SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
Updated: Aug 15
Salt Lake City is a complete enigma. To arrive here after trekking across America is, on the face of it, to discover the first modern-day utopian community, free of all the ubiquitous, ugly and problematic scars of twenty-first century urban life. This place is clean, spotlessly clean. Traffic flows freely on wide streets, new trolley-like trains with smart middle-class passengers aboard runNing down the middle of the roads as if on a train set. Here, the omnipresent urban homeless with their cardboard begging signs are non-existent and, all around, modern, elegant apartment blocks are sprouting up from one end of town to the other. Everything about Salt Lake spells success, investment, growth and money, with none of the trappings of an inelegant, unsympathetic, 'haves & have-nots' boom that the Silicon generation attach to their evolution. People move around in a purposeful, almost disciplined way, looking like non-speaking movie extras and acting as a backdrop to this serene scene of harmony and perfection. It is a fascinating place to visit. To take a tour is to take a lesson in the development of a persecuted people's survival and success. They are justly and understandably proud of how far they have come in a few decades from being a hounded but bonded flock who fled West after being pushed out of the intolerant eastern and central states to having founded a hugely affluent city that has escaped virtually all the pitfalls of American life.
However, there is also something worrying. There is something missing. There is something just too automaton about it all. Something Orwellian. The truth is that no-one looks like they are having any fun. It all looks far too serious as if life is not meant to be enjoyed but to be dedicated to overcoming struggle. If that really is the sole objective then they are being amazingly successful, but isn't the serious battle over and isn't it time to enjoy just a wee bit of 'joie de vivre'? The answer lies firmly in the hands of the Church. It must be accepted that this city is completely under the control, patronage and direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The best summing up of the Church's ethos is found in the words of their hymn Come, Come, Ye Saints, written and sung as they crossed the inhospitable United States in their wagons, fleeing persecution, over 100 years ago. "Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear...
'Tis better far for us to strive our useless cares from us to drive Do this, and joy your hearts will swell - All is well! All is well! And should we die before our journey's through, Oh Happy Day! All is well! We then are free from toil and sorrow, too... ...All is well! All is well!" But don't let this depressing mantra put you off. This is still an interesting city to visit. The imposing Temple (above) is at the center of the town, literally (but is sadly closed to non-members of the Church). All the streets are clinically numbered progressively as they stretch further away from this ecclesiastical epicenter. Even though you cannot go inside the Temple, there is an elaborate model which gives you an idea of its interior opulence.
Model of the inside of the Temple
Next door is the beautifully-manicured Temple Square, the home of the Tabernacle, an auditorium where the world-famous choir has residency. A free organ recital takes place at midday every day, ostensibly to amuse the tourists. The noise from those huge bellowing church organ pipes is not to everyone's taste, even if that noise is trying to be J.S.Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
The organist entertains
The White House style State Capitol building is a glory, looking down imperiously from the hill as if to remind people that the democratic process is just as important as the church. Not sure it succeeds in that. While looking around, Sandie joined a loud 'Planned Parenthood' demonstration, protesting against the creep of anti-abortion legislation that backwardly threatens this country. Bravo!
As you can imagine, there is a regrettable dearth of bars and nightclubs downtown, or anywhere in Utah for that matter, but there are some excellent restaurants and we enjoyed an overdue and delicious curry at the Saffron Valley which boasts 'fine Indian street food', an oxymoron if ever one exists.
All the top shops are here too. The City Creek Center has all the world-class brands from Macy’s to Tiffany and the superbly renovated Trolley Square is packed with a myriad of eclectic stores.
To drive the faithful Mini downtown was an anxious exercise as the two-carriage trolleys join and criss-cross the traffic and, as if trying to avoid colliding with cars isn't enough, you have to keep looking over your shoulder as you traverse the tracks to see if you are about to be mown down by a train. There are many magnificent mansions here too, built one hundred years ago by mega-rich mineral barons. Copper was a prolific find in them tha’ hills. Ironically, many of the original owners had a deep distrust of the Mormon Church but when their beloved homes eventually came on the market after their demise it was the former occupants’ nemesis that quickly got the checkbook out and snapped them up.
All around, the 10,000 ft snowy mountains look down on you as a reminder that this is also the hub of several popular ski resorts, including Park City, home of Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. But what is inescapable is that this city has an inherent and substantial wealth. And a clue may be the words 'Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints' that are etched boldly onto the front of virtually all the dominant major buildings. These guys certainly don’t hide their light under a bushel.
The Church Offices
Formerly a hotel, now Joseph Smith's Memorial Building
The Church Admin Building
This is clearly a very, very rich church. We asked how it gets to have so much money and it was explained that its global congregation of almost 15 million donate 10 per cent of their income into the bulging coffers. No wonder the top echelon promotes such a rigorous work ethic. It made us wonder whether founder Joseph Smith who received a vision from an angel in 1820 telling him that he was chosen as a 'prophet' had perhaps misheard and that the words might have been more to do with 'profit'. His successor, Brigham Young, taking over after President Smith was killed in 1847, led his followers to the valley aside the Salt Lake and founded the settlement.
He also became Governor of Utah Territory and had no less than 55 wives and 56 children to help fill the churches.
Brigham Young's house and bedroom
This strict Christian 'denomination' has an overwhelming presence here and permeates everything. This is in spite of the fact that less than half of the 1.1 million population are Mormon, the lowest percentage since the 1930's and diminishing as aspirant newcomers move in from California. The result is that the city is becoming politically, if not practicably, more liberal and the shift is slowly changing the dynamic in the schools and workplace going forward. Incidentally, as we mentioned in our last blog, the word Mormon is noticeably absent. We have now learned that this is deliberate as the leaders are trying to eliminate the word from the vocabulary. Mormon was a nickname, after their holy prophet and their sacred text, the Book of Mormons. It was also a sobriquet that was used derogatorily in discrimination. Unfortunately, they have yet to come up with an alternative. They have accepted the acronym LDS as an abbreviation but what to call them as individuals is still a confusion. We were told the Church has suggested 'Saints' but that seems a tad too self reverential. The future looks bright for Salt Lake City but tolerance on all sides will be the key. It is easy to see how the majority of the population will be understanding and there is clear evidence that the now-minority LDS will modernize its hard-line stoicism to move forward into the twenty-first century. For example, on a visit in the 70s, a permit stamp in my passport was needed to get a drink. Today, there are bars, though not that many, and plural marriage has been officially 'outlawed' (but is rarely prosecuted). They have applied for the 2030 Winter Olympics following the ultimate success of the 2002 games here, a sign that Salt Lake City wants to put is name firmly in the global list of major cities.
We found the people friendly, courteous and kind. We had not known what to expect as serious religion can be scary and go either way - from gushing, conversion-crazy smarm to hostile, holier-than-thou superiority. The Mormons we met fell into neither category and as a community created a caring and polite environment that welcomed us. That does not mean we are up for conversion, mark you.
It has done the hard bit. It has built a town to be proud of. Now it has to steer its evolution to join the real world without losing its obvious creditable merits. The meld of integrational progress and religious intransigence seems a challenge. We wish it well... and a lot, lot more fun.
Thought for the Day: Let’s suppose for a minute. If around one third of Mormons, let’s say 5m, donate 10% of their income of, say very modestly, $20,000 per year, that would generate an annual income to the Church of about $10,000,000,000.
You can safely give Utah's second city Provo (50 miles away) a miss. We drove round and it seemed singularly uninteresting and dominated by healthcare buildings. True, we arrived on a Sunday night and it could possibly have been an unfair snap judgement. We quickly learned that, at that time of the week, a quest to find a bottle of wine was a lost cause from the outset. Everything was closed. So unless you get your hangovers from too much bible-reading and sugary soda, plan ahead and made sure you have a bottle of Pouilly Fumé in the fridge.