Salt Lake City
© 2012 Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.
(Swans - August 27, 2012) I've never been a person who has written travelogues, which is odd considering that I've visited many places in the continental United States. I still have yet to cross the border in either direction (need to bone up on my Spanish and French), and my aversion to air travel is well known fact among people closest to me, so Europe will have to wait for awhile (hopefully not for too long).
Earlier last month I visited Salt Lake City in what was a highlight of an arduous summer. I visited Salt Lake City before well over twenty years ago. Back in 1991, I had just graduated from college and on a wild urge decided to drive with a friend from the east coast (Pennsylvania) to the west coast (San Francisco). We had a tire blowout while zooming past the Great Salt Lake and I remember how dreary the scene was. My friend and I fixed a tire in 90-degree heat along the side of the road where the soil was cracked, no doubt from long periods of dryness. The lake itself was a few yards away, gray and lifeless, reflecting an overcast sky. My friend likes to recall to this day that I was the only black person he saw in Utah and I still chuckle at that, although when I visited this time, there was a little more diversity in the city's peoples.
My stay was very pleasant despite being a weeklong business trip, but I stayed long enough to notice striking differences between Salt Lake City and east coast cities. Unlike east coast cities, Salt Lake City is laid out in nearly perfect city blocks, and the streets and sidewalks are much wider than those of east coast cities. The most striking aspect of the city is its cleanliness; the sidewalks and streets lack even the hint of litter. From my talk traversing the cobblestones of Boston or Flatbush in Brooklyn, I have come to consider street litter artifacts of the urban museum: articles of capitalist consumption and mass production that consumer society accepts as a sign of progress instead of potential hazards of our biosphere.
When visiting a large metropolis, spending ridiculous amounts of money on the most basic items is compulsory but I did not experience that in Salt Lake City. Since the Transportation Security Administration bans some toiletries on air flights, I made sure not to travel with any so that my time spent in security check would be swift. So I had to buy them after arriving to the city. They were relatively inexpensive, but considering that this is a tourist city whose peak time is during the ski season(from November to April), the fact that I was there outside of the ski season meant that prices were lower. I was also pleasantly surprised that a 24-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon cost only $2.50 at Lumpy's Bar near the Hilton downtown. Necessities, necessities.
The hygienic atmosphere of Salt Lake City not only showed through its cleanliness but also through the obscurity of its homeless population. I saw very few there and the ones that I did see usually sat or stood with a sign asking for money or food. I recall watching on the local news a row about panhandling: apparently, it is legal to hold a sign asking for handouts but a verbal utterance for handouts is illegal. Violators can be cited and fined and the controversy was over whether or not all forms of panhandling should be considered an exercise of First Amendment rights. Cities all across the United States are or have been enacting panhandling laws to remove homeless populations from their streets and Salt Lake City is no different. Unfortunately such laws only expose the contradictions of an economic system that claims to yield employment but cannot guarantee it, or lowers the bar yearly as to what level of unemployment is acceptable for a "good" economy.
The skyscrapers in Salt Lake City were less than impressive but they still gave a valley city an urban feel. Most of the tall buildings cluster together in the downtown area where there are many fine restaurants. Asian fusion seems to be a popular offering but there is a pretty wide selection of restaurants catering to different tastes, ranging from French bistros to Nepalese dining houses.
I never sensed that the city was "Mormon": after all, the city is in the heart of Mitt Romney country. Nor did I find the city "religious." I'm sure even Rome is not religious on days that are not Sunday. But I found Salt Lake City a place where I could reflect outside in its parks with comfort and ease. I could never do that in a Central Park or Washington Mall: those places are much too kinetic for any type serious reflection.
And so that was my "vacation." On to Boston next.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)