Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Thirty-Four
by Brad Westwood
The Pioneer Park neighborhood has always been a contested space. Initially, the area was owned by Native Americans until Mormon (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Pioneers colonized the land. Since 1847, the region has been in constant transition as new and old residents and business interests have adapted to change.
The west side’s expanding industrial sector drew in new pioneers who emigrated from across the United States and from around the world, most of them seeking economic opportunities. The location’s history is complex as it includes migration, progress, opportunity, capitalism, industry, community building, crime, poverty, and impoverishment.
The Pioneer Park neighborhood is still known for its poverty. Because unskilled employment opportunities rarely pay a living wage, the west side continues to attract poverty-stricken populations, many who have turned to crime to improve their circumstances. The neighborhood’s reputation has resulted in much community hand wringing, as a succession of programs and solutions have fallen short of lessening, let alone solving, the neighborhood’s social ills. Today, policing, housing programs, mental health services, and social and health services have been put in place to aid the neighborhood’s homeless and impoverished people. With persistent effort and a more shared city-wide effort (dispersed homeless centers), the west side and its historic Pioneer Park can become an active, beloved urban asset, rather than a primary city and regional magnet for the region’s poor, addicted, mentally ill, and struggling.
The Pioneer Park neighborhood is continuously under scrutiny for its crime, police activity, corrective projects, and redevelopment proposals. What began with a single decision in 1870, to place depots and railroad yards in the west side, influenced the area’s long-term identity. With the area’s congested railroad yards and tracks, pollution, warehouses, and factories, along with a concentration of largely poor non-Mormon immigrants, the area became a central location for marginalized low wage workers. Unfortunately, desperate and impoverished people are often discriminated against, or taken advantage of, by industry and corporations.
In the past, one of the failed solutions was to restrict and contain unwanted behaviors. For example, during the mid-1990s, Salt Lake City police chief Ruben Ortega believed that Latinos/as from California were primarily responsible for illegal drug and criminal activity in the Pioneer Park area. As a result of his conclusions, he installed a tall fence around the park. Ortega believed that the fence, which was closed from sundown to sunup, would reduce drug activity, assaults, and murders, and keep the homeless from camping in the park. The wall and the curfew remained in place for a period of nine months. The policies established by Ortega had adverse effects on the city’s Latinx populations. Many felt targeted by police and unwelcome on the west side.
Homelessness has been a reality in Pioneer Park, and its surrounding neighborhood, for some time. During the last fifty years, the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area had only one homeless service area, which is located on the west side. These services draw the homeless to the Pioneer Park neighborhood. Many choose to remain when shelters, clinics, and other organizations close. The gradual renovations and rebranding of businesses on the west side, coupled with gentrification projects, have pushed homeless people from different areas and closer to those businesses that serve their needs. Consequently, many homeless people gather at Pioneer Park because of its proximity to the city’s homeless services.
Beginning in 2017, a multi-level government collaboration branded “Project Rio Grande” sought to enforce public safety and address Salt Lake City’s homeless crisis. Project Rio Grande attempts to enforce city and state laws by tackling drug use and crime and to rehabilitate offenders. The project also works to provide stable housing for the homeless.
Project Rio Grande participants have taken other approaches to address homelessness. For example, city and state officials have worked to address the homeless population. Recently, state troopers, Salt Lake City police officers, religious organizations, and public support services temporarily closed the streets surrounding the Rio Grande Depot to clean up the area. Many government and private entities including the Catholic Community Services, Shelter the Homeless, Volunteers of America Utah, and the State Homeless Coordinating Committee plan to build new homeless shelters scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley.
In essence, part of the legacy of the west side is to provide help to struggling and disadvantaged people. If the past is any indicator of the future, the neighborhood will likely continue to care for Salt Lake City’s neediest populations. The homeless are a historical community dating back at least to Salt Lake City’s first railroads. This community is worthy of society’s concern and respect.
The Pioneer Park neighborhood has a legacy of serving as a crossroads for pioneers who found economic and housing opportunities upon its landscape. Over time, the neighborhood has continued to adapt and change with its population, and we can expect it to continue to do so into the twenty-first century.
This blog series began with information about the inhabitants of the west side, beginning with Native Americans, and then Mormon Pioneers, and finally, the many immigrant communities that once populated the area. While many of these micro-communities have given way to new populations who have moved into the Pioneer Park neighborhood, remnants remain who find ways to interact with newcomers to the area. Everyone who lives, works, and plays in Salt Lake City’s original west side recognizes it as a multifarious place.
The west side has always been a place where different people and groups have interacted with one another in various ways. Religious groups, including Mormons, Catholics, Presbyterians and many others served the area’s residents. Many Mormon, and other immigrant pioneers, first settled on the west side before moving to other parts of the city and the state. The neighborhood has, for over a hundred and fifty years, been populated by “strangers” who chose the location to further their economic prospects. Historically, the majority of its residents occupied the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but each one contributed in some way to Salt Lake City’s social, economic, and religious culture.
Because of the neighborhood’s diversity and ability to adapt to changes, this woebegone, so-called “worst” of all Salt Lake neighborhoods, can serve as a model for other Utah neighborhoods who seek to be both economically and socially diverse.
We hope you have enjoyed Salt Lake West Side Stories so far. Stay tuned for future posts that will highlight the area’s complex past.
Would you like to read the next post (Post 35)? Redlining, Housing Segregation and Environmental Pollution in the Pioneer Park Neighborhood (and beyond)
Contributors: A special thanks to Jill Remington Love and Rick Graham for contributing to the contents of this post.
This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.
Taylor W. Anderson, “Downtown’s Pioneer Park to get a facelift with new multi-use field and lights,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 1, 2018.
Rick Graham, Interview with Brad Westwood, August 26, 2019. Notes in possession of the interviewer.
Calvin Jolley, “Commentary: Operation Rio Grande is driven by fearmongering,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 9, 2017.
Jill Remington Love, Interview with Brad Westwood, October 31, 2019. Notes in possession of the interviewer.
“Our Mission and Our History” Artspace (Salt Lake City).
Melinda Myers Vaughn, “Scary Neighborhood Now Hip Place to Live,” Deseret News, Sep 14, 1995.
Katia Pace, “Staff Report, Pioneer Park Alternations (Major Alteration – PLNHLC2017-01070) Salt Lake City Historic Landmark Commission,” February 1, 2018.
Matthew Piper, “’Operation Rio Grande’ launched near homeless shelter with arrests, big jump in police presence,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 14, 2017.
Doug Smith, “How Salt Lake City Upended the System to Use Police and Shelters to Fight Homelessness,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2019.
Ben Winslow, “The price tag for Operation Rio Grande? $67 million,” fox13now.com, August 28, 2017.
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