YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Cover Story

Judgment at Salt Lake

As the World Peers In, the Hosts of the Winter Olympics Are Taking a Hard Look at Themselves.

November 25, 2001|DAVID WHARTON | 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."

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.

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."

Los Angeles Times Articles