Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Salt Lake City is not what you think it might be

Left: Salt Lake City-County Building.  This weekend is the Gay Pride Festival, and a "Gay Pride" flag hangs proudly in front of City Hall.

I used to say that DC is unique in that the entire world defines the city in terms of its role as the National Capital of the United States, so culturally everything must be about the Federal Government, the National Story and Mythology, etc.

That doesn't leave a lot of space and room for local Washington to be and to show and to do in a complementary and also independent fashion.

But Salt Lake City, the global capital of the Mormon Church, has the same problem.  If you haven't been there, you figure everything about the city must be tied into the Morman Church, which is conservative and also wealthy and very powerful.

As I discovered the first time I came here in March 2012, Salt Lake City is not just the Mormon Church.  It's a kind of capital of the Intermountain Region of the U.S., so people who want to leave their smaller cities like Boise or Billings and other places decamp to SLC.

With universities and an incredible outdoor experience, many others are drawn to the city as well.

The Mormon complex--Temple Square--is a key foundation of the City and a major component of the city's success.

For example, the only reason that the City Creek complex was built at the cost of a couple billion dollars was because of the financing of the Mormon Church, but in turn they invested in that location because it is across from Temple Square and they didn't want that part of Downtown to decline in the face of new investment elsewhere in the city and region.

But as the flying of the Gay Pride flag IN FRONT OF CITY HALL shows, cities have the power to redefine themselves, no matter what the rest of the world says or believes.

The flag is a really big deal.  In terms of what it says about a community, it's one of the most powerful statements I've ever seen by a local government.

The only other thing I can think of that is similarly powerful is the public art program of Tri-Met, the transit authority in Portland, Oregon.  When they built the Yellow Line light rail, they committed to including public art at each station that was relevant to the area and it's history.

The reason that is so powerful is because that area has some incredibly troubling history.  One area experienced a flood that killed many and displaced thousands of African-Americans who had come to the area to work in a steel plant during wartime.  They incorporated molds of found objects and this story into the art at the station serving that location.

Similarly, the Exposition Station serves the Expo Center, but that site was an internment camp sorting center for Japanese-American internment during World War Two.  The public art calls attention to that history.  In the piers for the gates, virulently racist headlines from the local newspapers of the time are reprinted as part of the reproduction of their front pages.

Expo Gates, Valerie Otani, Expo Center, Portland, OregonValerie Otani addresses the theme of Japanese relocation during World War II at the site of the 1942 Portland Assembly Center. Traditional Japanese timber gates strung with metal "internee ID tags" mark station entrances. Vintage news articles are etched in steel and wrapped around the gate legs. (The artist spoke to us on our tour. And the headlines of the newspapers included in the work were vicious and racist. )

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At 5:56 PM, Blogger kob said...

Interesting about the flag. Good for them.

Was in Salt Lake recently for a conference at the convention center. Nice area. Well thought out.

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll say one thing in defense of the LDS- they are very clean and you can just about perform surgery in the men's bathrooms on the interstate highways in Utah they are so clean. This is a very admirable trait and one that the rest of the USA should emulate. The LDS also have some quite beautifully designed buildings and they have NOT succumbed to the trash modernism so many other faiths have perpetrated all over the USA. They build things to last- the old fashioned way. They are presently putting up a Temple on 7th street s.e where and abandoned Drug Fair/Safeway used to be. It should be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Interesting, something that is not disclosed about City Creek in the discussion at the real estate conferences is what I mentioned, about their worry about the core of downtown declining by Temple Square, vis a vis other parts of the city led to their investment in it.

The people where I crashed on Saturday night, they made the point that the construction of City Creek during what was otherwise a very serious economic downturn buoyed SLC's economy when in other cities it was much much worse at the same time.

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