West Side Story -- Part I 

The decision-making power structure is collapsing under pressure as neighborhoods change dramatically.

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Jimmie Hartley is worried about the future of her west Salt Lake City neighborhood. As a property owner and resident of the Glendale community for the past 25 years, she believes the neighborhood has been maligned by the press and ignored and neglected by politicians, who only seem to care at election time about the people who live in the area.

She is also concerned about some dramatic changes that have been affecting the neighborhood for the past decade. After years of decline and stagnation, the population on the West Side of the city is suddenly and rapidly changing. Hartley believes many of the new residents are Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and other minority immigrants who are both poorer than the existing population and less familiar with the traditional neighborhood customs and standards.

By all accounts, Hartley is correct about changes in the community. The West Side of Salt Lake City is in a state of transition. And as the area changes from a mostly white Mormon neighborhood to a more diverse ethnic community, the neighborhood decision-making power structure is collapsing under the pressure. The old neighborhood leadership, based in Mormon wards and the community council system, is losing influence with city leaders and support from new residents in the community. At the same time, leadership from the new ethnic majority, which should be better able to represent the diverse interests of the new residents, has been slow to emerge from the chaos.

Salt Lake City Weekly will examine issues affecting residents of the city’s West Side in this two-part series. The first installment will look at the history and some of the causes of the problems in the neighborhood. The second will focus on area leaders’ diverse ideas for the community’s future.

Generally speaking, the “West Side” is the area from North Temple, south to 2100 South, and from I-15 west to the western city limits. There are two loosely defined neighborhoods represented by two separate community councils. The Poplar Grove neighborhood is defined as the area from North Temple to the railroad tracks at 900 South, and from 900 West to Redwood Road (1700 West). The Glendale area runs from 900 South to 2100 South, and from 900 West to Redwood Road. But there are also several isolated pockets of people and housing scattered along both sides of the freeway and railroad tracks.

Most people agree that the West Side has always suffered from a stigma. Early in its history, the neighborhood was sectioned off from the rest of the city by railroad tracks serving an industrial area between 500 West and 700 West in the downtown area, and another set of tracks that serve western routes and the heavy industrial area west of Redwood Road. But in the 1960s, there was an event that really seemed not only to isolate the West Side from the rest of the city, but also to carve the once homogeneous neighborhood into several pieces. That event was the construction of the interstate highway system through the Salt Lake Valley.

Freeway construction was a shattering experience for the neighborhoods and residents of the West Side. The construction of I-15 and I-80 destroyed hundreds of homes along the freeway corridors, and created an elevated physical barrier between the downtown business district and people living on opposite sides of the interstate. Many of the roads that once crossed the tracks and provided easy access to downtown were transformed into isolated dead-end streets.

Longtime residents believe the freeway construction marked the beginning of a slow decline in the community, and made it easy for politicians, whose view of the neighborhood was blocked by the interstate, to forget about the West Side. Fred Fife, a resident in the Poplar Grove neighborhood and state legislator who represents the area, believes the neighborhood was seriously damaged by freeway construction.

“About that time a lot of neighborhood services and businesses started to decline,” Fife says. “The freeway construction walled the area in, and both the Poplar Grove and Glendale neighborhoods have been struggling to get back on their feet ever since.”

Fife says housing in the area also started to decline, especially in Poplar Grove where houses are older than in Glendale. And several neighborhood businesses—including locally owned grocery stores, a small movie theater and a bowling alley in the area around 900 West—lost customers and slowly left the area.

For the next 30 years, the isolated area got little attention from city leaders. Many residents believe they had to compete against powerful and well-connected political forces in East Side neighborhoods for even the most basic community amenities—park maintenance, street lighting, road repair, curb-and-gutter. While the East Side was getting the kinds of new businesses and shopping centers all neighborhoods want, the West Side was getting the drug treatment centers, homeless shelters and prison halfway houses that nobody wants in their neighborhoods.

Then in the early 1990s, the neighborhood started to change and grow. The population growth aggravated many of the problems that had been festering in the community for years. Although there is no way to substantiate how much the neighborhood’s population has changed until new census data is released, the Salt Lake City School District does keep records of minority student enrollment. School administrators are seeing a dramatic increase in minority students, and schools on the West Side have the fastest growing student population in the city.

In the last 10 years, the minority population in the five West Side elementary schools has increased from an average of 40.1 percent minority students in 1989, to an average of 72.4 percent minority students in 1999. Additionally, school administrators are dealing with a student population that speaks more than 27 different languages.

Jimmie Hartley noticed the changes in her neighborhood. There were more cars parking on the streets and it seemed as though the new residents were less concerned about maintaining their yards and homes. To learn more about the issues in the community and help combat some of the problems, Hartley started attending meetings of the West Side Community Council six years ago. She was mostly concerned about an increase in crime and gang activity in the neighborhood, and soon got involved in the Glendale Neighborhood Mobile Crime Watch.

Two or three days each week, she patrols the neighborhood watching for suspicious behavior. Over the years she has been involved with the program, she has specialized in locating stolen cars. In one three-month period, she helped find 32 stolen cars abandoned in the area. But she is also concerned about other issues. Hartley believes the West Side has been a dumping ground for problems that people on the East Side don’t want in their neighborhoods. “There are more halfway houses for ex-convicts in the 84104 ZIP code than in any other ZIP code in the city,” Hartley complains.

And there are other problems. Many of the traditional businesses in the area, especially in a small commercial area known as the Glendale Plaza, have closed. In recent years, many of the spaces have been reopened with Hispanic and Polynesian businesses that cater to the growing ethnic populations in the neighborhood. Although the problems in the community have existed for several years, they were brought to a head recently in the debate over the Grand Mall.

The Grand Mall was a proposed regional shopping center that was to be located west of the Salt Lake International Airport. Most members of the West Side Community Council supported the project, and believed it would bring shopping and jobs to residents on the West Side.

The project received enthusiastic support from former Mayor Deedee Corradini, and despite concern from the downtown business community, the project was fast-tracked for approval.

All that changed with the election of Mayor Rocky Anderson in November. Anderson has made the revitalization of the downtown business district a major goal of his administration. He shared the concerns of downtown merchants that the Grand Mall would take customers, and some of the anchor businesses in the malls, away from the downtown.

Additionally, Anderson believes neighborhood business and walkable neighborhoods would reduce dependence on cars and would be more appropriate for the future of West Side development. He fought aggressively against the development of the Grand Mall. Although he won the battle against the mall, the move brought him into direct conflict with members of the West Side Community Council.

Some longtime residents, disturbed by new businesses with signs printed in languages they can’t read, wanted anything but more local ethnic businesses. They were much more interested in the development of large shopping centers with recognizable signs like “Wal-Mart,” “Blockbuster” and “Old Navy.”

The mayor’s changes in the economic development philosophy for the neighborhood infuriated many community council members. Longtime residents who feel threatened and frustrated by the changes in the neighborhood have reacted harshly and loudly. They have been openly critical of the new residents and businesses, and as the tension between groups has increased, there have been occasional angry outbursts.

In one case, Jay Ingleby, then-chairman of the West Side Community Council and a fervent supporter of the proposed mall development, complained publicly that some of the new neighborhood stores reminded him of the kind of businesses he had seen in Tijuana, Mexico. The comments led to charges of racism from leaders of the Hispanic community. Both the Mobil Crime Watch program and the mostly white members of the West Side Community Council came under fire for, critics said, no longer representing the ethnically diverse residents of the community. Ingleby resigned a few days later.

Gordon Storrs, who has been chairman of the Poplar Grove Community Council the past three years, was one of the first in the neighborhood to condemn the comments made by Ingleby. Storrs says most of the residents in the area welcome and support the new people and businesses, and he fears Ingleby’s comments will contribute to the area’s negative image.

“Our biggest problem,” Storrs says, “is that our neighborhood has a negative image to people in the rest of the city.”

Storrs, who moved from the East Side to the West Side a few years ago, says several of his neighbors and friends questioned his decision to move to the West Side of the city. “No one knows what a great place the Poplar Grove neighborhood is,” he says. “My friends and neighbors on the East Side told me that they wouldn’t come to visit because that had such negative feelings about the area. Even my children were worried that their friends wouldn’t come to see them.”

But Storrs also says there are residents in the community, including some who have been active in the West Side Community Council, who resent the changes.

“At one time the West Side Community Council represented the whole West Side,” Storrs says. “But five or six years ago people in the Poplar Grove neighborhood formed their own Community Council, because we felt we had different problems and we were uncomfortable with some of the attitudes that were coming from members of West Side Council.”

At the time of the split, Van Turner, who now sits on the City Council, was the West Side Community Council chairman. Turner says he doesn’t remember why the Poplar Grove neighborhood formed its own council, but he agrees the issues in the two neighborhoods are different. Turner supported the Grand Mall development, because it would have brought needed shopping and services to the area.

“We don’t go to the higher priced stores,” Turner says, “because most of our people can’t afford to shop downtown. Our people do most of their shopping at Deseret Industries, and we wanted the discount stores that would have come with the Grand Mall.”

Turner, who has owned a neighborhood flower shop and hamburger stand on California Avenue for the past 28 years, says the most important issue in the neighborhood is crime. He is concerned about some of the Hispanic merchants in the Glendale Plaza, because residents have complained the area has become a center for gang problems, drug dealers and other criminal activity.

Members of the growing Hispanic and Polynesian communities, who were acutely aware of the changes in the neighborhood, were also concerned about the lack of ethnic representation on the West Side Community Council. Many believe they were made to feel unwelcome at council meetings, and were being targeted by the all-white Mobil Neighborhood Crime Watch for zoning and parking complaints. With help from elected representatives and leaders in the ethnic communities, they organized the Multi-Ethnic Advisory Committee.

Glendale resident Robert Archuleta, chairman of the Multi-Ethnic Advisory Committee as well as administrative assistant for Minority and Community Affairs for Mayor Anderson, says the changing population on the West Side has shocked the community.

“The rapid demographic changes alone will cause all kinds of social, economic and cultural clashes in a community.” Archuleta says. “People are moving in from all over, and it’s causing lots of discomfort.”

Archuleta believes the cultural differences are creating many of the problems in the neighborhoods. “Hispanics tend to colonize when they move into an area,” he says. “First the head of household moves in, and then the extended family. But everyone needs a job and public transportation is inconvenient, so the first thing in the neighborhood to go is parking, because everybody needs a car.”

And parking is one of the problems that can draw both the attention and complaints of the Mobile Neighborhood Crime Watch. Jimmie Hartley denies that the Mobile Neighborhood Crime Watch is targeting ethnic residents in the neighborhood, but she admits that on slow nights members will cruise the neighborhood for parking and zoning violations. At a recent meeting of the West Side Community Council, she told council members that the program wanted strict enforcement from city officials on all parking and zoning regulations.

“We have zero tolerance on parking and zoning,” she said. “We want residents to file complaints on anything you can get people on.”

Hartley also bristles at the accusation that ethnic residents are unwelcome at meetings of the West Side Community Council or in the Mobil Neighborhood Crime Watch. “I know the council has had meeting announcements printed in every language they could think of to get people to come,” Hartley said. “The Mobile Watch program has never had a Polynesian or Hispanic person apply to join the program.”

While the neighborhoods on the West Side are reformulating, traditional institutions—from schools to businesses and local services—are straining to understand and cope with the changing face of the area. There is broad agreement that the neighborhood has changed radically in the past decade, but there is little agreement about how neighborhood leaders and elected officials should respond to the dynamic forces affecting the community. Answers to questions about how the population has changed are still unclear.

School administrators have documented a dramatic change in the percentage of ethnic students attending West Side schools, but they have also seen the number of white students drop dramatically. Although census data indicates the ethnic population of the entire city is increasing, the data is not detailed enough to show which neighborhoods are most affected by the growth.

The contradiction in the numbers suggests that white families with school-aged children are fleeing West Side neighborhoods in the phenomenon known as “white flight.” School administrators are still unsure if the rapid growth in the ethnic student population represents a dramatic and corresponding increase in the general population of West Side neighborhoods. It could be that the general population in the neighborhoods is growing at a smaller rate, and that growth of ethnic students is caused by white families leaving the area and being replaced by a new ethnically diverse population.

Glendale and Poplar Grove are only the first of several neighborhoods seeing dramatic changes in the ethnic population. There are similar changes occurring in neighborhoods in the central city, lower East Side and northwest communities. But one thing seems to be absolutely clear: Salt Lake City has a real and growing ethnic community in the heart of the city.

Archuleta believes the challenge for community leaders and elected officials is to figure out a way to bring the diverse elements together and get them to participate in the future planning for the area. “Lots of entities, including the police, schools and the university, are already recognizing the changes,” Archuleta says. “Now we have to decide the best way to impact the newcomers to help them understand the laws and existing community standards.”

The controversy over the Grand Mall was a disappointing defeat for many longtime West Side residents. But the heated debate has also created some positive effects. After years of neglect, many residents believe they have finally gotten the attention of city officials. But the future of the area is far from certain.

Along with planning for future growth and economic development in the community, there are serious disagreements between residents on issues ranging from housing development to parks and recreation facilities. One of the biggest problems for city officials is deciding which individuals and groups really represent and speak for the diverse residents and interests of the community.

In our next installment, Salt Lake City Weekly will explore how the new ethnic residents are changing the power and politics on the West Side, and how those changes could affect politics in the rest of the city. We will also talk with Mayor Anderson, existing community leaders, and emerging leaders in the neighborhood and ethnic business community about their ideas for the future of Salt lake City’s West Side.

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About The Author

Rich Tuttle

More by Rich Tuttle

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