Salt Lake's struggle to join world - on its own terms

Winter Games spotlight city's split identity

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. Aside from the stunning scarps of the Wasatch rising to the east, Salt Lake remains a city with relatively little violent crime and a surprisingly varied arts scene.

After three decades of decline, Salt Lake grew by more than 21,000 people during the 1990s. The number of Hispanics alone nearly doubled from 9.7 percent of the population to 18.8 percent.

The infusion of new money and new worldliness has brought new shopping districts, filled with Restoration Hardwares and Pottery Barns, and a cosmopolitan variety of restaurants. It has also brought new challenges, as some newcomers - like the miners and loggers before them - find themselves at odds with Salt Lake's Mormon ethos.

"Salt Lake is a place where there is an enormous amount of tension," says John McCormick, a historian at Salt Lake Community College. Even as new groups assert themselves, "long-entrenched voices try to keep them on the margins."

The tension is most palpable in places like the coffeehouse on the corner of Ninth East and Ninth South, an area traditionally seen as the center of Salt Lake's bohemian scene. In truth, the intersection is no Greenwich Village. A nearby theater plays foreign and art-house films, and a few boutiques with colorful awnings frame the sidewalks. Yet the coffeehouse here seems almost as much a statement of independence as a place of business, given the Mormon counsel against smoking or drinking alcohol, coffee, or tea.

"If you were to sit here and listen for an hour, the anti-Mormon rhetoric would be overwhelming," says gray-whiskered Joe Hatch, who stops every Saturday morning to bring back breakfast for the family.

The lifelong Utahn, who has Mormon ancestors but is no longer active in the church, adds that this newest influx of migrants has inflamed the generations-old conflicts. "What I get from my parents and grandparents is that the division between Mormon and non-Mormon is more pronounced than it ever has been," he says, "and it's more focused on Salt Lake than it ever has been."

Leaning back in his chair, the middle-age Hatch has heard the gripes before. The Legislature is 90 percent Mormon. The governor is Mormon. All the state's Supreme Court justices are Latter-day Saints. They hold all the power and make all the laws - including the Byzantine liquor laws that make patrons buy a membership (usually $5 for two weeks) at every bar where they drink.

The differences, though, run deeper than politics. Being an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be as much a lifestyle as a religion. In addition to a three-hour service each Sunday, many Mormons participate in several church-sponsored activities a week, ranging from Boy Scouts to basketball. To some outsiders, this can often seem exclusionary.

"The joke is that [Mormons] will come over to give you a loaf of bread when you move into the neighborhood, and you'll never see them again," says Professor May.

When Gary and Karen Klc count up all they've done during the past week, they acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of their time is spent at home or at church functions. Yet both have jobs that help keep them connected with the non-Latter-day-Saint world.

Karen works at her old high school. When she went there, she knew only one person who wasn't white. Now, she sees a student body that is more than 40 percent racial minority - some are Mormon, many are not. Recently, one of her four blond-haired sons played on a local football team where "he was one of only four Caucasians, and the only towhead on the team," says Karen, "and he loved it."

For his part, Gary owns a smoke shop in Salt Lake - a place where few Mormons venture, and others feel safe in complaining about "what Mormons have done to them."

"They'll say, 'The Mormons down the hall tell me to quit smoking,' or 'They tell me I should try to live their way,'" he says.

Such comments are so common as to seep deep into public consciousness. Last month, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a special section chronicling the strained relations, headlined: "Unspoken Divide."

For several months, however, a new civic group called the Alliance for Unity has been trying to get people to do just that - speak. Member M. Russell Ballard, who is also one of the Latter-day Saints' governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, says relations are already better than they have been in the past. He notes that churches in Salt Lake are corresponding more frequently and fruitfully. But improving mutual understanding among citizens is key as well.

"If you have a problem, let's sit down and talk about it," he says. "We may agree to disagree,... but there ought to be more dialogue."

The Olympics will only heighten the need for such efforts, some say, as the outsiders become more aware of Salt Lake, and more likely to return. During the Games, for example, the church has said it is OK to tell curious visitors where they can buy a beer. "Something like the Olympics shows there's a pressure to change," says Professor McCormick.

Wendy Sorensen knows that. From her living room window, she can see the housing developments that have slowly crept up the Wasatch, filling with new Utahns. She's about as Old Utah as is possible. Her relatives have been in here ever since Young crested the Wasatch in 1847, and she can trace 28 ancestors to that original trek and subsequent wagon trains that brought settlers across the scrub and sand between Omaha, Neb., and Salt Lake on the Mormon Trail.

To her, the change is natural - part of the boom-and-bust cycles that her ancestors watched for generations. Salt Lake is not a Mormon fiefdom that should be reserved for the ancestors and spiritual kindred of those who plied the Mormon Trail. As the crossroads of the West, it has always been about "welcoming the world." She's even happy the Olympics are coming, despite early misgivings.

Sitting in her living room with her husband, Steve, surrounded by religious statuettes, family photos, and a painting of buggies on the Mormon Trail, she takes a longer-term view of Salt Lake's identity. It has always been bound to the values that those first pioneers brought with them, and that is something more than silicon or snowboards.

"Cultures come and go with different industries, and all have had some impact on our culture," agrees Steve. "You can change the limbs, but the trunk of the tree is the same."

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