Salt Lake City is a blue oasis of progressive local politics mostly surrounded by a red desert of entrenched conservative thinking (for example, there seems to be an unusually large number of homophobic, tea-partying, climate-change deniers beyond our borders).
In addition to our enlightened politics, we also have one of the largest urban hiking/biking trail systems in the nation (the Bonneville Shoreline); designated wilderness a mere 2.3 miles from our city’s southeast boundary (the Mount Olympus Wilderness); great parks; wonderful public libraries; an array of unique local businesses; a multitude of arts and cultural organizations; and fantastic skiing. But I digress—back to politics.
Admittedly, politics here are, as some say, “peculiar” in the sense that our community was founded 163 years ago as a theocracy. The legacy of this attempt to create God’s kingdom on Earth is that the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is smack dab in our downtown.
A religion born in 1830, the LDS Church has a membership of approximately 12 million people. It has a storied history of violent persecution by angry mobs not sympathetic to its members’ views (read Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion for a fascinating early history of the LDS Church) combined with the zeal and hard work of Western pioneers who essentially created Salt Lake City from the desert landscape they found. If you doubt the part about zeal and hard work, just imagine dragging a handcart filled with all your worldly possessions across the Great Plains to get here—which is what some Mormon pioneers did (in contrast, I took a plane).
So, something roughly equivalent to the Vatican is sitting in our downtown. And yes, those of us who have lived here for any length of time can testify that having the world headquarters of a big religious organization in your city does influence politics. But, in Salt Lake City, the LDS Church is just one of a variety of influences, because politics in our delightful blue puddle are also influenced by an increasingly diverse population. Then there’s the fact that even though they constitute 41 percent of our city’s residents, LDS people really do want to be good neighbors.
The progressive nature of Salt Lake City politics shines through in the values we uphold and what we do together to create a good city. Clearly, we value our history, thoughtful urban design, neighborliness and community building that respects diversity and civil rights. For example, our police chief has chosen to opt-out of a Draconian state law that allows local governments to deputize local police as immigration-enforcement agents (basically a way to harass the Latino population).
And, in November 2009, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously passed nondiscrimination ordinances protecting people from employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation (as a bonus, and to everyone’s great surprise, the LDS Church publicly supported these measures). The progressive politics of our city are also reflected in action we’ve taken to protect our foothills from development, our willingness to expend resources on a great public library system, and a public school district that defies the odds of limited resources and provides our kids with a good education.
To be sure, we have plenty to work on. The air quality in Salt Lake City is frequently dismal, thus we need to support mass transit; walk and bike; buy smaller, less-polluting vehicles; and engage government in this effort. And we need the Legislature to provide more resources for our students, from preschool through college, because our children, whether or not they were born to us, really are the future of our community.
We have great things to look forward to: Our new science, technology and art center, The Leonardo, will open on Library Square in 2011. We’re planning new libraries in the Glendale and Marmalade neighborhoods. Light rail to the airport is under development, and perhaps we’ll have a street-car system in Sugar House.
In the end, what makes Salt Lake City such a great place is the involvement of all of us, in ways large and small, in working to create a more vibrant, livable community. Access to local government is excellent, and your City Council members and the mayor welcome discussions about community issues. The variety of fabulous nonprofit organizations working on environmental protection, human rights, education, and cultural and artistic expression create opportunities for engagement on issues people care about.
The greatness of a city comes from people who live there, and Salt Lake City is blessed with an abundance of smart, creative, caring citizens who make our city a place we can be proud to call home.
Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and city bureaucrat, is currently the outreach director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.