Salt Lake's Struggle to Join World - on Its Own Terms ; Winter Games Spotlight City's Split Identity

By Mark Sappenfield writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Salt Lake's Struggle to Join World - on Its Own Terms ; Winter Games Spotlight City's Split Identity


Mark Sappenfield writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In 11 days, the world will come to Salt Lake City, not only to watch and enjoy, but also to judge.

This year's Winter Olympic venue is not, after all, some anonymous alpine hamlet like Lillehammer or Lake Placid. This is a sprawling city that, both friends and critics agree, is among the world's most peculiar - a place largely shaped by one faith since Brigham Young led his band of Mormon pioneers to a cleft in the Wasatch Range more than 150 years ago and proclaimed, "This is the right place."

Already, there are myths and misunderstandings: that polygamy remains common, that pubs are as scarce as palm trees, and that the town is whiter than a starched bedsheet. The truth is more elusive. Those who come next week will get a taste of it. But well after they leave, these Games will remain a marker of Salt Lake's mounting struggle to at once embrace the world and still keep it at a distance.

It is a thread that has run throughout the city's history. In its very origin, Salt Lake was a place apart for a persecuted faith, yet it has also always sought a prominent niche in the broader world - first through Utah's quest for statehood more than a century ago, and recently through its bid for the Games.

The result is a contested city, sundered by two often- conflicting views of its past and its promise. Ever since the Golden Spike was driven into the dusty earth 60 miles northwest, linking the East and West Coasts by rail, Salt Lake has been a polyglot community of missionaries and miners, priests and panhandlers - half Mormon, half non-Mormon.

To some, relations are as bad as they have been at any time since those early days, as newcomers swept in by Utah's burgeoning tech economy chafe under old traditions. To others, a new dialogue is emerging out of the diversity, bringing fresh ideas to complement sturdy values. At some level, however, Salt Lake's split is impossible to ignore.

"We really do have two different cultures living here," says Dean May, a historian at the University of Utah.

To be sure, the imprint of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints - as the Mormon Church is formally called - is ubiquitous. This is a place where many people identify where they live, not by neighborhoods, but by Mormon ward. Even the geography is a constant reminder of the city's roots.

All major avenues, for instance, are named according to their relation to the main temple - the road three blocks west of Temple Square is Third Street West. The downtown streets of this modest metropolis are as broad as New York thoroughfares - thanks to a founding decree that the streets must be wide enough for a team of oxen to turn around easily.

Yet there is also another - and often overlooked - Salt Lake. One that elected liberal Democrat Mayor Rocky Anderson, who recently toasted the city's diversity at a local nightclub's "Gay Night." One that has a higher cohabitation rate than the national average. One where brew pubs and coffeehouses serve as communal gathering places.

It is a curious mix that, historically, has been beset by no small amount of tension, as an ever-changing roster of new migrants continually tilts against the city's conservative heritage. That pattern is continuing today, some say.

The high-tech boom that reshaped America during the giddy 1990s did not leave Salt Lake untouched. Once locked in the vise of Utah's depressed resource economy, this city has become a hub for thousands of computer companies. They have helped make Salt Lake the US city with the second-fastest rate of new residential Internet hook-ups.

They have also left a substantial impact on Salt Lake's identity. Flocks of outdoorsmen and immigrants came on their coattails, drawn by the city's unparalleled access to world-class skiing and hiking, its new economic opportunity - or both. The attractions are obvious. …

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