Judging from the nitwits we send to Washington, you might assume that Utah is a cultural backwater, and of course you’d be mostly correct. However, here and there are pockets of progressivism, dens of diversity, creative communities, enlightened enterprises—even places where you can sit at a table outdoors, sip an espresso and pretend that you are somewhere else—say, in Italy.
I’m speaking of a Salt Lake City exurb called Sugar House, which owes its name to a sugar beet processing plant that never came on line. Instead, Sugar House became the site of the Utah state prison. Said prison has since been replaced by a lovely park, one of several attractive green spaces in the area. Since I moved here over thirty years ago, the neighborhood has only gotten better—and not just because the prison has gone away, but also the Republican voters who think Mike Lee, Jason Chaffetz and Mia Love are qualified for public service. Alas, thanks to gerrymandering, we here in Sugar House may never succeed in voting the yahoos out of office. So what we do in the meantime is sit in our makeshift trattorias, sipping our lattes, reading the New York Times, and admiring the passing scene. Which is amazing, considering that when I first came here, there was no such thing as a “passing scene.” What there was instead was a gridlock of station wagons stuffed with kids, making their way to Snelgrove’s Ice Cream Parlor—thence to Southeast Furniture Warehouse to purchase a plush recliner from the retailer that sponsored KSL’s “Talent Showcase”—which half a century ago spawned a singing group called the Osmond Brothers.
The Osmonds have since moved on to Branson; Snelgrove’s has given way to a brewpub; the furniture warehouse has been replaced by high-density housing, each apartment with its own balcony overlooking a leafy street teeming with bicycles and pedestrians. My favorite is Eleventh East, where every other bungalow has been turned into either a quaint boutique, book store, craft store, coffee shop, tea house, yoga studio, dance studio, tattoo & body piercing parlor, delicatessen—you name it. My favorite is a building that doubles as the “International Down And Feather Testing Institute” and the Swiss consulate. I’m put in mind of Rhys Darby, who serves as the New Zealand consul in New York City while managing a two-person band in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords.”
Hiding behind the street front facades can be found an even more eclectic assortment of small businesses. One of my favorites is a garage that has been converted to a gymnasium where girls can learn to box. And, sure enough, right outside the gymnasium is a table and two chairs where the Million Dollar Baby and her sparring partner can cool down following a sweaty workout.
Did I mention that we have public art? You better believe it! There’s an Art Deco style obelisk with attached bronze statuary in Monument Plaza, and a mural on the side of the Liberty Coin Wash-O-Mat that I believe may be the work of Salvador Dali. And every which way you look, you’ll find ever more tables and chairs. Unoccupied for the most part, but just you wait and see. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.