When City Weekly asked me to write a piece about Salt Lake City, I must confess it brought some precious memories. I was born here and never really considered another hometown. My dad was a small businessman downtown, and I grew up spending most Saturdays working in his shop. The drunks at the Havana Club on West Temple and Second South were my friends, though they never let me through the door, as were the Gypsies who told fortunes next door and the guys who ran the assay offices with the fascinating rocks farther down the block.
I remember the vitality of the Third South Broadway merchants. I thought Auerbachs, The Paris, Collins’ haberdashery, and Sol’s Clothing would be there forever. But over time, as I grew up, they succumbed to forces out of their control. Economic realities prevailed as new freeways drained the city of business and young families. Suburbia grew, and Third South became quiet ... and then kind of a wasteland. What was left of downtown retail business mostly shifted north to the new Main Street malls.
Those retail shifts aside, Salt Lake City continued to grow to maturity with attributes few American cities its size could claim. The Wasatch mountains hover over the city like a 7,000-foot wave, creating skiing, mountaineering, picnicking, hiking and amazing beauty. The city offers a core, a real downtown not found in suburbia. Headquarters for a world church, the city is adorned with more than its share of culture, arts and social life. A major university provides an intellectual bent, and the town boasts one of the largest medical complexes in the West.
Our rich neighborhoods include the “tweed and tolerance” of the Avenues, the “pools and patios” of the north and east benches, the blue-collar central city and the barrios of the west side. With the ambiance of neighborhood centers like 9th & 9th and 15th & 15th, and through revitalizations of neighborhoods like Sugar House—once just another Los Angeles-style lost village—we have recaptured much of the charm of urban living. A vision of this great city is now emerging in the “blueprints” of our new mayor, Ralph Becker.
Along with a whole army of new urbanists in my city, I believe, as Becker does, that we will see more local businesses spring up. We’ll see more residents using mass transit and bicycle transit. We’ll be closer to our work. We’ll enjoy perhaps a quieter and deeper family and intellectual life. Most citizens agree with this new vision. In fact, there is little opposition to it. Our business community has jumped on board. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often very traditional, has worked hard to make its massive City Creek Center, currently under construction, sensitive to the nonpartisan dream. Republicans and Democrats want it to happen.
All of this is comforting, but my sense as a former mayor and as someone who tackled many of these issues before is that it will not come easily. As we tell the kids in the back seat: We’re not there yet. Like Third South before, there are forces out there over which we have little control. And most come down to us, yes us, individually, and how we live our lives.
We still have a religious divide and the sense that the LDS Church runs too much of our political life. Can we begin a new dialogue and move the debate beyond Mormon-bashing and Mormon-dominance? Can a constructive tension emerge that might offer more viable citizen involvement? How many of us are willing to give the other side a break, however we align our own interests?
We are still wedded to our cars. Though we might delight in our neighborhood coffee shops and stores, we still hop in our whopping SUVs for the biweekly run to the box mall. A bus and connection to TRAX is available to most of us, yet many of us join the rushing traffic each morning, one person to a car. The bicycle on the street is still something to push aside with the front fender. Our real estate prices still freeze out the poor, and our young flock to places like Eagle Mountain.
You know, I could go on and on. The simple fact is that life in our new urban environment is going to demand changes in our personal lives, more than we may be willing to make. But for now, a toast to Ralph Becker, a mayor prepared for our effort. And a toast to our city council. And to Salt Lake City, a city deserving of dreams.
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson is married to City Weekly editor Holly Mullen.
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