Score one for drug dealers and their loyal customers: Three months after the removal of barricades along its north side, Pioneer Park has emerged once more as a drive-up shopping center for wild and crazy substances.
Now for the good news: The drug activity is nowhere near as bad as it was three or four years ago. In fact, taken collectively, comments from the city’s administration and the area’s community leaders seem to reflect an attitude of mild resignation where criminal activity is concerned. There are simply too many forces conspiring against them to keep the park crime-free.
In the meantime, the city’s police maintain a thorough patrol of the neighborhood, business and property owners patiently await the arrival of the Gateway development, and bold moves have been taken to draw everyday people into the park. Taking down the barricades was risky, but necessary if the park is to move out of critical condition and into health. Emerging businesses need the parking space, and the city wanted to shed the stigma of barricades. If that means a slight return to business as usual at Pioneer Park, so be it.
I don’t think we’ve lost a step at all by opening up parking, said Rick Graham, director of Salt Lake City public services, the managing entity of Pioneer Park. I have heard from law enforcement that there are some problems with drugs and distribution. We never believed we would fully get rid of that. With the nature of the community there we might always have problems, but it’s a lot better than it was two or three years ago. We always believed this would be a difficult process. We’re not giving up.
Tony Caputo, owner of a deli and specialty food store right across the street from Pioneer Park, takes the transition all in stride. In his view, removing the barricades was a definite plus. Naturally, he also likes the parking for his business
I look out my windows now and I see a park, not something that looks like a construction zone. It’s great, he says. Do I see problems in the park? Sure. But I see problems outside Crossroads Mall, too.
So-called for its history as an encampment area for the Mormon settlers, Pioneer Park has been a long-time source of frustration and creative problem-solving. The reasons aren’t mysterious. It’s centrally located to just about every element that would make the park a magnet for transient people. Railroad tracks to the west bring people in, a cluster of homeless shelters and soup kitchens provide meals and accommodations, a nearby liquor store offers the chance to imbibe, and Pioneer Park is the place to sleep it off, or loiter away the hours.
Then, about 1993, the park began to crawl with drug dealers who brazenly sold their wares in broad daylight. Cars, including expensive suburbans and European luxury vehicles, pulled in for around-the-clock purchases. Nearby business owners complained. The police moved in, opened a neighborhood station, and initiated a no tolerance policy toward crime that included tickets for littering and jaywalking. Drug dealers were arrested, of course. Then, turning attention to the demand side, police arrested buyers. With the attention of law enforcement focussed on the park, drug dealers dispersed across the city, to North Temple and along 100 West. Little seemed to stem the tide, though, as some of the dealers were illegal immigrants who returned to Salt Lake City often days after being sent back to Mexico by federal agents.
Fed up, the city ordered the park closed for a complete overhaul in August 1996. In an attempt to open the area up to restaurants and a better business environment, there was talk of suspending an ordinance prohibiting the sale of alcohol from within 600 feet of a public park. That idea was firmly squashed when the LDS Church opposed it. Later, the park was gradually opened to public activity with a Farmers’ Market during summer weekends. Today, there are even more events bringing a cautious public to the park, including Brown Bag concerts and the recent Rio Grande Festival of live music.
Betsy Bradley, president of the Rio Grande Community Council, believes the park and surrounding neighborhood is on to better days. Everybody focuses on Pioneer Park, which is so aggravating, she laments. I’ve seen drug purchases at plenty of other places around town. What the area needs is more destinations for people after they finish workretail stores, restaurants. That’s all happening. It’s happening slowly.
Officers patrolling the area might not seem as upbeat about the missing barricades. But, then, they have a job to do. I have my personal opinion, but professionally I can’t give you that opinion, said Lt. Ken Pierce.