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Judgment at Salt Lake

David Wharton's last story for the magazine was about the University of Oregon football program

The first story about Salt Lake City comes from long ago, before there was much of a city, mostly just a salt lake. It was 1847 when the Mormons arrived in this high valley, magnificent for its sheer mountains, but desolate save for bunch grass, occasional cottonwood and breezes that carried a stink off the water. A place no one else wanted. The settlers figured they had moved far enough from the civilized United States to proclaim a new Zion, to make their own laws and keep multiple wives in accordance with their faith.

They were wrong.

Twice the federal government dispatched soldiers to this frontier settlement of the controversial Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The first time, in 1857, the faithful escaped to the mountains, leaving the Army to march through a ghost town of meticulous homes and gardens in bloom. A few years after the Mormons returned, fresh troops set up camp on a nearby plateau. While other military outposts in the West guarded telegraph lines and protected settlements, this fort pointed its cannons toward the city. The commanding officer, Col. Patrick Edward Connor, made no secret of his contempt for “a community of traitors, murderers, fanatics and whores.”

Today a few of Connor’s old barracks remain, faded timber and sandstone preserved as a museum. They seem merely a footnote, a historical quirk in the shadow of a now thoroughly American city, with all those glass office buildings, shopping malls and streets filled with traffic. Yet, in some ways, not much has changed. As one local puts it: “We have a history of feeling unliked.”

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One hundred and forty years after Col. Connor scorned its residents, Salt Lake City awaits another onslaught of suspicious outsiders. The 2002 Winter Olympics are coming in 75 days.

Make no mistake. The people of Salt Lake--as they call their home--want a chance to show off the skyline and the postcard Wasatch Mountains. They want to prove they have come of age. A skeptic might say they want it badly enough to have slipped more than $1 million in secret cash and gifts to Olympic dignitaries, which ignited an international sports scandal. Still, for all their hopes, the residents of Salt Lake fear they will not be taken seriously. “We’ll be featured, profiled, photographed and dissected by every media outlet in the world,” wrote the Deseret News, one of the city’s two major newspapers. “At some point they’ll mention Donny Osmond. We’ll emerge as caricatures of ourselves.”

Start with a mental snapshot of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, row upon row of freshly scrubbed faces. Put them in a city where it is supposedly difficult to procure a cocktail and even harder to find a decent restaurant. Then add a few cogent facts: a predominant religion that forbids caffeine, a recent polygamy trial that made national news, downtown avenues whose width was determined by the 132 feet required to make a U-turn with a team of oxen. How difficult can it be to dismiss a city that leads the nation in per capita consumption of Jell-O?

This caricature is a joke, the locals say, a tired stereotype that ignores a population boom from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south, a metropolitan sprawl of 1.7 million. Boosters point to signs of change: people of color on the streets, lively cafes and bars, a thriving high-tech industry and a vibrant civic arts center. The city’s population is now less than half Mormon. “The idea that, somehow, this is a monochrome culture is overdrawn,” says Dean May, a University of Utah professor who writes about the region.

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So wherein lies the truth? Where between the Jell-O and the civic arts center might we settle on a reasonable description? This city, like any other, is too enigmatic to pin down with facts and figures. Better to search for clues in tales of ordinary people--best friends, cops, a housewife--caught between the two images of their hometown, the old ways and notions of a diverse, urbanized future. Even as the world peers in, they are taking a hard look at themselves.

If you want to know Salt Lake, let the people tell their stories.

Old Friends

Calvin Johnson is the stocky one, balding, gregarious. John Summers stands tall, angular and quiet. A bit like Laurel and Hardy, they say. They haven’t the slightest idea why anyone would be interested in them, yet they agree to lunch at a cafe where their reticence soon gives way to reminiscing, recounting tales that only childhood pals can tell. They talk of exploring old mines in the hills, venturing into the darkness with torches made of sticks and rags and the time they fashioned a miniature hot-air balloon and nearly set fire to a neighbor’s roof. Now in their 50s, they remain close but acknowledge that the relationship has grown complicated. Summers is a bishop in the Mormon church, while Johnson turned away from the religion years ago. As Johnson explained in an earlier conversation: “Here I am, an infidel to him.”

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It is impossible to separate Salt Lake from Mormonism. This is the home of a religion that has been controversial ever since its founder, Joseph Smith, proclaimed that a band of Hebrews journeyed to North America around 600 BC and that, centuries after their extinction, an angel named Moroni showed Smith where to find their lost history and spiritual message imprinted on gold tablets, buried on a hill in western New York. Some 180 years later, the faith has 11 million members who have traditionally referred to themselves as “saints,” and all others, including Jews, as “Gentiles.” In Salt Lake, “the church” occupies more than three square blocks of prime downtown real estate, and church leaders had the clout to transform part of Main Street into a plaza for religious statues, much to the frustration of commuters. It is difficult to listen to radio or watch television without encountering an advertisement for mission clothes or religious books.

“Everyone has to define themselves vis-a-vis that power,” says Jan Shipps, a scholar who studies the culture. But the definition grows trickier each day. Minority communities of Hispanics, Asians and, to a lesser extent, African Americans now compose almost 14% of the county populace. Catholic and Protestant congregations are thriving, prompting some old-time Mormons to complain about losing control of their hometown. A dozen blocks from Temple Square, professor May--a church member--lives on the same street with two lesbian couples and a non-Mormon neighbor who was recently overheard cursing about Mormons from his front porch. “This has been a period of rapid growth,” May says. “People are working out neighborly accommodations.”

Johnson and Summers represent the struggle. Not that they acknowledge this. To them, their story is too personal.

There was a time when they drifted apart, Johnson says, when he took up sports in high school and began hanging around with jocks. Then a routine surgery left him paralyzed from the waist down and his new friends stopped coming by. He recalls sitting in a wheelchair on his front lawn and seeing his old buddy drive up. “Let’s go,” Summers said. Their friendship was rekindled while they tore around town in a ’57 Plymouth.

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And one more thing: They stopped going to church. Johnson simply stopped believing; Summers was more conflicted, jostled by feelings of teen rebellion in an era of the Vietnam War and hippies. A year passed, then another. Summers read Bertrand Russell and considered other religions. One day he prayed and “felt a wave breaking over me, an actual physical sensation.” As fate would have it, Johnson and another pal came by that night and Summers stopped them in the driveway to announce that his hippie days were over. He was returning to the church.

“I thought I would lose my friends,” Summers says, and in many cases, he did. It was Johnson’s turn to come around. Another phase of their relationship began, one that now requires patience. Johnson, an Abstract Expressionist painter, would like to see more of his friend but knows he comes second to the church. Whenever Summers is not selling commercial heating equipment, he usually is ministering to the people of his ward, or congregation. He knows that not everyone in his church would be understanding of a friend who turned away from Mormonism--a practicing Buddhist, no less. “It’s nice for me to have someone outside the church I can talk to,” Summers says. But it pains him that he cannot share his faith with someone so close. “I am very sad,” he says. “I certainly keep hoping.”

Religion is the one subject that quiets their lunchtime chatter and causes them to glance down at their plates. It hovers between them, perhaps in the background, but always there. Johnson says quietly that he has no intention of returning to the church.

“Still,” he says to his friend, “we sit together.”

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Summers smiles a little. “We’ll deal with it later.”

The Counselor and the Columnist

The defense attorney blows into court on a somber morning, cracking jokes with the clerk, whispering not-so-softly to the prosecutor. Within minutes, he has secured a plea bargain in a drug possession case and is tugging his young client out to the hall. “The cops don’t like you,” he says within earshot of several police officers who are milling about. “They’re going to be watching, so you’d better not screw up.”

Ron Yengich is Salt Lake’s best-known criminal lawyer with a history of high-profile clients--people accused of everything from polygamy to letter bombing. What’s interesting is not so much what he does as how he does it. As a younger man, he wore his hair long and tossed out comments about “religious crackpots.” Now, at 51, he favors a shaved head, goatee and stylishly monogrammed cuffs.

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“I live my life out loud,” he says

. Yengich was born into the role of outsider. He was raised in nearby Bingham Canyon, a town of Serbs, Greeks, Italians and Mexicans who worked the copper mines, people whose sense of otherness was such that they commonly referred to the Mormons as “those white people.” Like many natives who grew up outside the church--he is Roman Catholic--Yengich recalls school assemblies that ended with prayers and classmates who were not allowed to play with him.

“Growing up with that cultural viewpoint, you learn where the borders are,” he says. So his style is confrontational and rarely edited for public consumption. He clashes with the Mormon hierarchy by supporting the rights of the gay community and opposing capital punishment. He battles the State Liquor Commission in a place where restaurant patrons must purchase a membership, usually $5 for two weeks, to order a drink with dinner.

“Listen, we have a Legislature that, in my judgment, is still sitting in the 19th century,” he says. “So, yeah, I like to think I’m pushing the line.” The reaction has been predictable, ranging from icy stares at social events to death threats over the telephone. After all these years, it’s still hard to figure what a guy like Yengich is doing in Salt Lake.

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At first glance, the city seems to live up to its colorless reputation. The church offers little outward spectacle beyond the finial spires of Temple Square, the golden statue of Moroni blowing his trumpet. Ward houses, built every few blocks according to standardized plans, have the sparse look of medical office buildings, and the faithful tend to dress modestly. Last summer, a suburban mom complained about a “lewd and sexual” advertisement in the window of a Victoria’s Secret lingerie shop and a poster that was appearing in malls nationwide. Her complaint made the evening news and the display was removed.

Professor May, who wrote “Utah: A People’s History,” says the culture of conformity remains, in large part, from an era when Mormons were persecuted and banded together for survival. “The community is more highly prized than the individual,” he says.

But these days Yengich is joined by unexpected allies.

Gordon Monson fits the Mormon stereotype. He’s fair-haired and unfailingly polite, possessing the requisite large family: five girls. He and his family moved to Salt Lake from Los Angeles nine years ago, excited about living in their Zion but wary of the reputation that “everyone walks in lock step, everyone acts the same.”

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One of the first things they did was shop for a house in a diverse neighborhood because, he says, “we didn’t want to look at our neighbors and see ourselves.” Starting a new job as a sports columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, he introduced himself to readers by criticizing a local icon, Karl Malone, who plays forward for the Utah Jazz basketball team. It was the kind of column that Monson, a former Los Angeles Times writer, suspects would hardly have raised an eyebrow in L.A. But in Salt Lake, readers reacted with a storm of angry letters and calls.

“That’s when I learned there are a lot of people who don’t like discord,” he says. “They want everything to be pretty and nice.” The reaction made Monson, 44, even more determined to prick the notion of Salt Lake as a cloistered society. Within the sporting world, his column and daily radio show are now seen as contrarian; some complain that he is controversial for controversy’s sake. He is also known to goad family and friends at gatherings. “I will lob out a hand grenade because I love the discourse,” he says. “And I have the scars to prove it.”

But Monson insists that there are other “free-thinking Mormons,” and cites the debates that erupted when church members succeeded in closing public pools on Sundays in nearby Provo and Farmington. “That was a real point of frustration, and I’m talking about Mormons versus Mormons,” he says. “There are the zealots who created the liquor laws, who take an ecclesiastic law and try to make it political law, but not everyone is like that.” A shift is inevitable, he believes, an almost mathematical result of newcomers flooding into the area, be they immigrants, non-Mormons, converts or people like him--church members raised elsewhere.

Still, as May notes, “cultures are really hard to change.”

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This is the battle the counselor and the columnist wage. They have never met, and are acquainted only in the way public figures know vaguely of each other. But they are pushing for similar visions--tolerance for diverse thought--in a city they both profess to love. In a way, they need each other. Yengich explains: “You know your voice is not the only voice being heard.”

The Partners

On Salt Lake’s Westside, the Tongan and Samoan gangs don’t fight over drugs or turf. They just fight. They walk into a restaurant and beat a man nearly to death when he looks at them funny. They steal a six-pack of beer from a convenience store and, when confronted by the clerk, open fire. The cops on the Metro Gangs detail have learned to recognize the pattern.

“A propensity for violence,” Det. Brady Cottam says. His partner, Det. Saul Bailey, adds: “Other gangs use them to collect on drug debts.”

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It was several years ago that Cottam, Bailey and other members of their detail began investigating a string of robberies by gangs such as the Tongan Crips, Baby Regulators and Samoans in Action. Their work took them down streets of drab houses and muffler shops and burger joints. No one would talk, not victims or witnesses. Flashing a badge got them nowhere. Bailey wasn’t surprised. The 31-year-old grew up in Washington, D.C., where four of his friends were gunned down after graduating from high school. His brother already lived in Salt Lake, and he soon followed, despite the fact that he would be one of a few blacks in the community. Although he moved to escape the gangs, the experience of his youth had marked him, eventually making him want to become a cop. Cottam, on the other hand, is blond and Mormon, just old enough at 27 to recall his hometown as a place where people lived “in the old style of not locking our doors or our cars.”

Salt Lake was every bit as safe as its reputation until the early 1990s, when annual drive-by shootings suddenly increased from less than a dozen to more than 200 countywide. That number pales in comparison to, say, the city of Los Angeles, which had more than 1,300 drive-bys last year. But the mere presence of gang violence was a jolt to residents, and even some cops were startled when population growth brought offshoots of Chicago and Southern California gangs. “We may not have as many gang members as other cities, but our guys do all the same things,” Bailey says. “Shootings, homicides, narcotics.”

Pacific Islanders are of particular concern to Salt Lake police. With many of them immigrating to Utah as Mormon converts, they represent about 1% of the county’s population but account for 11% of documented gang members. At the state Office of Pacific Islander Affairs, director Bill Afeaki speaks of proud, honest homes where parents work two or three jobs while teenagers are left alone, suffering from culture shock and struggling in school. Many times, the elders either don’t realize their kids are in trouble or insist upon dealing with the situation themselves. Thus the code of silence. At the Vai Ko Latai restaurant, where talk flows freely among men who have pulled their chairs outside to the afternoon sun, everyone clams up when a visitor mentions gangs. A few blocks away, at the Sorenson Multicultural Center, teenagers are reluctant to talk about robberies and beatings on their block.

Into this realm stepped Cottam and Bailey, looking young for their ages, dressed in jeans and expensive sneakers, sometimes blaring rap music from their unmarked car. “You get a 300-pound Polynesian on crystal meth, it doesn’t get any worse than that,” Cottam says. “You can’t play that old game of ‘I’m the cop and what I say goes.’ ”

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They had to find a new game.

It took time to understand that some of the violence among Tongans and Samoans could be traced back to South Pacific rivalries. The partners discovered that gangs in Salt Lake often formed as clans of brothers, cousins and nephews, which meant an attempted homicide suspect could stay one step ahead of police by moving from house to house within his extended family. Most important, Bailey and Cottam learned how to approach the people.

“Their home is sacred,” Cottam says. “You have to treat them with respect.”

Witnesses must be coaxed, cases built slowly. Not so long ago, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy tried to stop some gang members from shoplifting and wound up in a hospital for three days. Patrolmen sometimes chide the partners for being soft on the gangs and their relatives, but Bailey says: “If we got in their faces, we’d never solve a single crime.”

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No one expects the violence to end any time soon. Some nights, Bailey and Cottam try to explain this to a church group or Neighborhood Watch meeting, usually on the Eastside, where residents still believe their streets are safe at night. The partners have the routine down pat. The punch line comes when they show a videotape that was confiscated in a recent arrest: Gang members recorded themselves firing a semi-automatic weapon at a rival’s house. The audience always asks the same question:

“What city is that?”

Cottam snaps the answer. “Hey, this is your city.”

The Past and Future

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Salt Lake people are not shy about saying their ancestors “came across the plains.”

“It’s goofy, but it means they came before the railroad,” Charlotte Pratt explains. “They walked or drove a team of oxen.” Pratt is a 43-year-old mother of five, the wife of an attorney, a ski instructor in the winters and, like many natives, she talks about the birth of her city as if it happened yesterday.

The story begins with Joseph Smith being shot to death by a mob as he sat in an Illinois jail, accused of ordering the destruction of a local newspaper. The Mormons, who already had been chased from various Midwestern states, headed for a distant valley that scouts had told them about. The journey took months by foot and cart, the people besieged by illness, finally pushing through a brush-entangled pass in the Wasatch and coming upon a vista that made some of them want to keep going.

“Most of the people were from New England, from lush, green country,” Pratt says. “To be told by their leader they were stopping here, I’m sure it was a great disappointment.”

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Their leader, Brigham Young, had them plant potatoes and build brush dams to divert mountain creeks to the fields. He marked a central place for the temple, then laid out a series of 10-acre plots demarcated by those oxen-friendly avenues. “Turned the desert into a rose,” says Pratt, who grew up hearing the story over and over at family reunions. Among the settlers was her great-grandfather, Joseph F. Smith, a 9-year-old boy who drove a team of oxen across the plains. “On his own,” she says. “It’s kind of amazing.”

Other families have similar tales of a great aunt or third cousin, some blood connection to a pioneer spirit they say still burns in the veins, still drives this place where nothing survives unless you water and fuss over it. “We keep our yards clean and grow garden vegetables,” Pratt says. “When you drive into downtown, you see a well-kept city.”

Yet even the staunchest locals allow that time has wrought change. Suburban tracts now creep up the pristine mountainsides, traffic clogs the orderly streets and some people blame immigrants for glimpses of urban decay. As one older man scoffs, “If you like drugs and nude dancing and all that, you can find it here.” Only a mile or so from downtown, Salt Lake’s industrious, immaculate image dissolves into a stretch of abandoned warehouses and ghostly old loading docks, the rubble of dirt fields, men standing forlornly outside a homeless shelter.

This is where a relative newcomer has begun his crusade for the city’s future.

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Stephen Goldsmith hails from what he calls “a long line of Jewish cowboys” who moved from Virginia City to Fargo before settling in Salt Lake. It was the late 1970s when Goldsmith emerged from college as a sculptor, needing a home for himself and his artist pals. Where others saw blight, he saw cheap rent. The young man wanted to renovate one of the warehouses west of downtown and went to city officials requesting financial assistance. They instructed him to fill out the appropriate forms and attend the required hearings. After two years, they denied his request.

Bright-eyed, his beard neatly trimmed, Goldsmith tells his story from an office where he now serves as city planning director for the same municipal government that once turned him away. As “the first artist-planner ever,” the 47-year-old has embarked on a mission to get residents to embrace forgotten neighborhoods. He says: “I’m trying to tap into the culture of the founding fathers--it seems like a leap, I know.” But no more of a leap than his own transformation.

Not long after the city rejected him, Goldsmith got some advice: Politicians don’t want sob stories; they want to know what you can do for them. So he returned with a new pitch, telling city officials that artists could revive the Westside, drive out crime and attract new retail business. This approach got him community development grants and other aid that paved the way for the first Artspace building--a combination of living, studio and commercial space--to open in 1984. In a cruel twist, the city ruled it a conflict of interest for Goldsmith to live there because he headed the nonprofit corporation that operated the building. He was angry but too deep in the project to walk away. There was a waiting list of 300 people who wanted space and, besides, creating a new neighborhood felt like art.

Two more buildings opened in short order, attracting a handful of cafes and galleries on once-barren streets, making a dent in the squalor. For his efforts, Goldsmith received a Harvard fellowship to study urban design and housing issues. Upon his return, Mayor Rocky Anderson named him the new planning director in an announcement that was met with surprise and some skepticism.

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Now Goldsmith has moved beyond the notion of affordable housing, confronting the city’s very identity. Researching the history of the Westside, he came upon a time when it served as a small but vibrant multicultural community. He found an Italian family that ran a delicatessen in the 1940s and offered them a cheap lease to reopen. He hopes he can attract minority businesses and families, the kinds of people that some longtime residents either fear or resent.

Long gone are the pioneer days when Salt Lake could think of itself as an exclusive haven, he says. “This city has to come to terms with the way it’s growing.”

when the people of salt Lake tell their stories, they often begin by describing how things have changed or what their city might become in the future. They always end up talking about the past. Salt Lake is bound to its history, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the West.

History influences the relationships between Mormons and nonbelievers, the way native sons and daughters live beside immigrants, the way they all deal with crime and congestion. The more the culture gets stretched in different directions, the more it tries to draw back. Maxine Hanks, a local author, has a name for this tug-of-war: “colliding realities.”

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“People have to look for ways to connect,” she says. “How do we negotiate and renegotiate that every day?” Hanks tells a story of her own. She came here from Washington state two decades ago as a devout Mormon, a fifth-cousin to Joseph Smith. But she eventually grew disenchanted with the role of women in the church and began to write articles and books about the little- known history of feminism in the religion. For her efforts, she was excommunicated. “I became this weird, out-of-place thing,” she says.

Her tale is told at a back table in one of the new downtown restaurants, a bustling New York-style grill where customers pay $23 for a piece of honey-jalapeno glazed sturgeon. Picking over her food, Hanks speaks of depression and illness and fighting back. She has brought a sheaf of notes to go with her thick black hair, black clothes and silver rings, her voice straining with the urgency of someone who has swum against the current a little too long. “I’ve tried to leave a dozen times,” she says. “I’ve always come back.”

She wants to see how the story ends. “It’s one of the interesting things about this place. Interesting and sometimes engaging and sometimes frustrating.”

It is also too early to tell what shape this place takes. So forget the notion of the Olympics as a defining moment. For 2 1/2 weeks, the city will be awash in colorful bunting and corporate parties, fans in lederhosen ringing cowbells beside ski runs, anthems played jubilantly at medal ceremonies. How much room does that leave for analysis? Where is the complexity in a made-for-television shot of the snow-covered Wasatch?

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Salt Lake might be portrayed in only the broadest strokes, in reports on polygamy and the bribery scandal, in quaint features about a downtown where grain silos stand only blocks from the skyscrapers. Residents might come off as decent and wholesome, which, for the most part, they are. They might seem a little odd. Certainly they worry about what the world thinks of them, but, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

The Games will come and go. Then the people can return to the task at hand, the truly important work that gets done in some shape or form in every city. They can return to defining themselves.


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