Economic Immigrant Communities’ Impact on Salt Lake City

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Twenty-One
By Brad Westwood

The arrival of later economic immigrants, from across the United States and around the globe, to Utah and the Pioneer Park neighborhood, created conflicts with the Mormon Church’s (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons) all-encompassing societal ideal.

This post was updated in February 2023.

Salt Lake’s west side was considered one of the poorest and rowdiest neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley. With a large population of immigrants who lived alongside transportation hubs, industries and businesses, it is no surprise that the west side was a busy and impoverished area. Over the years, the Pioneer Park neighborhood also became a place for immigrants to develop a sense of community, economic autonomy, and establish a footing on their path towards citizenship.

Utah’s railroad and industrial sector became a “pull factor” that drew in tens of thousands of economic immigrants to Salt Lake Valley, the Wasatch Front, and to the Great Basin. Once they arrived, these new pioneers found themselves in the middle of a culture that was, in many respects, very different from any other region in the American West. Within the Territory of Utah, and especially in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) had shaped and dominated the political and social culture. When these other Utah “pioneers” pressed to follow national political, social and economic trends, the LDS Church resisted these changes, at first, insistent on maintaining their unique theocratic, one culture, stronghold.

Gradually, however, these diverse and varied economic immigrants, made up of thousands of industrial laborers, shopkeepers, businesspeople, investors and industrialists, brought with them networks of capitalism, investments, industry, retail goods and information which gradually changed Utah economically. Utah’s dominant culture, and even more so its church leaders during the second half of the nineteenth century, also evolved into avowed capitalists, but that’s another story. What did not change was the Mormons’ yearning for a world – a physical setting – that mirrored and aligned with their ideals. Gradually this meant that many members of the LDS Church, almost imperceptibly over the course of the twentieth century, moved and gathered elsewhere, beyond the center city.

The heart of Greek Town. These shops sat at 592 and 598 West and 200 South in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo taken in 1937 as part of the County’s Tax Assessor Records. Photo courtesy of the Salt Lake County Archives.

The west side’s predominantly non-Mormon and international population found that the majority of Utah’s citizens tolerated their existence in their city rather than accepted them as equals. Historian Phillip F. Notarianni observed that Utahns “have always been highly ambivalent about how much they value people from other cultures” they have also debated “about whether diversity is a strength or weakness.” Because of the love and dedication in telling the Mormon story in Utah, Utah’s diverse non-Mormon immigrant experience has frequently been undervalued or ignored. Thankfully, during the last fifty years historians including Helen Papanikolas, Philip Notarianni, Ronald Coleman, Larry Gerlach, Greg Thompson, Michael Homer, Greg Smoak, Jeffrey Nicholas, Jorge Iber, Benjamin Cater, Eileen Hallet Stone, Leslie G. Kelen, and many others, have worked to uncover the experience of Utah’s minorities and people of color, and develop a more expansive and all-inclusive history for Utah. 

Because most of Utah’s immigrants and people of color faced hostility or ambivalence upon their arrival and thereafter, many eventually moved out of the state to find a better life elsewhere. These immigrants and people of color who moved out did so during the numerous economic recessions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and most particularly during the Great Depression (in Utah, this stretched out from 1930 to the beginning of World War II). In each of these cases, specific corporations or whole industries downsized or collapsed. When new and equal waged employment opportunities were not available to these people, many of Utah’s very established, hardworking immigrants, moved on.

A parade float by the Utah chapter of the Italian American Civil League, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Those immigrants who remained in Salt Lake City continued to face discrimination while finding ways to influence the city’s and the state’s political, social, religious, and economic culture. Some worked alone using sheer will and determination to motivate them. Others joined benevolent societies, labor unions, and religious organizations. Still, others benefited from national movements that pushed for tolerance and equality for all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. For example, during the 1960s, many of Utah’s minorities supported and participated in local Civil Rights demonstrations. Many joined highly visible regional events, including Utah’s annual Pioneer Day parade and celebrations, to stake out their long-standing claims to Utah. In all, immigrants who lived and worked in Utah found ways to make their voices heard and enact change.

Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park neighborhood, for over a hundred years (1869 to the 1970s), contained the region’s largest international or ethnic community. The west side had economic and cultural ties to dozens of smaller immigrant populations across Utah and the American West. For instance, locally, the city of Magna had a Japan Town and a Little Italy. Murray, a small smelting town located eight miles south of Salt Lake City, and Midvale, also a smelting town, found 11.5 miles south of Salt Lake City, housed communities of Serbians, Croatians, Slovenes, and Swedish peoples. Bingham, and its neighboring towns (Highland Boy, Frisco, Markham, and FrogTown), had over a dozen enclaves of immigrant populations. Finally, Milford, Park City, Mercur, Eureka, and Helper also became home to diverse groups, including Chinese, Greek and Italian immigrants, among others, all with community and economic ties to Salt Lake City, and most particularly to the Pioneer Park neighborhood.     

Many services and organizations including consulate offices, foreign bank branches, churches, hotels and mutual aid societies served as community centers for both Salt Lake communities and for the many immigrant communities spread far and wide. Cafes, taverns, churches, language schools, and immigrant-owned stores were regional gathering places for social, economic and religious activities, and to strengthen cultural ties. Today, most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrant-built or used neighborhoods have been destroyed. Or if they have survived, they have been converted to other uses. In either case, their prior immigrant identities have been largely forgotten.

Many services and organizations, like churches and mutual aid societies that provided aid to Salt Lake’s working-class, often became the heart of immigrant communities.

Salt Lake City’s west side has undergone dramatic changes since the mid-1800s. As a result, only small traces of these once thriving micro-communities are still detectable today. Examples include twenty or more warehouses, a dozen commercial buildings, two or three partial streetscapes, a few apartment blocks and hotels, and a handful of back alleys. It is important that Salt Lake City citizens work together to re-identify and preserve these remaining streetscapes and structures as the Pioneer Park neighborhood and Salt Lake City in general undergoes constant redevelopment.

In our next installment of Salt Lake West Side Stories, we will learn about the British, Cornish, Irish, and the Jewish American people who called the west side their home.

Would you like to read the next post (Post 22)? Irish, Cornish, Welsh and Jewish Immigrants and Salt Lake City’s West Side

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Contributors: This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood and Dr. Cassandra Clark, 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.

Selected Readings:

Philip F. Notarianni, “Mining,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

Helen Papanikolas, “Life and Labor among the Immigrants of Brigham Canyon, Utah,” in Being Different, Stories of Utah Minorities, Favorite Readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly, ed. Stanford J Layton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001). 

Joseph Stipanovich, “South Slav Settlements in Utah, 1890-1935,” Utah Historical Quarterly Volume 43, Number 2 (1975): 57-73.

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