15 Ways to Fix SLC | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

15 Ways to Fix SLC 

Handy tips and tricks to ensure the survival and growth of our fair town.

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click to enlarge BRIAN DALY
  • Brian Daly

Salt Lake City! The capital of Utah! A city on the rise!

What's so great about Salt Lake City? Well I'll tell you what's so great about Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is a place where business booms and culture abounds. And there's no shortage of diversion here: plenty of locally regarded restaurants, a region-class entertainment scene and, did I mention minor league baseball? It's true! Go Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim AAA affiliate!

But watch out! Salt Lake City won't be the Wasatch Mountain Range's best kept secret for long. Folks the world over are coming to Utah and saying it for themselves: "This is the place!"

Actually, a lot of folks are coming to Salt Lake City. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "net in-migration" to Salt Lake City will account for almost one-fourth of its population growth in the next few years. An increased population has many obvious implications. It means a demand for housing, which means housing becomes less affordable while wages stagnate. It means more cars on the road, which means poorer air quality—which could increase health care costs. As the population consolidates, so will vital social services and safety nets, drawing the region's most beleaguered and downtrodden souls to one of the few cities around with the resources to help them.

Perhaps most importantly, a Salt Lake City on the rise means a new clash of culture, as the old guard battles the growing influence of new, diverse constituencies over issues of tradition, heritage and lifestyle. In short, slowness to adapt and a reluctance to work together could become Salt Lake City's biggest obstacles to sustained success.

At this critical juncture, Salt Lake City can hardly afford to languish in inaction. What this city needs right now is bold ideas, both big and small. We must dare to ask the tough questions and stroll confidently outside the box for solutions. We need to look the truth dead in the eyes and say, "We see you. We will not ignore you." And for God's sake, we need a new damned flag.

For this piece, we tapped an assortment of experts and advocates in various fields to pick their brains on some of the city's biggest predicaments: homelessness, transportation, air quality, mental health, economic disparities, injustice, political apathy. But instead of soliciting the same, stale solutions on which we've all endlessly masticated without swallowing, a hefty dose of creative thinking was encouraged. What follows are some of the craziest, wildest, zaniest ideas to fix Salt Lake City that you won't even believe—but if bolstered by our collective will, they just might work. And then at the end, for good measure, there's something of a personal rant about the Clipart beach towel atrocity that is our city flag.

(Kudos to LA Weekly writer Hillel Aron and his June 27 article 20 Ways to Fix Los Angeles, upon which the structure of this piece is based.)

1. Destroy I-15
Bulldoze it! Demolish it! Blow it up!

Then dig a hole and rebuild it underground.

That's what would happen if Jason Mathis and Nick Como of the Downtown Alliance had their way (and billions of dollars). Ideally, they would build a new underground highway from 5300 South to North Salt Lake and construct a linear park where I-15 currently stands. Mathis believes the new park would unify the city, which has become physically divided by the interstate highway and multiple railways.

"I think that as long as that physical barrier exists between the east side and the west side of town, there will always be a distinction between these two different sides of Salt Lake City," Mathis says.

Before you dismiss the idea as a pipe dream (tunnel dream?), keep in mind that a major American city has already accomplished a comparable, if not more complicated, project. Boston's Big Dig put I-93 underground, leaving space for the new Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in the heart of downtown Boston. Sure, it took decades for the project to come to fruition, and yes, it'll end up costing over $20 billion. But the Big Dig at least proves it's not impossible to bury I-15.

Como notes there are other success stories, too, such as the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco or the construction of Millennium Park in Chicago.

"There's no shortage of examples," Como says. "Even closing Broadway in Manhattan. That's the busiest street in the busiest city in the country and they closed it for, like, 20 blocks and made it a linear park where people can hang out and sit and grab a coffee. And it actually helped the traffic around because they were able to optimize Fifth Avenue and Madison and Park."

But it's easier to close, bury or demolish roads when a city has good public transit and walkable/bikeable neighborhoods. Mathis and Como agree that Salt Lake City could use some improvement in those areas—particularly public transit—before its own version of the Big Dig happens.

2. Do the Electric Double Track
This next idea is not to be confused with the Electric Slide, the game-changing 1976 line dance invented by the legendary choreographer Richard L. "Ric" Silver and popularized by Jamaican performers Marcia Griffiths and Bunny Wailer. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't immediately stop reading this article and visit Ric Silver's website, the-electricslide.com. It's definitely not my new favorite website ever and the Electric Slide has nothing to do with this topic. But I digress.

Instead of line dances, let's talk about rail lines. Specifically the FrontRunner, UTA's commuter train that travels parallel to I-15 from Provo to Pleasant View. FrontRunner began service a mere nine years ago, but don't let the relative newness and free onboard Wi-Fi fool you: The rail isn't exactly state-of-the-art. FrontRunner partially piggybacks on the old Utah Central Railroad, a railway that was originally constructed in 1869.

Much of the line is single track—think of it as the equivalent to a one-lane road with cars taking turns going in both directions. This can cause problems. For instance, an otherwise on-time northbound train might suffer delays as it waits for a late southbound train to pass at a double-track station.

Wasatch Front Regional Council Executive Director Andrew Gruber would like to eliminate this cumbersome scenario by making the FrontRunner a double-track line all the way through.

"FrontRunner has the potential to carry even more passengers than it does today, but it's limited in the amount of trains that can run per hour due to its use of a single track for almost its entire line," he says. "Double tracking the full length of the route would allow trains to pass each other without stopping and slowing down and enable more trains to utilize the rail at any given time."

As for the "electric" part of the equation, Gruber proposes that FrontRunner's locomotives switch from diesel power to electricity.

"With electrification, FrontRunner trains would have more ease in starting and stopping in comparison to our existing diesel-powered trains. This enhancement would also reduce emissions that contribute to air-quality issues," he says.

The electric double track would make FrontRunner faster, cleaner and more reliable. In other words, she'd be a pumpin' like a matic.

STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo

3. Organize the Homeless
Last month, anyone who's anybody in Utah politics got together for an informal, closed-door discussion on plight of the Rio Grande district. Afterwards the formidable assembly stood stone-faced in front of TV cameras to let us know that they swapped some real hard talk about homelessness and the thick yarn of crime that has woven itself into Salt Lake City's homeless population.

But for all the authoritative heft the group flaunted, few specific solutions to the underlying problems around homelessness are yet to be revealed. As a result, it's still difficult to frame their July meeting as the breakthrough moment our leaders clearly wanted it to be.

"Read through most of the recent stories on the Rio Grande area, and you will see lots of people with decision-making authority talking about the filthy streets, the drug dealers and other criminals, the disconcerting lines of people waiting for shelter," Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, told me 10 days before the big homelessness summit. "What you won't see very often, however, is people saying we need to actually talk to those living on the street and in the shelter to see what they need and how they think the situation could be improved."

Hill says that instead of talking down to the homeless as a helpless faction of dependents—former Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder recently compared how local authorities treat the homeless population to how a parent treats "the 40-year-old kid living in the basement"—they should be looked upon as stakeholders in the decisions affecting them.

"In the ideal world, homeless individuals who actually live in these areas of crisis would have an organized voice so they can tell those of us with some decision-making authority what they need, instead of our current system of us telling the homeless what we will do for them," Hill says.

Reimagine that July assembly of local policymakers with the inclusion of representatives from the very group of people that were the topic of discussion, and one has to wonder how the results of that meeting could have been different.

4. Build Cheap Housing in Rich Neighborhoods
The divide between Salt Lake City's east and west sides is more than physical or geographic. Cross from one side to the other, and it's almost as if you've arrived in a separate city with a completely different economic reality and demographic makeup.

The data bears that out, too. Dr. Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, has synthesized census and economic data on every neighborhood in the city. Her research reveals some obvious and stark differences between east and west Salt Lake: In her analysis of 2010 census data, the percentage of the population that's a minority is sharply higher on the west side (as high as three-fourths in some parts of Rose Park and Glendale) than it is on the east side (consistently around 10 percent in parts of the Avenues and Sugar House).

Concurrently, residents of the west side face more economic instability than their eastside counterparts. An analysis of the SLC School District's free or reduced-price lunch programs shows that around 80-90 percent of kids in some westside neighborhoods qualify for aid, while 10-20 percent is typical for many eastside neighborhoods.

There's a pernicious implication here that's difficult to ignore: Salt Lake City is becoming segregated, with minorities and low-income families on one side and white, affluent ones on the other.

"Residents in Salt Lake City—and across the nation—are segregated residentially by socioeconomic status," Perlich says. "This often has the effect of reinforcing further segregation by generation, household type, immigrant status and ethnic group."

Perlich's solution? Build more diversity into neighborhoods. Literally.

"Integrating a spectrum of housing within neighborhoods—allowing for various levels of affordability—would mitigate this dimension of segregation," she asserts.

To do that, however, the city might need to incentivize builders to take on such projects. Building expensive housing in expensive neighborhoods is going to be a lot more profitable than building affordable housing on the same land—that's how math tends to work.

5. Make Companies Pay for the Housing Their Employees Can't Afford
The cost of housing in Salt Lake City has increased steadily since the housing market crash of 2008, but wages haven't kept pace. In 2011, the median price of a house in the 84105 ZIP code, just east and south of Liberty Park, hovered below $250,000 for most of the year while the city's median family income was $47,243. For the first quarter of this year, the median price in 84105 hit $375,000. In 2016, Forbes placed SLC's median family income at $65,124.

But it gets even worse for low-income renters. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a Salt Lake City resident would need an annual income of $31,800 (or an hourly wage of $15.29) to afford a one-bedroom apartment. If a resident made minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), they would have to work 84 hours per week to afford the same apartment. The federal minimum wage hasn't changed since 2009.

An uncomplicated (if not hotly contested) solution at the city's disposal would be a citywide increase in the minimum wage. City councils in Seattle, Los Angeles, Santa Fe and other municipalities have already enacted ordinances raising the minimum wage. But Tara Rollins of the Utah Housing Coalition wonders what would happen if, instead of putting it on the Salt Lake City Council to raise wages, city policymakers compelled big businesses paying low wages to chip in for affordable housing.

"The private market needs to invest in housing if they are bringing low-wage jobs to communities," she posits. Her example: "Walmart requests to add a store, cities ask them to contribute to housing through a trust fund."

Cities typically use housing trust funds to pay for affordable housing projects, such as renovations of old homes in struggling neighborhoods or construction of new affordable apartments. As it would happen, Rollins points out that Salt Lake City already has a housing trust fund. With her idea, new businesses hoping to open up shop in the city with cheap labor would have to contribute to that fund.

Whatever we do to make housing more economical, Rollins says we need to shift our mindset on what it means to have a place to sleep at night.

"We all need to stop thinking about housing as an investment. It is a shelter," she says.

6. Talk to Each Other
Think back to those tense public meetings earlier this year on proposed homeless resource centers, wherein homeowners, elected officials and the homeless themselves were pitted against each other with little sense of shared interest or mutual benefit. Policymakers had previously had announced four shelter locations, leaving many residents blindsided by the decision. After a series of townhall-style meetings, the four shelters were eventually cut down to three, one of which will be built in a location that wasn't even originally discussed (South Salt Lake). It was a grueling public-input process, and one can't help but feel that there might have been a better way to do it all.

Maybe there is a better way. Here's a bold question: What if we talked to people before we made decisions? That's my own crude summation of an idea that Dr. Sarah Munro, Director of University Neighborhood Partners, suggests. It starts with a process she calls "asset mapping."

"Instead of looking for problems, we ask, 'What are the physical and also human assets in these neighborhoods? Where are the parks, libraries, community centers and also, what are the formal or informal groups of people who are getting together and sharing their talents to make their neighborhoods or communities better? Who are the neighborhood leaders, the people others turn to when they have challenges or questions?'"

Munro sees asset mapping as a process in service of a grander goal: "Ultimately, what I want is for every person in our city to have a chance to work alongside someone very different from themselves, as an equal, on something they both value," she says. "This doesn't mean having an idea and asking the other person for approval. It means sitting down and saying, 'What's important to you? What's important to me? What do we share, and how can we work on it together?'"

Whatever missteps we can pick apart in hindsight from the homeless shelter site selection saga, Munro's approach might diminish the chances of a similar public policy quagmire.

ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

7. Give the Land Back to the Tribes
Observing the murals on the interior of the Utah State Capitol's rotunda, one would surmise that Utah's human history began in 1776, when a Spanish man in a bathrobe discovered a lake. But in the very same mural an unacknowledged man stands in the bushes off to the side, perhaps about to say, "Hello there! Welcome to my ancestral home of thousands of years. What brings y'all out this way?"

For years, that's how Utah's popular culture has tended to treat the indigenous peoples of the region: just a generic figure in the bushes, a supporting character passively looking on as history happens beside them. And according to James Singer, community activist and adjunct professor of sociology at Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College, that diminutive historical treatment is at the root of the problems facing the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone, Navajo and other Western tribes today. The non-native people who live here now, he says, need to have a collective reckoning with the conventional narrative.

"This land is sacred. It's theirs," Singer says, referring to indigenous tribes. "It's dealing with that, saying, 'If we have to recognize that we're living on stolen land, a land that we got through illegal means, then does that not undermine the foundation of our society?' And the answer is, 'Yes, it does.'"

Singer's rectifying solution is pretty straightforward: if Salt Lake City wasn't the white pioneers' land to take, let's just give it back to the original proprietors. But fret not, unwelcome interlopers! Under Singer's idea, no one would have to move out. However, there would be no more freeloading—SLC residents would just have to start paying rent to their landlords.

"Wherever there are traditional lands that were owned by a tribe, then any kind of settler community that's there, part of their income or property tax goes to that tribe," he says.

Singer admits that it'd be difficult to redraw the maps to determine precisely which tribes would serve as stewards to what parcels of land. But by integrating a European mentality of land ownership with a more accurate historical interpretation of who can rightfully claim Salt Lake Valley, Singer believes all tribes would stand to benefit.

ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

8. Ban Growth
Hey, Salt Lake citizens: Hold your hand in front of your face. Can you see it? If your answered yes, that means it's not January.

Waka-waka! I'm here all week! Tip your waiters!

But seriously, folks. It's rarely contested that Salt Lake Valley's air quality woes are hurting the city year-round on multiple fronts: public health, quality of life, economics, hand visibility, etc. Still, there remains a perennial debate over which corrective actions to take. While both state and city officials have made some positive strides toward addressing air pollution in recent years, clean air advocates like Matt Pacenza would prefer a stronger sense of urgency from policymakers.

Pacenza, the soon-to-be-departing director of environmental policy group HEAL Utah, points to the valley's growing population as the main cause for concern.

"The reality is that if our valleys' populations weren't growing, we wouldn't have to worry as much about air quality in the decades to come," Pacenza says. "Since new cars are much cleaner, for example, each of us on average will pollute less in 20 years than we do today. But, the problem is, there will be many, many more of us. More cars, more homes, more apartments and more businesses. Thus, more air pollution."

One simple way to fix the problem would be to stop allowing people to move here—perhaps by building a wall along the southern border shared with Utah County. But that idea is a little more extreme than the one Pacenza proposes, though his big outside-the-box idea isn't without the potential for controversy either: What if we constrained new construction projects with predetermined "growth boundaries?"

"To build the Wasatch Front right as our population skyrockets, we need to prioritize density," he says. "Ideally, more and more of us will live near where we work and study, along transit corridors. Incentives, planning and zoning can help encourage such development, but so can drawing a line in the sand and pronouncing 'no suburbs past here.'"

Pacenza predicts such an idea would be met with pushback from a Legislature chock-full of construction and real estate magnates. Still, he pointed out that similar initiatives have been enacted in cities like Minneapolis and Virginia Beach.

“Preserving historic - buildings usually - comes down to a - balance of regulation - and incentive—and you - need both for a great - SLC in the future.” - —Kirk Huffaker, Preservation Utah executive director - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
  • “Preserving historicbuildings usuallycomes down to abalance of regulationand incentive—and youneed both for a greatSLC in the future.”—Kirk Huffaker, Preservation Utah executive director

9. Tax Thirsty People
As a rash of new construction projects spread throughout Salt Lake City, it's worth pausing to consider how we plan to preserve the buildings that already exist. A city can derive a lot of pride from its historical architecture—think of Amsterdam and Prague or, closer to home, New Orleans and Boston. Certain buildings can come to define the character and identity of the cities in which they're rooted.

As an urban dwelling, Salt Lake City is still relatively young. But the debate over which buildings to keep and which to replace is already active. For example, there was the protracted battle over what to do with the nearly 8-decades-old Granite High School in South Salt Lake, ending finally in the demolition of the vacant building just last month. Some residents in the area preferred to see the building repurposed somehow, perhaps as a community hub for local artists. Ultimately what prevented preservation plans was cost: The antiquated high school was falling apart and riddled with asbestos. It ended up being prohibitively expensive to retrofit the building and keep its PWA-era architecture in tact, though for some folks it might've been worth the cost.

"Preserving historic buildings usually comes down to a balance of regulation and incentive—and you need both for a great SLC in the future. But regulation only goes so far," Preservation Utah Executive Director Kirk Huffaker says. "What has the potential to make a bigger impact is a substantial funding source that could assist the public and private sectors to rehabilitate, maintain and put historic buildings to good use."

So the question becomes, what would that funding source be? Of course, the city could raise a new preservation tax of some kind to fund more preservation projects. But Huffaker's proposal suggests a more nuanced phrasing: "the universal beverage surcharge."

"A preservation fund for saving historic architecture in Salt Lake City could be derived from surcharge of one cent on every packaged drink, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, sold in restaurants, bars and stores," he offers.

Huffaker estimates that his definitely-not-a-tax "surcharge"—"Don't call it a tax!" is what he told me with his tongue lodged in cheek—would raise about $10 million every year. It seems unlikely that the city council would approve a regressive, if minor, "surcharge" on all consumable liquids. But just try not thinking of historical preservation the next time you sip on an ice-cold brewsky, alcoholic or not. I dare you.

10. Free Beer!
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's stated purpose is "to make liquor available to those adults who choose to drink responsibly—but not to promote the sale of liquor." In other words, far be it from the government to take away your constitutional right to drink booze (see: 21st Amendment, ratified by Utah's vote), but gosh heck, just do it where we can't see ya.

Liquor laws are within the domain of the Legislature, so there's very little that can be done at the city level to tip the scales toward the "availability" end. But that's kind of the rub: Salt Lake City is a progressive, young, up-and-coming hub for nightlife and fun. The city's drink-partakers groan at the state's 3.2 percent beer and its sparsely distributed state-owned liquor stores, almost all of which seem to have a state-mandated maximum of 3.2 stalls in their parking lots.

Utah Hospitality Association President Dave Morris has just about had it with state officials. But, ironically, his proposal is one that would normally appeal to a conservative ethos: privatization of the industry.

"Governor Herbert! Utah legislators! You are Republicans. Your party understands the free-market economy. Release the beer to the free market," he proclaims.

Morris, who owns Piper Down Pub in Salt Lake City, admits that his idea isn't exactly "outside-the-box": "We will not have to test new concepts. Simply cut and paste state statute from any state in the Union," Morris suggests. It's worth noting that 17 other states are "control states" like Utah, so one might not be able to cut-and-paste cleanly from any state laws. Regardless, Morris sees a private alcohol market in Utah as a chance to unleash the floodgates of new business for local craft beer makers, many of which are based in Salt Lake City.

But for many state lawmakers, Utah establishing a freewheeling alcohol market is simply beyond the pale—appeals to free enterprise be darned. The debate around liquor laws will undoubtedly continue to rage for decades to come. But, hey, there's always Idaho.

11. Hold onto Your Butts
Every once in awhile, a new study declaring which cities have America's worst drivers will light up the local media market, especially when Salt Lake City ends up near the top of the list. The most recent example came this past June, when Seattle-based quotewizard.com—an online insurance marketplace—wagged its proverbial finger at SLC motorists by ranking them second-worst in the nation. The number witches and math warlocks of QuoteWizard based their rankings on a weighted analysis of accidents, DUIs, speeding tickets and traffic citations.

But Robert Miles, who is the director of traffic and safety for the Utah Department of Transportation, takes umbrage with the method behind the poll's magic. He contends that statistics on tickets and citations might say more about the local police force than it does about drivers.

"Oh yeah, if everybody in the state is getting a ticket, then that's gotta mean more bad drivers, right?" Miles says sarcastically. "Or it could mean that we live in an area where law enforcement agencies are more conscientious about enforcing that particular law, as opposed to areas of the country where they have other things they're more concerned about."

So does Salt Lake City actually have some of the worst drivers in the country? It depends on how you look at it. But one thing is clear: Salt Lake drivers are definitely much worse in the summer. UDOT statistics show that the occurrence of fatal accidents in Utah is 45 percent higher between Memorial Day and Labor Day than the rest of the year. UDOT calls this timespan the "100 deadliest days," but it could be much less deadly with this one insane lifehack: wearing a seat belt.

"Half of our fatalities in the state are folks who are not buckled up, and that's pretty crazy when you consider that about 87 percent of us are buckling up," Miles says.

If saving your own life isn't motivation enough to wear a safety belt, wear one for this simple reason: It could help give Salt Lake City a better ranking on the list next year.

VIA ENERGY.GOV
  • Via energy.gov

12. Get Physical
Idaho has something else that Utah doesn't and it's not legal access to Four Loko: It's a national laboratory. Now you might be asking yourself, "What's a national laboratory? Does Utah have one? Does Four Loko still exist?"

First, I'll answer that last question with another question: To quote Four Loko's website, would you say that "reinvention and risk-taking is in [your] DNA"? If so, you best be heading north of the border for some Four Loko. (Please risk-take responsibly.)

Secondly, a national laboratory is a federally funded research compound managed by the Department of Energy. The laboratories are impressive facilities with the kind of expensive resources and equipment that would be financially out of reach for almost any scientist on their own. Fields of study at national labs typically encompass the physical sciences, but lab researchers hone in on more specialized areas such as renewable energy technology or computational science, among many others. There are currently 17 national laboratories scattered across the United States. Altogether, they provide tens of thousands of jobs along with immeasurable contributions to the world's scientific progress. When the current Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed eliminating the Department of Energy during his 2012 presidential campaign, one must have wondered if he'd chugged too many Four Lokos and forgot about national laboratories. Oops.

National laboratories bring jobs, prestige and academic clout to the places that are lucky enough have them. That's why Natalie Gochnour, associate dean at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business, wants one right in Salt Lake City's backyard.

"Idaho has one, Colorado has one, New Mexico has two, and Washington and Oregon both have one. We don't have one," she laments. "My idea would be to encourage Sen. Orrin Hatch to use his seniority to land us a research center funded by the federal government."

Gochnour suggests the Point of the Mountain as a prime location for the lab, given its proximity to the U, BYU, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College.

And what kind of research would be conducted at Utah's lab?

"I can think of a lot of areas of focus, but I'm drawn to cyber-security as a place where Utah has expertise and the world has great need. Our language capabilities and the NSA center are both assets that would be helpful."

It would be a boon for Utah to score a national laboratory, but enlisting Hatch for the task might be tough right about now. Presently at the top of the Methuselean legislator's to-do list are passing a budget, repealing and replacing Obamacare, enacting tax reform and preventing a nuclear war with North Korea.

13. Stop Telling Kids to Kill Themselves
Utah's suicide rate among all age groups has climbed steadily in recent years, from 15.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 1999 to 24.5 in 2015. That places Utah's suicide rate at fifth-highest in the nation.

According to data compiled by the Utah Department of Health, the occurrence of teen suicide in Utah has been climbing dramatically since 2007. In that year, 10 deaths per 100,000 population of Utahns ages 10-17 were attributed to suicide. In 2015—the most recent year with complete data—the number of deaths rose to 44. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among Utah's teens.

Suicide is complicated. It's difficult to pin down any broad sociological or cultural trend and claim it's the root cause of a specific individual's demise. But it's worth doing some soul-searching here in Salt Lake City to figure out what's going wrong before it gets even worse.

But as far as social worker Candice Metzler of the Utah Pride Center is concerned, there's at least one clear starting point for bringing the teen suicide rate down.

"If there's one thing I could change, it's parents encouraging their children to commit suicide or in some ways kind of suggesting that it would be better for their child to commit suicide than to be LGBTQ," she says.

Metzler estimates around four clients per year—usually transgender youth—come to her saying their parents have suggested suicide to them. Metzler understandably struggles to grasp why parents would do that.

"I try to get away from specifically pigeonholing certain groups," she says, "but I think in general we come off as a state that's supposed to be heavily invested in Christian values. And I think that flies right in the face of those values, so I've never been able to pull that together and understand why a parent would go there."

There's a lot—a lot—we can do to improve our kids' mental health prospects. For Metzler, it starts on a very basic premise: that we love and embrace our kids as the person they know themselves to be.

"Giving kids hope that they're going to be OK is the most basic thing that we can provide children to help them not feel like they need to commit suicide to solve their problems," she says.

14. Require Empathy
Empathy isn't necessarily innate. It takes extra effort to empathize with someone who's different—their unique struggles can seem alien and abstract compared to one's own. As a result, we can fall into a habit of diminishing the suffering of others while we dwell on our own peculiar brand of suffering. It's the kind of thing that could happen if we exist in a "bubble," the thin walls of which find reinforcement from like minds and like lives. In short, the smaller our world becomes, the smaller our sense of empathy can be.

Empathy makes us happier, healthier humans—really, it does. A 10-year study published in 2015 of kindergartners' behavior concluded that a child's early ability to be cooperative with peers bodes well for their functionality and success in adulthood. Yet empathy is on the decline in America. Another study five years earlier found that college students had 40 percent less empathy than their counterparts from just a few decades ago.

Local political organizer Madalena McNeil believes a collective lack of empathy is one of the biggest roadblocks to her ability to rally civic engagement.

"My big thing with political involvement is that so many people wait to get involved until they are personally and directly experiencing a negative impact from an issue. That's not enough to change the world," she says.

To instill more empathy, McNeil would like to see our school systems add empathy-training to the curriculum.

"In SLC specifically, it would make a huge difference in terms of how we treat low-income folks and people experiencing homelessness; how we respond to and act out racism, sexism, xenophobia and even how we treat people who are struggling with something minor," she argues.

Empathy training for children isn't uncharted territory: Denmark's emphasis on teaching empathy from a young age has garnered praise. And lest we forget that Denmark is, according to the U.N., the happiest place on Earth (sorry, Disney World).

When it comes down to it, if you want things to improve in your community, McNeil contends that you need to care about the people who live there first.

"Once you know another person's fears and struggles, it's really difficult not to want to help them," she says.

ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

15. Burn the Flag
Let's go back to 2004, when Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson decided that the city's flag was too old-fashioned for Salt Lake City. (A city on the rise!) The flag at the time had a white background with an illustration of pioneers, covered wagons, seagulls and the phrase "THIS IS THE PLACE" scribbled above the city's name. Anderson wanted something with more contemporary pizzazz, something that depicted "the growing diversity and vibrancy of our city," as he put it.

So, his office issued a call for submissions. After a yearlong process, more than 50 entries from designers all over the world were painstakingly narrowed down to three choices for the city council's consideration. When the three alternate flags designs were unveiled to the council, however, they were greeted with the same enthusiasm one might show for a regifted scarf. Thus, they did what any curmudgeonly coterie of implacable bureaucrats would do: They formed a subcommittee to do all the work for them.

A year-and-a-half later in October 2006, we got the dangling travesty that we all recognize today.

Salt Lake City's municipal flag is a banner of irredeemable sadness and shame. The two primary background colors—green on the top half and blue on the bottom—are swatches that were previously only available in conference center carpet patterns and default Windows 95 desktop wallpapers. But, just like the human buttocks, the center is the flag's most feculent part. The pitch-black silhouette of what vaguely resembles Salt Lake City's profoundly unremarkable skyline is set against an anonymous green mountain range, which cannot possibly be the Wasatch Mountains because the Wasatch Mountains are only ever slightly green between May 22 and 29. And then the coup de gross: White, bold, all-caps letters reading "SALT LAKE CITY" are emblazoned across the silhouette with all the forced presence and misplaced chutzpah of a frat boy's Axe Body Spray.

Needless to say, this flaccid flap of iniquity needs to be burned at the pole. It's high time for a new city flag, one that doesn't feature meaningless symbols and colors with the city's name blasted all over it. Our fair city deserves an elegance and simplicity to its proud banner, something that evokes our shared sense of place and community without drawing a crude picture of it. We need such a flag and we need it now. At this critical turning point, Salt Lake City can hardly afford to languish in inaction. It is for this reason that I am prepared to propose a bold new initiative. We must dare to ask the tough questions and stroll confidently outside the box for solutions to our flag crisis. We need to look the truth dead in the eyes and say:

I propose a subcommittee!


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About The Author

Ryan Cunningham

Ryan Cunningham

Bio:
This Salt Lake City-based writer and bareback equestrian has served as a reporter, producer and host for Utah Public Radio and KCPW, covering everything from Mars research to the Utah Legislature. He will eat those breadsticks if you don’t want them.

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