Still the Place: Salt Lake City

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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Still the Place: Salt Lake City


Fish, Peter, Sunset


TO UNDERSTAND SALT LAKE CITY, YOU COULD DO WORSE than visit Temple Square on a Sunday morning. You will not be alone. Young parents push strollers beside visiting dignitaries and camera-draped tourists, all making their way to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's concert. Outside the Tabernacle, a half-dozen smiling young women announce the start of the next Temple Square tour, each lifting a placard to indicate the language she speaks: German, Swedish, French, Chinese. Above them, atop the Mormon Temple's granite spire, the Angel Moroni--all 1,500 gold-leafed pounds of him--blasts his trumpet toward the east, where almost 150 years ago, Brigham Young and his band of Latter-day Saints filed out of the Wasatch Mountains to this, their new home. It is no ordinary city, the City of the Saints. It occasionally fools you into thinking it is, but something always sets you straight. That view of Moroni, perhaps, or a series of children's books displayed at a local store--Holy Cities of the World: Rome, Jerusalem, Benares, Mecca, Salt Lake City.

Yet change--big change--has come to Salt Lake City. As Utah marks its centennial and Salt Lake approaches the century-and-a-half mark, the city is suddenly hot. New residents are pouring in, and the city has been awarded one of the sporting establishment's most glittering trophies: the 2002 Winter Olympics. The world is discovering what Salt Lake residents have always known. To paraphrase Brigham Young, this is the place, or at least a very special one.

PAST AND PRESENT SALT LAKE

"I had never been west of Chicago," Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini recalls. "I came out here my sophomore year of college. I saw the mountains and canyons and fell in love."

It is a common reaction to an incomparable setting. Salt Lake City spreads at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, which rise to 11,000-foot peaks directly east of the city. To the west, the Great Salt Lake shimmers like a mirage, and the dry Oquirrh Mountains announce the start of the Great Basin. It is a landscape to inspire great historical drama.

Which it did. On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young stood at Emigration Canyon and said, at least in legend, "This is the right place, drive on." It had taken Young and his 142 Latter-day Saints three months and 1,300 miles to reach the Salt Lake Valley. Before that, the Mormons had endured a decade of persecution across the Midwest by non-Mormons enraged over their religious practices, which included polygamy. The Salt Lake Valley was not the original site for the City of Zion--that had been Jackson County, Missouri. But it had the advantage of lying far from lynch mobs.

"Brigham Young had a vision," says Utah historian Allan Kent Powell. "Salt Lake would be the center of a self-contained commonwealth." The valley was arid, but its soil rich: drawing water from the Wasatch, the Mormons made the desert bloom.

Young's legacy remains apparent today. Working from a plan called The Plat of the City of Zion, he mapped a city for the ages. Salt Lake's blocks are a vast 10 acres apiece, and its streets are broad: 132 feet, with 20-foot sidewalks. (The celestial scale has its drawbacks, notes University of Utah architectural historian Peter Goss. "When temperatures hit 100 or so in July, it's a long walk across hot pavement from one block to the next) Streets are ordered by their distance and direction from Temple Square. Stand at the Brigham Young Monument at Main and South Temple streets--0 East, 0 West, 0 North, 0 South--and you feel you've arrived at the center of the universe. This was, perhaps, the point.

Salt Lake City is only about half Mormon today, but the church's influence is strong. As a major property owner, it has helped ensure that downtown remains inviting to visitors. So far, Salt Lake hasn't undergone the skyscraper boom of, say, Denver, "possibly to our advantage," notes Goss. But under the church's watchful eye, the area around Temple Square is busy, safe, and pleasant.

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