It is 6:30 a.m. and a clutch of people is already assembled. Two more, shabbily dressed, totter across the street and join the assemblage; a man on a bicycle stops and asks me for a cigarette, or change for a cup of coffee, peddles away, circling me twice in a wide berth before joining them. He straddles the bike and stares at me. The rest of the group is sitting, idly chatting. Bicycle-man’s glare, I admit, is a bit unnerving, but only slightly. Even though it is clear that this small party is not a collection of students waiting for class, this all seems harmless. Or is it?
There is a growing concern among residents of Liberty Wells (a neighborhood stretching from 900 S. to 2100 S. and State St. to 700 E.) about this constantly changing—albeit constant—crew that nests all day long on the border of Salt Lake Community College South City campus and the McDonald’s on 1533 South State. A perceived rise in drug, prostitution and theft activity have them worried not only for their neighborhood and personal safety, but for the well-being of the students that attend the campus.
Valerie Vaughn, Chair of Liberty Wells Community Council, says there has been a rash of burglaries in the area. “Most stemming from the motels on State Street and rentals on 200 East 1340 South,” She said. “Police are aware of the situation and have been patrolling… [but the] campus is big and does not have a proper security force.”
Deputy Chief of Police, Joshua Scharman, says that the authorities are absolutely aware of this particular problem area. “Our Organized Crime Unit (Vice) has made 19 arrests related to prostitution,” he said in a recent interview. “Several narcotics arrests have also taken place.”
Montague has also seen an uptick in theft, mostly bicycles, tools and easy-to-open vehicles. “But I’ve seen a huge increase in prostitution and drug dealing,” he said, footnoting that he has been proffered for prostitution more than once in just a few months, and has been approached with drugs. “Everything from heroin and cocaine to weed, just walking over to the McDonald’s parking lot, right in front of the school… I believe that a higher police presence would help. But as soon as the police are gone the riffraff return,” he said. “They need to go in and shut down the motels. It’s something that needs to happen. These motels breed the things that we would like out of this community.”
It seems that the theories of these particular motels and rentals are more than just that. “A narcotics search warrant was recently served at the Wasatch Inn,” Deputy of Chief Scharman said, adding, “We are hopeful that the arrest of that very active dealer will have a positive impact on the neighborhood.”
To Vaughn, the fix will be realized with group effort. “With the police starting to pay more attention, which they are, and our neighborhood watch… will be the biggest deterrent of theft, [and] the prostitutes in the area would probably clear out [once] something is done with the motels,” she said. “And we will see an end to the takeover that has happened in our neighborhood.”