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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

Anderson took office determined to revitalize the downtown, which had been losing population to the surrounding county since the late sixties. (The number of people living in Salt Lake County doubled from 1960 to 1990.) The city has finally stemmed the tide and people have been moving back downtown, drawn by new developments and condo conversions of old loft warehouses. It is now home to about 181,000 people, while the county has more than 850,000 and the extended metro area—the 20-by-40-mile valley bounded by the Wasatch Mountains on the east and the Oquirrh Mountains on the west—has some 1.8 million.

"There are now more people living in the central business district of Salt Lake than at any time in the history of the city," Anderson said. He had successfully opposed what he called a 1.2 million–square-foot "sprawl mall" planned for the airport area. He was working to extend the light-rail system that opened in 1999, thus recouping some of the 154 miles of trolley tracks that the city ripped out a century ago. In hopes of bringing some life and intimacy into downtown streets configured by the Mormon pioneers not to enhance urban nightlife but to enable wagon teams to make U-turns, he pushed for the creation of parking spaces and median strips in the middle of a number of Salt Lake's streets. He put in bike racks and bike lanes. He rolled back ordinances that outlawed street performers; he made it legal to sell art on sidewalks. He relaxed regulations that hung heavy licensing fees on restaurants that wanted to put tables and chairs outside.

The Mormon Church is a big part of the downtown revival. It plans to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into reviving two antiquated malls, the ZCMI Center and the Crossroads Plaza. But the Church also sued to block the city's decision to license an establishment near Church property called the Dead Goat Saloon as a seminude dance club—part of the long-running moral skirmishing that de?nes Salt Lake. The mayor welcomes the Church's role in the city, Dead Goat Saloon notwithstanding. "I'm thrilled that there's an institution that wants to pour a half-billion dollars in any area of downtown," he said.

A tireless Salt Lake champion, Anderson started a jazz festival. During the city's bid for the Winter Olympics, he personally wrote some of the promotional copy touting the city's virtues. "The stereotype that's been built up over the years is that the city is all white, all Mormon, extremely conservative, and there's nothing to do here," he said. "Actually it's very much the opposite. Nonwhites were thirteen percent of Salt Lake's population in the 1990 census. Ten years later they were 39.4 percent. We have enormously rich arts and cultural offerings as well as really great nightlife—clubs, music, restaurants. It's absolutely unique that a city this size has a regular opera, a symphony, and a ballet. More people are settling here because you have all the advantages of a city and you're less than forty-five minutes from the greatest skiing in the world."

I wish he hadn't reminded me. One of the handicaps city promoters face is that Salt Lake is always showing you reasons to get out of the city—positive ones, to be sure. Most cities have a wild side, but most aren't literally wild. Round a corner in Salt Lake—say, on one of those new pedestrian-friendly, median-parking streets like 300 South, which is filled with antiques shops—and the mountains come billowing into view. Why visit the domed state capitol building when City Creek Canyon is a few blocks away and will give you an overview not just of the capitol but of the whole Wasatch Front and the ancient bed of Lake Bonneville, with its now waterless beaches stepping up the flanks of the mountains?

At least the city makes it easy to get around. Inside the central business district the trolley is free. I took it north a few stops toward Temple Square, then got out and headed west on foot along 300 South, thinking inevitably about the last time I had walked this street, as a kid on a long holiday from college. In retrospect that ski interlude seemed like the premise of a sitcom: four iniquitously unmarried gentiles, sustained by spaghetti, gingersnaps, and near beer, grapple with the social mores and cultural values of one of America's fastest growing religions. Episode one: thanks to the subterfuge of the female leads who donned fake wedding rings and gushed about how responsible their "husbands" were, we rented a suburban bungalow with an asthmatic refrigerator and a sunset view. Our neighbors on Towncrest Drive seemed a fairly incurious lot. Were they preoccupied by their heavy diet of scripture?Did the premium on conformity bar fraternizing with infidels?Maybe they just didn't have much time for hedonistic ski bums with fake wedding rings. We got to know only one young mother, who had fallen out with the Church over a divorce or something. She was starved for company and invited us over for Thanksgiving.

In some sense all geography is psychological, a matter of perceptions and presuppositions as much as the intrinsic properties of a place. (When Colonel Patrick Edward Connor brought federal troops into Salt Lake in 1862, he found what he described as "a community of traitors, murderers, fanatics, and whores.") The city is still split along religious lines by what the Salt Lake Tribune a few years ago termed the "unspoken divide." It is still a sparkling clean place oriented around church and family. In the airport you see pods of rawboned Mormon teenagers in dark suits with lapel nameplates, heading off on two-year missions to evangelize about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. After a snowfall in West Jordan, you're liable to see kids being pulled around in sleds by their dogs. Harmons supermarket has special parking for pregnant mothers.

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