Opinion | Lark Ascending: Is Summit County a gilded community?

Christina Holbrook
Courtesy photo

I recently watched a PBS special on the gilded age, a period in the United States of economic expansion and great technological and social change that occurred at the end of the 19th century.

The term “gilded age” was created by Mark Twain and referred to a society in which change had created enormous inequality: greed, class division and poverty hidden beneath a thin layer of glitter; wealth, prosperity and opportunity for only a few.

Similar to America’s gilded age, all around the world today, a wedge of economic, technological and social change is pushing a few to the top, while crushing many others under burdens of debt and financial insecurity, lack of opportunity and discrimination of all kinds.

Are we in another gilded age? And could Summit County be viewed as an example of a gilded society, with a vast, unbridgeable chasm between haves and have-nots?  Before getting too depressed about this conclusion, I decided to talk with someone who has a much wider view of Summit County than I do, Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson.

As we sat down for coffee, the first thing Davidson said was that, like America in the gilded age, Summit County has gone through huge social and economic changes in the past 30 to 40 years.

“Back in the 1970s, the population was under 3,000 people. Today, it’s over 30,000.

 “When I first came out here, in the 1980s, there was almost a survival of the fittest rule. This is not an easy place to make a living. Most of the people who are here really wanted to be here. They lived through the struggle. They love it and are willing to make sacrifices.”

To me, this sounded suspiciously as if we are all just rats running in the same race.

But Davidson sees things a little differently.

For reasons that have to do with the type of people who are drawn to this area, facts of geography and maybe just chance or luck, Summit County residents have a unique sense of interest in each other and compassion for each other’s struggles, Davidson believes.

“The fact that everyone is from somewhere else somehow leads people to be interested in everyone else. We don’t have class barriers with the same rigidity. And because of whatever this place is, people with means have a desire to plug in, giving of their time and money.

 “And we are interconnected. When we survey people, its not as if there are different places in the county with different opinions. We are in this one contained area with mountains all around. People overall are pretty similarly aligned.”

We all tend to rub elbows with each other, whether it’s at the grocery store, out on a hike, serving on a committee for one of our favorite nonprofits or attending a community event. And so we know each other better and are more familiar with one another’s day-to-day lives and struggles.

 “With familiarity comes compassion,” Davidson said. “Familiarity leads people to be generous. To feel, ‘I must help. My community won’t survive if I don’t.’”

To support this, Davidson pointed to the generosity of residents when it comes to using their tax dollars to provide services for working families, housing, health care, preschool programs, mental health services, and to the commitment to protecting the community’s more vulnerable members. Davidson noted proudly that the Summit County sheriff had specifically reached out to immigrant members of the community to reassure them of their place in this community, notwithstanding the current narrative of national politics.

The gilded age in America was followed by labor disputes, the stock market crash and eventually the Great Depression. Speculating about what will follow this current period in U.S. and global history can lead me to thoughts that are often discouraging. But societies are created from smaller building blocks, and the actions of small communities around the country can make a difference.

A healthy society rests on common attachments, care for others, a sense of goodness and willingness to commit to unselfish acts.  The possibility of a good life that people can imagine together.

As Davidson and I finished our coffees and said goodbye, what I realized is that this idea is not a vision of a group of people, together, imagining a similar type of life. It’s not, “We are all here because we like to ski.”

Rather it is people imagining a life that is good, and it is good because we are all in it together.

Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at

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