A Tale of Two Cities

03 March 2014 Written by  

What happens when you construct a large freeway directly through the middle of an urban area? Nothing good. And that's exactly what happened in cities across the country—Salt Lake included—beginning in the 1950s.

The intent was to simply facilitate easier connections between urbanites and other cities and states, not to mention increasing the efficiency of transporting goods into cities. But these infrastructure changes have also elicited a host of unintended consequences—chiefly, the artificial barrier that runs the length of Salt Lake and divides our city into "east" and "west."

People who live on the east or west side of I-15 have traditionally been labeled en masse as "east-siders" and "west-siders." Our urban freeway has created both a physical and a psychological divide, with the west side districts and neighborhoods sometimes being thought of as less desirable.

But the truth is, people are resilient. Talk to anyone who lives or works in the River District—or anywhere else on the west side—and you'll soon hear them take the west side label as a badge of honor. The River District exists as a community of equals, people who represent an incredibly diverse and rich subset of Salt Lake City. Their reasons for choosing the River District as home might vary, but their commitment to building a vibrant home there is unwavering.

A prime example of this is Mestizo's Coffee, which describes itself as "brewing up a better community, one cup at a time." Not only does Mestizo's brew up some great coffee, they also operate the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art (MICA), a nonprofit arts and cultural mentorship program. The River District at North Temple is home to some of the most iconic businesses in the entire city: Diamond Lil's and Red Iguana. These restaurants have provided the stability necessary for the district to thrive without losing sight of the unique character that is its identity.

Under the guidance of NeighborWorks Salt Lake, the River District has also been able to take a more active role in its development. The organization helps build mixed-income housing, works to make home-ownership a real possibility for all residents, and provides small low-interest home improvement loans to homeowners.

But the paradigm of these two separated cities (east and west) is slowly crumbling as UTA, the SLC RDA, and other groups bridge the gap. The Airport Trax line has transformed the River District at North Temple from an enclave into a direct line to the city: as Pete Funaro of Diamond Lil's described it, "a grand boulevard."

The psychological barrier of I-15 as an east-west divider continues to be broken down by public and individual investment in projects like Trax, bike lanes, and walkable streets. It's truly only a matter of time until the entirety of Salt Lake realizes the value of what communities are able to create "on the other side of the tracks."