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Born Again in Salt Lake City

Roy Zipstein The Salt Lake City Public Library, designed by Moshe Safdie.

Photo: Roy Zipstein

Thirty years ago, when I lived just outside Salt Lake, it seemed like a foreign city, not part of America, certainly not part of the America convulsed by civil rights, Vietnam, and environmentalism. Salt Lake was a white, sober, ?ag-waving backwater, not unfairly known for byzantine liquor laws, an airport close to peerless ski slopes, and a G-rated culture that reflected the in?uence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although social trends that were secularizing the Mormon capital had been entrenched for nearly a century, the theocracy that was established in the desert in 1847 still set the city's tone with the ready sorting of residents into gentiles or Saints.

Given the pervasiveness of the Mormon Church, Salt Lake in the seventies felt closer in spirit to Jerusalem than to Denver. In the same way New York made you think about money or Los Angeles made you think about selling a script and landing a starlet, Salt Lake made you think about faith. It was the realization of a dream wrested from the wilderness by phosphor-eyed prophets who brought their beliefs and polygamous families across a continent on what would become known as the Mormon Trail, one of the main thoroughfares of manifest destiny. So steeped was Salt Lake in supernatural history, religious observance, and arcane doctrine that to me there seemed something labyrinthine about its famously wide, teamster-friendly streets—streets addressed so that you always knew how far you were from the temple at the heart of things.

I confess it was not the Book of Mormon but the gospel of Utah snow that first drew me to the city. On a year off from college I got a job as a night watchman at one of the ski lodges in Alta; I shared a house with three friends on the outskirts of Salt Lake, in what was then the drowsy bedroom community of Sandy. Occasionally we ventured downtown to take in the sights of ?Temple Square or see a show. Still, we never got to know Salt Lake. With its empty lots, its freight yards, its mountain silhouettes, its paltry lights pressing indifferently against the darkness of the Western night, it felt more like a depot than a city, a way station where you might stop for a while en route to somewhere else.

I've always wanted to go back, to see what I missed in the snow blindness of youth, but also because so much of the character of a place is a function of time and context. If our household of secular skiers could never have envisioned that America 30 years later would be boiling with debate about the role of religion in public life, then maybe Salt Lake 30 years ago was never as "foreign" as outsiders like us were disposed to find it. Over and over during the time I spent there not long ago, I found myself wondering whether America had become more like Salt Lake or Salt Lake more like America. Or whether it was a bit of both. And it wasn't just the old tension between sacred doctrine and secular authority, or the city's perennial accent on the now widely fashionable idea of "family values." It was also new trends that ran counter to Salt Lake's native fundamentalism, such as the surprising heterogeneity of its populace, or the struggle of religious and civic leaders to revitalize the urban core and to manage growth without sacrificing natural beauty. Add them all up and you could make a case that this homegrown Zion, which for decades defined the outlandish fringe of American life, was suddenly the quintessential American place.

Much of the pride and excitement about Salt Lake's prospects when I visited was the afterglow lingering from the city's turn as the host of the Winter Olympics in 2002. Miles of interstate highway had been rebuilt; a light-rail trolley now linked the suburbs to the city center. People were talking about first-rate restaurants and clubs, and even a few nice places to sleep.

On my first morning in the city, the air was crisp and clear, free from the smoggy inversions that often plague Salt Lake in winter. Although a storm had buried downtown in six inches of snow the week before, a few sunny days, dry desert air, and temperatures in the high forties had wicked the streets clean. You'd hardly know it was winter but for the snowbound mountains looming east, west, and south. They looked like giant white wedding tents. Skiing, of course, has traditionally been the only reason many people have the faintest idea what wintertime Salt Lake looks like, and my first appointment that morning was with the man leading the campaign to persuade people there is more to the city than an airport a hop and a skip from some of the best snow in the world.

I headed across State Street and into the City & County Building, a 19th-century Romanesque brownstone with magnificent archways, turrets, gargoyles, and statues, and a cupola crowned by an effigy of the goddess Columbia. It had nearly been torn down in the sixties but was saved, and in the eighties it became the first building in the country to be retrofitted with base isolators to prevent it from being damaged by earthquakes.

On the second floor is the office of Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson, a liberal Democrat who was elected mayor of Salt Lake in November 1999. The mayor, a handsome man with neatly cut gray hair and clear blue eyes, was raised Mormon but no longer practices, a status commonly referred to as Jack Mormon. Before he went to law school in Washington, D.C., he worked as a bartender in a famous dive called the Twilight Lounge. One of his first official acts was to sign a nondiscrimination ordinance mainly for the benefit of gay and lesbian city employees. When I asked him what the best example of the recent changes in Salt Lake was, he laughed. "My election," he said. "Salt Lake is a far more progressive community now."

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