Two days in the valley

The Salt Lake Valley, that is. I’m visiting my parents for a couple of days, a trip entirely orchestrated so that I could go to the dentist.

It’s nice up here, but the valley sure has changed. Utah, it seems, hasn’t really grown up but out, as evidenced by the new subdivisions between Salt Lake and Ogden. Just when I thought they were out of room, somebody managed to fit a few more neighborhoods in between the Great Salt Lake and the mountains. This isn’t neccessarily a bad thing in a fundamental way—people need places to live—but city planners here have never really been any good at, well, city planning. Ogden, where I grew up, has had trouble developing any sense of urban community. While its downtown has been partly revitalized—back when Ogden was Hub City, a key stop for the railroad, it had a booming downtown—it remains too far from where most people live, and with new freeways in and out of town, it’s no longer a pass-through point for local traffic or out of town travelers. (For example, the new highway to Snowbasin, the ski resort right over the hill, entirely skips Ogden. Way to go, planners!) To compound matters, rather than do practical things like improve bus routes and foster small business (the floundering mall was torn down years ago and is now an empty lot), the mayor is on a multi-year crusade to build an aerial tram to downtown, a plan that has been shot down every year since before I was in high school as constituting one form or another of fiscal insanity or physical implausibility. But Utah government—at all levels—has never been particularly captive to either of those constraints, so when the current mayor came to office he promptly restarted the project, and after a string of failed partnerships with numerous development projects, downtown is still a large hole in the earth and the mayor still dreams of a tram.

I don’t mean to be entirely critical: Downtown has several clubs and restaraunts that are very worth visiting (Rooster’s brewery, in particular, regularly wins awards for its food and, seriously, its excellent beer). But downtown isn’t a place one goes to hang out. This may change; there is some optimism that condo lofts above the shops will invigorate foot traffic and build a more lived-in downtown, but so far those lofts have been hard to sell.

Why all this talk about downtown? Partly because every time I come up here I get into another back-in-the-day state of mind. It’s not always a nice experience to see the place you grew up through adult eyes. Ogden’s experience also seems really instructive, especially when compared to places like Flagstaff and Salt Lake City, both of which have neighborhoods that successfully combine living and commercial space (which isn’t to say that both cities don’t have their particular problems). I have the sense that many of the same things that contribute to successful, livable downtowns also contribute to viable local economies—and by extension, the possibility for local currencies. It’s certainly not a one-to-one, but the kind of downtown that fosters walking, browsing, and meeting seems like the sort of place that might also foster other kinds of community development. The question that goes beyond grassroots things like local currency, of course, is the interaction between high-level development agencies and local culture. There’s probably an argument to be made that all the grassroots moving and shaking in the world won’t amount to much if the dirty downtown brick facades aren’t cleaned up and the pedestrian crosswalks re-painted. Likewise, building a tram doesn’t mean that people will come to it.