines — her detractors have a lot of opportunity to voice their opposition. “It comes with the territory,” says Klanderud. “Aspen is like no other town in America. Everybody here has an opinion…”
Clearly, Klanderud is no easy person to typecast. She’s a fascinating mix of small-town, service-club-attending mayor and urbane global politician. I can easily envision her as a soccer mum. But I can also see her getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a drug-addled client or sitting down at some fancy dinner next to Yo Yo Ma or Amory Lovins. She obviously has seen much in her life. And she’s not sure things are getting any easier. “The past several years,” she says, “have been the most challenging — for sure.” It’s a difficult balancing act, she adds. “How do we preserve the best of our character and spirit while moving forward into the 21st century? That’s the million-dollar question for Aspen…”
We’re sitting in the hotel restaurant at Little Nell’s. It’s still early and the place is just beginning to pulse. Our table is perfectly situated: clearly Helen is a master of the strategic location. I try not to stare at the other patrons — but I can’t help it. Across the aisle, a bronzed and impeccably manicured seventysomething gentleman is perusing the New York Times. I’m sure I recognize him from somewhere — he’s an old actor, or politician or celebrity of some sort. His much-younger, perfectly-sculpted wife (daughter, niece, therapist?) is flipping through a fashion magazine. They haven’t exchanged a word since they sat down. But they look great together.
Next to them a family full of kids in over-labelled designer wear chows down on a vast array of cakes and pastries. Their fortysomething dad hasn’t been off his cell phone since he sat down. Mom looks suspiciously like the girl at the next table. Only older, more frazzled — but nothing that a little visit to the hotel spa won’t fix. I wonder what she does with her diamonds when she’s in the hot tub…
One of the swankiest hotels in town, Littler Nell’s boasts a nametag that is tightly woven into Aspen’s skiing history. Remember? Little Nell’s was the après-ski hangout par excellence in the old days. A place where perfect tans and fit bodies dominated. Where places like Zermatt and Chamonix and Cortina were shamelessly dropped in conversation. It was, without a doubt, one of the great shrines to snowplay culture. A mountain hangout of mythical proportions…
Alas, Little Nell’s modern incarnation has very little to do with its slopeside progenitor. I figure Helen would be way more comfortable in the original.
She certainly doesn’t look like the mayor of one of the most glamorous towns in the western hemisphere. Her choice of clothing is conservative. And she’s obviously not obsessed with spending time at the beauty salon. Helen’s hairstyle can only be described as “practical” — her grey-streaked locks are cut short in a rough pageboy adaptation; thick bangs hang lazily over her forehead. It’s a no-nonsense look. It says: “I don’t have time for pretence.” As do the deeply-edged lines that crease her face — a topo map of a life fully-lived. When she smiles, it’s for real. And when she laughs — well, let me just out it this way: cigarettes and scotch and long nights out immediately come to mind…
And she’s laughing now. As if she knows exactly what I’m thinking. I scramble to come up with something clever to ask. “Is Aspen still a ski town?” I blurt.
She pauses for a moment before answering. “You know, this is what makes this place unique,” she says. “Aspen is still a ski town. One of the greatest. But it’s so much more than that too. Remember that our cultural roots here go as deep as our skiing roots. While Friedl Pfeifer was busy building lifts on Ajax Mountain in the late 1940s, Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth were just as busy establishing Aspen’s intellectual and cultural credentials.” She goes on to explain how these two forces have combined to create the kind of vibrant mountain community that, she feels, every other mountain resort in North America has tried to emulate over the years.
“Aspen has its warts and spots just like any other community,” she says in conclusion. “And like many other 21 st century mountain towns, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of vision to keep its spirit strong. I believe Aspen has an amazing and inspiring story that spans more than 125 years. But I also believe it is important to realize just how fragile mountain communities are today. If Aspen — or Whistler or Jackson or Squaw — are to remain healthy and inspiring places for another 125 years, then we have to make sure that their inhabitants remain free-spirited, creative, fun-loving, and in touch with their souls!”