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A people's history of Downtown Salt Lake City. Story told by local merchants, a Historian a City Planner, and newspaper archives|| copyright 2007 Markosian Media

A People's History of Salt Lake City

last update: April 23rd, 2008
Downtown Salt Lake City 1957
Downtown Salt Lake City 1981

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How Main Street Was Traded for Wall Street

Interviews with:
tony weller
Tony Weller
Owner Zion Bookstore
john speros
John Speros
Owner Lambs Restaurant
bill Bennion
Bill Bennion
Owner Bennion Jewelery
tom warner
Tom Warner
40-year Downtown Merchant
richard wyrick
Richard Wyrick
Owner Oxford Shoes
Bart Stringham
Bart Stringham
Owner Utah Woolin Mills
Bart Stringham
Doug Dansey
Salt Lake City Planning Director
Bart Stringham
Alan Barnett

A few years ago, digging around in the Utah State Archives, I came across the Shipler Collection. Hard to miss if you ever visit the archives, the three generations of Shipler men chronicled the growth and developement of Salt Lake City from approx. 1860 to 1960. One photo in particular stood out from that collection, made me realize how different our lives are today then they were just 60 years ago. The photo is of hundreds of people gathered on Main Street Salt Lake City in front of the Deseret News building to listen to the World Series of 1942. Attached to the building, a loud speaker blared national radio annoucers calling the game. Beside the speaker a baseball diamond model lit up with small lights representing runners on base. Serious looking men in overcoats and top hats stood gripped in the action. All listening while they imagined what was happening 2200 miles away at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Now we stay home a watch on plazma screen high-definition televisions and get all the details, crisp and clear delivered witout ever leaving the comfort of the Lay-z-boy recliner. Main Street is a reflection of society. Today Main Street Salt Lake City is largely vacant. Priorities have shifted, people shop online, at K or Wal mart, shop or cost co. Private homes now are the center for entertainment, and goods and services are delivered with incredible ease and convienience.

The old days of close-knit community centers are now by-in-large gone. I was born long after people gathered to listen to a ball game in a street. Although I have no recollection of historic Salt Lake City, through these photos I feel a sense of nostalgia for a city with local shops, culture and home town charm. I know my ancestors lived and died in the city depicted in the Shipler Collection. Since first examining those photos I've wondered what happened to Main Street? Why were the buildings on Richard's Street and Regence Street demolished and built over? Why didn't they realize a good thing while they had it?

I couldn't help but notice how many incredible buildings had been razed in the name of progress and parking lots. Silver mining fortunes lined historic South Temple with mansions, many have been razed for larger apartment buildings or office buildings. The most striking changes in downtown, however, were from 1940-1980. During this forty-year period Main Street went from the city cetner-- offering culture, vibrancy and something for everyone. To a place void of street life, seedy, and lacking in a story to tell.

As the administrator of a website called Utah Stoires, readers might conclude I have an bias in this area. Indeed I do. I believe the value of a city is not in the available parking, vehicular convenience, or keeping up with the latest fads of retail commerce and development. The value I find from a city is in the story it offers. Structures that speak to events, paint a picture of a place throughout time. A living city offers bricks, stone and edifices whereby history and imagination fill in the gaps producing a living, breathing, collective entity. Historic buildings and old structures have sparked my curiosity to investigate these relics throughtout time. One conclusion I've drawn in my study thus far is: the souls and lives of the people who came before us, deserve respect in our landscape. In a confusing world where "sense of place" is deemphasized in an interconnected web of commerce, media and pop-culture; life gains depth and context when living entities of history are available to examine our own lives and our own time.

Treatment & Approach

Utah Stories is working on an on-going colaboration to better understand the history of Salt Lake City from those whose stories are most closely bound to the overall history of the city. Our goal is to produce a people's history of the city. Told not from dignitaries or from the most prominent figures, but instead from those who simply witnessed the events and have their own stories to tell that either corroborate or contradict the history we are familiar with. In this effort we have asked local merchants their take on the history of Salt Lake City in the past 50 years and their opinions on Salt Lake City moving forward with its current redevelopment in the City Creek Center.

Why Not Leave Well Enough Alone?

There are some who would prefer we not examine the past "Lets move on, forget the past and look to our the bright future of Salt Lake City." This is a sentiment from many who have critiqued my work in public forums such as MySpace and the Skyskraper Forum. Indeed, Salt Lake City has a very bright future to look foward to. Despite trends across the country, as of April 2008, the economic picture for Salt Lake is very bright. Construction projects are quickly changing our skyline and introducing a new urban lifestyle. Soon downtown Salt Lake City will offer a much more vibrant downtown city center with trails and transit and walkable destinations. Local art and locally grown food are becoming more accesable in Gallery Stroll and the Farmer's Market in Pioneer Park. Salt Lake City is an exciting city and in no way is my effort to undermine Salt Lake City as a place or the great promise it has.

Since begining this project Utah Stories and I have personally have been called anti-Mormon and bias in our treatment. This has happened despite my very best effort to present both sides. The history of my own family is very much a part of Pioneer history. My Great-Great Grandfather, Willard Richards, was the first editor of the Deseret News. Three other ancestors of mine came to Salt Lake City as Pioneers. I wish for this work to honor my Pioneer ancestors by seeking truth while doing so in manner than maintains complete objectivity. If this report seems one-sided in its current form, the ongoing treatment is based on the material and access to willing participants. Our attempts to gain access to those who defend the malls and beautification projects, thus far has been limited.

Speaking to Bishop David H. Burton's office, the manager and C.E.O of the City Creek development project, spearheaded by CCRI, I carefully explained that all the local-long-time merchants were eger to help in my project in talking about the previous rebuild of downtown 30-years-ago. However, I was denied an interview with not only Burton, but all of Zion Securities and CCRI representatives. They have refused to have a representative address the past and acknowledge the merchants who endured the past problems with beautification and construction projects in downtown. My hope is that this story is an even-handed presentation of facts, whereby the reader can draw their own conclusions.

Conclusions Drawn So Far (as of April 2008)

Merchants are enthusiastic about the City Creek Center project, and only hope their businesses can survive through the five year construction project. All the merchants we spoke to mentioned the incredible hardships they have endured in efforts to "save downtown." They spoke of beatification projects, sidewalk widening, Trax construction and the mistakes of closing of Richard's Street, to build the Crossroads Mall. According to all but two merchants we spoke to, these projects lead to the demise of Main Street Salt Lake City by missing the mark. The mark of great cities is their uniquness, stories and culture. The mark leaders have missed in their decisions has been in their lack of honoring culture and local retailers. Instead, from what we have gathered so far, uniqueness and culture (Main Street) was traded for tax revenue and economic potential through homogenous development projects (Wall Street).

Many thanks go out to the local merchants who granted us interviews. (they are all listed in detail (along with video interviews) on the downtown Salt Lake City page). Special thanks also goes to those working at the State Archives located in the Rio Grande Train Station. They were incredible in their help and interest. Alan Barnett's Seeing Salt Lake City is the best book ever produced on the Shipler Collection. We highly recommend it to anyone interested in geting the bigger-picture look at Salt Lake City's history.

The sentiment of unbridled excitement is expressed in every local Salt Lake City newspaper related to the current downtown Salt Lake City redevelopment project. All stories related to the City Creek Development, however, neglect to see any mistakes of downtown development projects of the past. In our interviews with local merchants, however, a picture is painted of neglect by city leaders. Newspaper archives from the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune also offer a story of how the South-end of downtown Salt Lake City faced a serious collapse after the completion of the downtown malls, causing most of local Salt Lake to close their doors on Main Street forever. According to local merchants, downtown Salt Lake City was once a thriving local district full of street activity and vibrancy. They told me because of the so called "beautification projects" during the late sixties and early seventies, locals were slowly killed off. Local merchants were the sacrifice of building 1.2 million square feet of retail mall space. Malls that were built to attract and entice national department stores.

The Big Picture

It would behoove us to mention that at the time the malls were built, Salt Lake City was already suffering a decline. The subruban shopping malls were greatly reducing the number of people coming to downtown. Its clear that Salt Lake City was a part of a larger trend towards the building of a suburban landscape and lifesyle that would change the shape and form of not only Salt Lake City, but nearly every urban landscape in the United States. The trade of Main Street for Wall Street was a national trend as economies were shifting to a national marketplace.

This makes for an interesting study as our economy has been rapidly shifting again (in the past 20 years) to a global marketplace. As a result many suburban shopping malls are being killed off by big-box department stores. Products from China and elsewhere have flooded the marketplace, making all of our textiles much cheaper and increasing our buying power. However, there are always unseen reprocutions when we tie our economies and purse strings ever greater distances. A world marketplace creates greater inter-dependence. What happens overseas has greater affects on our own economy. Our access and dependence upon products from every corner of the globe has no doubt made us all more wealthy. Protectionist efforts to inhibit global trade nearly always end in making the people they attempt to protect more poor. Global economic reprocutions are facinating, however too broad for the purposes of this study. Instead, we are focusing on the local economic impact. Eventually we would like to compare Salt Lake City's history with other cities and draw concusions for a deeper evaluation. For now, however, this history is on the people and their stories about Salt Lake City.

Economic History of Salt Lake City

The story of Main Street Salt Lake City demonstrates the economic repercussions when policy makers decide to favor corporate America and Wall Street over working in the best interests of local businesses and historic preservation. This history would be superficial in treatment if we did not work diligently to analyze what Salt Lake City gained by building the malls. In this effort we spoke to Doug Dansey, who has worked in the Salt Lake City Planning office for over twenty years. Dansey compares Salt Lake City to Denver. Salt Lake invited and entised corporate America Denver worked more in the spirit of preserving their downtown. His conclusion is Salt Lake City Planners made the right choices. As our work progresses, we also plan to interview some local economists to look at the history from a purely economic standpoint. Tony Weller (Owner of Sam Weller Bookstore) believes that with the shift to a Main Street full of Wall Street companies our local economy suffers because of the low wages and benefits corporations pay their employees, working more in the interest of their share holders. Secondly, Weller points out how corporations rarely use local service providers for advertising, payroll, printing etc. unless their corporate offices are located locally. Finally, Weller says, "It putting more of the local economic power in the hands of fewer and fewer people." The consequences- the rich become richer and the poor and middle-class have fewer opportunities to compete on a level playing field. In the coming months we would like to challenge assertions such as these and make every effort to paint a complete picture.

Conceptual rendering of the Downtown Salt Lake City City Creek Center. A very controversial element is the overhead walk-ways and sky bridge. Proponents say these bridges will maintain pedestrian flow throughout the new development. Those in opposition believe this plan will cause the new center to monopolize the buying public and take foot traffic off Main Street.

History Repeating Itself

Today, the pendulum is swinging back to where it came from. History is repeating itself as more people recognize that a "sense of place" and community are not provided from cities with shopping malls that contain all the same shops stamped out by corporate board rooms from far away.

This investigation shows that the vitality of Salt Lake City will ultimately come from Utahns and those who are intrinsically connected to the city, not outside "experts" and consultants who are deemed to be wise because they are corporate entities publicly traded on Wall Street. This investigation recognizes that businesses who are devoted and connected to Salt Lake City will ultimately provide what the city is lacking today.

Today, planners should let the pendulum swing back, offering small business owners a stronger voice in how the city is operated. Maybe this way once again local merchants will make a comeback in downtown so shoppers might recognize the name and face of shop attendants and vice-versa. The city rebuilding efforts also need to return to the past where residents weren't dependent on a car to live and work downtown. Planners are again beginning to recognize that cities and communities need to be designed more for people than for their cars. Finally, my hope in researching and writing this piece. I offer the same cliché of every historian: Lets learn from the mistakes of the past rather than ignore and repeat them, and lets allow history and the voices of the past to speak for themselves rather then rewrite history to fulfill an agenda.

This is on-going historical study, that will eventually become a book and documentary film. If you or a family member have some interesting stories about downtown Salt Lake City and the history in the past 50 years, we would like to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected].