It is, of all our cities, the most American and the least typical.
It stubbles the wide open spaces of the West, its signature landmark an off-limits temple. (Rising, rumors have it, above underground tunnels). Settled by pioneers, seat of apostles.
It is laid out in the standard grid system but, unlike all our other major cities, it retains a definable epicenter, an undisputed heart. There are metropolises like New York, with competing focal points, and sprawling conurbations like L.A. that defy the idea of a centralized hub.
But in Salt Lake everything revolves around Temple Square; it reigns like the deity in the middle of a Tibetan mandala painting. Numbered streets shoot out from it to the four points of the compass, linking the university to the east, the City and County Building to the south, the lake to the west, the State Capitol to the north. If your house is in the city, there's a good chance your address will tell you exactly how far, and in what direction, it sits from the square. It is to Salt Lake what Red Square is to Moscow and Tiananmen to Beijing, the only difference being that they are open expanses in historically closed societies, while Temple Square is the opposite.
As in other cities, buildings shrink as you move away from the center. ("No one builds anything taller than that," your local friend tells you, pointing to the 28-story office tower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that overlooks the square. "It's not against the law; it's just that it would be bad karma.") But in Salt Lake, this physical diminution is accompanied not by a decreased but a heightened sense of the workaday. For the closer you get to the city's heart, the more otherworldly the atmosphere becomes, until, entering the walled complex, you are met with the solicitous smiles of comely young missionaries and the piped-in hymns of the Tabernacle Choir. The village green as ethereal theme park.
In a nation of church-goers, Salt Lake is the only city in which it is impossible not to think about God. Here agnostics debate church doctrine, and columnists at the irreverent weeklies are well-versed in Scripture (which they use to skewer the "Zion Curtain").
It is the headquarters of the only major religion with American roots, which now does a good deal of its recruiting abroad. (Often the girl-next-door smiles you see in Temple Square are those of "sisters" from Germany, Brazil, Japan, Tonga.) A fact that puts the Church in the same category as two other important, if more accepted, national institutions: baseball and jazz. It is hard to imagine Ken Burns making a 10-part documentary titled Mormons.
BECOMING LESS MORMON
Just as the Latter-day Saints' membership has become less American, Salt Lake City has become less Mormon. Mormons now make up only 49 percent of the population. The current mayor, Ross ("Rocky") Anderson, is not of the Church, and is not afraid to take it on, as he has done over the issue of alcohol at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
The popular perception of Salt Lake is of a white (complexioned, shirted), sober, orderly, clean-cut, conservative, fecund, meat-and-potatoes town. And in some ways it still is. The streets are straight and wide and clean, displaying that inter-generational mix of ornate facades, despondent hulks and glassy towers, occasionally separated by vast no-man's-lands of parking lots. (Each block, as befits a downtown that began as farms, encompasses 10 acres.) The city is home to the state's first, and America's only, porn czar. On Sunday mornings, parents with children pass statues of parents with children on their way to Temple Square. ("All this misogynistic public art," a young woman who moved from the Bay area complains. "It just reinforces the idea that a woman's purpose is to produce babies." With a median age of 26.7, Utah has the youngest population of any state in the nation.) Last year, the legislature designated Jell-O as the official state food.
But increasingly, Salt Lake looks and acts like any other American city. Along the straight and true streets passes an impressively stamped and stapled young citizenry. "I've never seen so many tattoos and piercings," says a gay man from Pasadena, who adds that there is an S&M club, Blue, that denies men admittance if they're wearing cologne. There are at least three excellent microbreweries a 10-minute walk from Temple Square, and delicious seafood at the Market Street Oyster Bar, where the martini bar, on weekend nights, could serve as the setting for a scene from Sex and the City. It is said of a lawyer who frequents the bar of the Hotel Monaco that, "He went to Italy as a missionary and fell in love with Italy and out of love with the Church." A development that apparently is not uncommon.
The city has two mosques and three synagogues. (Jewish merchants were one of the first groups to arrive after the Mormons.) Over in west Salt Lake, where many Hispanics live, the 1854 house of polygamist shingle maker Nelson Wheeler Whipple now serves as the home of a small publishing house specializing in books on Mormon history that the Church would prefer never to see print. In Liberty Park, in the summer, a group pounds drums and smokes marijuana, getting little interference from the police. Downtown at Scallywag's Used and Rare Books, the rather impressive erotica section doesn't hide in a back corner, it blooms in the front showroom.
If unadulterated Mormonism is what you want, you live in Provo, not Salt Lake City.
And yet there is no denying the influence of the Church. People in Salt Lake speak of the "dominant culture" the way farmers in the Midwest talk about the weather. It is an inescapable part of everyday life. "The Mormons have never bothered me," your non-religious friend says, later admitting that when the Tabernacle Choir sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic his eyes "just tear up." But when you ask him if the governor is Mormon he replies: "Is the pope Catholic?"
"In America," a woman tells you in a private club, as if talking of a foreign country, "there's separation of church and state. Not here." While a grad student in bio-chemistry at the University of Utah, moved here from the East, says: "If you're going to live in a place that's dominated by a religious group, it may as well be the Mormons -- they're the nicest people."
The Mormon emphasis on family puts a dent in workaholism; at 5:05 every afternoon the downtown streets mechanically fill with commuters. (Some people believe this is a handicap in attracting Internet businesses, with their all-nighter mind-sets, but, considering the recent fate of dot-coms, that may not be such a bad thing.) And the love of offspring will give a homey touch to next year's Olympics, as athletes will find their university dorm rooms decorated with schoolchildren's art.
Church members, many of whom still speak a foreign language from their days as missionaries, will work as volunteers during the Games.
"Elders of the Church have encouraged people to volunteer," one member tells you. "The LDS Church is so organized, it's an easy thing for it to do." Though some non-Mormons worry about the proselytizing opportunities.
In Salt Lake you can go to your favorite restaurant and hear the waitress, a lapsed (or "jack") Mormon, complain that her sister puts little stick-em notes on her little brother's computer, asking, 'Would the Lord really want you to be doing this?' And then hear her marvel: "She went from being the most rebellious teenager to being Little Miss Mo Mo."
Journalists who move here from out of state are struck by the civility of the newsroom, not just at the Church-owned Deseret News, but at its competitor, The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's a very mellow place," says even the Bay Area woman, a reporter. "People here don't question authority. It's a Mormon attitude, but it trickles down to the rest of society." The grad student notes that in the lab, say, when an experiment you've spent months on suddenly goes bust, you have to watch your language. A forward for the Utah Jazz basketball team, David Benoit, respectfully wears an armband on his right biceps to cover a tattoo of a naked woman.
All of which makes Salt Lake very appealing to some people, a bit stifling for others. Yet most residents, gays and single women especially, appreciate the non-threatening streets, the relative sense of security. And Salt Lake has more professional performing arts groups per capita than any other city in the country, thanks, in part, to the Mormons' interest in culture. (It is because of their love of music that some people claim the city also has more pianos per household than any other.)
The new Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center houses two theaters and is home to two dance companies, as well as a piano foundation. This winter, a sign outside the theater showing Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler read: "This production contains: One smoking scene and gunshots."
But here's the thing: When the world of warnings and commandments proves too much, you can always look up at the unfettered peaks of the Wasatch Range, in which you can be cavorting, every outdoorsy Salt Laker will tell you, in less than half an hour. Or conversely, when the lewdness and hedonism of the growing metropolis get you down, there is always the angel Moroni, standing serene in gold leaf atop the tallest temple spire.
IF YOU GO: SALT LAKE CITY
Downtown's walkable, but you'll want a car to see the lake and the rest of the city.
I stayed at a wonderful place, the Peery Hotel (110 W 300 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101; phone 801-521-4300). Built in 1910 and on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel has a spacious lobby -- high ceilings, sofas, a piano, piped-in jazz -- and an adjoining restaurant where complimentary breakfast is served every morning. The surrounding neighborhood is lively at night, with microbreweries, fine restaurants and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (practically next door). The hotel is three blocks from Temple Square. Weekend rates start around $94.
A more up-scale option is the Hotel Monaco (15 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101; phone 801-595-0000). Weekend rates start around $109.
The Market Street Grill (48 West Market) has a big-city bustle, an attractive crowd and excellent seafood (in the Oyster Bar). For something more elegant, Bambara in the Hotel Monaco serves eclectic American cuisine. A downtown landmark on S. Main St. is Lamb's Restaurant.
Squatters, Red Rock Brewing Co., and Marmot Mesa (all near the Peery Hotel) are microbreweries with friendly atmosphere, great beer and surprisingly creative menus. A popular place for Mexican food is Red Iguana (736 West. No. Temple St.). Cafe Trang (818 S. Main St.) has delicious Vietnamese food.
Temple Square. Non-Mormons cannot enter the temple, but they can see the other buildings (the Tabernacle, Assembly Hall, visitors' center) with or without the eager, unimpeachable young female guides.
There are two ways to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: in rehearsal on Thursday evenings, 8-9:30; and during the weekly radio and television broadcast on Sunday mornings, 9:30-10. (Visitors must be seated by 9:15.) Both are free, and both take place in the Tabernacle.
Surrounding the square are the Museum of Church History and Art, the Family History Library (vast genealogical archives open to the public), the opulent new Conference Center, and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (formerly the Hotel Utah, with a still-grand lobby). A few doors down S. Temple St. you can visit Brigham Young's former home, The Beehive House, and that of his wives and children, The Lion House. For information, call 800-537-9703.
The Winter Games will take place in and around Salt Lake City Feb. 8-24, 2002. Opening and closing ceremonies will be held in Rice-Eccles stadium on the campus of the University of Utah in east Salt Lake. For tickets and information, go to www.saltlake2002.com or call 800-842-5387 (tickets only) or 801-212-2002.
Contact the Salt Lake City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 90 S. West Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84101-1406; phone 800-541-4955; Web: visitsaltlake.com.