Introducing Salt Lake West Side Stories

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post One
By Brad Westwood

Welcome to this serialized and illustrated history of the Salt Lake City’s old west side. This blog consists of over thirty posts and scores of images, all presented on-line to tell the story of a very unique area of downtown Salt Lake City.

This series consists of short, quick-to-read segments. Expect to spend between ten to twenty minutes reading each blog post, viewing the associated images, and reading the captions. There are also additional activities offered for many of the posts, including suggested field trips or websites to read (located at the end as “Related Activities”), and a list of addigtional readings, primary or secondary sources, you may want to consult.

If you do not have time to read each blog post, you can explore Salt Lake West Side Stories by viewing the photographs and corresponding captions found on the top navigation bar of the Salt Lake West Side Stories home page, titled Chronological Gallery. The images offer a visual historical tour of Salt Lake’s original west side. We hope however, that you will read all of the posts, and all other sections of this web publication.

This area, like all of Salt Lake Valley, was initially inhabited by Utah’s American Indian peoples. Until the third quarter of the twentieth century, Salt Lake City’s west side neighborhood served as a base camp for nearly every immigrant group that settled in the valley, in Utah and across the Intermountain West. Beginning in 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as Mormons, laid claim to the whole region, but they first camped and settled on the city’s west side. Other immigrant pioneers followed, including Jews (from German and Russia), Chinese, Africans, Italians, Japanese, Greek, Syrians, Mexicans, and Latinos. During the 1970s and 1980s, Pioneer Park was also a physical and political gathering place for Salt Lake City’s LGBTQ+ communities. Beginning with Native Americans and followed by immigrant pioneers from around the world, the Pioneer Park neighborhood served as a central location for people seeking economic, religious, and community-building opportunities. Those migrant peoples who settled in Salt Lake’s west side influenced Utah’s cultural make-up as well. The inhabitants of the west side were essential in shaping the Utah we know today.

The Themes: Salt Lake West Side Stories speaks to eight general themes that together tell the story of one of the Salt Lake Valley’s most unique and culturally diverse neighborhoods. Each post will engage with some, if not all, the themes identified below. Watch for the tags located at the bottom of each post to link different entries to one another:

Birds-Eye View of Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, from the north looking South-East, 1875; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  1. Homeland
  2. First Residence or starting point
  3. Railroads
  4. Contested Space
  5. Long-standing Relationship
  6. Transient Neighborhood
  7. Identity and Belonging
  8. Post-industrial History

Diversity Legacy: Today, people of color or contemporary immigrant and refugee communities live throughout the Salt Lake Valley. However, the vast majority live west of Pioneer Park neighborhood and Interstate 15 (I-15) in Poplar Grove, West Pointe, Rose Park, Glendale, Magna, South Salt Lake, and West Valley City. This population of minorities and people of color is a legacy of the Pioneer Park neighborhood or the first “Westside.” The Ute Tribe initially settled the Salt Lake Valley and greeted Mormon Pioneers when they arrived in 1847. Since the arrival of LDS settlers, nearly all communities of color, from 1847 to the third quarter of the twentieth century, got their start in the Pioneer Park neighborhood with some notable exceptions, which will be discussed in later posts. 

The neighborhood was also Salt Lake City’s first industrial district and continues today as the city’s main transportation center. Since 1847 and even more so after 1869, for over 170 years, the neighborhood has served as the center city’s gateway for most city center workers, visitors, and residents. It has been a place where competing world views or ideologies have both collided and blended or found a space for cooperation and tolerance. It has been where “the others,” the foreign incoming immigrants of dozens of ethnicities and nationalities lived, worked, raised families, and built homes and businesses. 

The original West Side was the city’s first multi-community international district. People from across the country and around the world lived and worked the west side’s overlapping micro-communities. It is important to recognize however that Pioneer Park neighborhood was not the only intersection for these communities. One exception includes the history of Chinatown in Plum Alley (between Main and State, 100 and 200 South), which will be a story featured later in West Side Stories. Life in the Pioneer Park neighborhood has for over 170 years included many different worldviews, cultures, langagues and traditions.

The Pioneer Park neighborhood holds scores of overlapping physical, historical, and cultural imprints. As with so many urban settings experiencing rapid change, the neighborhood was and is something of palimpsest. In ancient and medieval times, scribes would scrap or wash off writing and images on a scroll, parchment, or manuscript for reuse. Often the tell-tale signs of these prior writings remained, forming a palimpsest. Salt Lake’s west wide continues to undergo this process of rewriting and retelling as the location adapts in the twenty-first century.  In essence, Pioneer Park is a region that is constantly transitioning, developing, and redefining place as people move in and out of the area.

“The Pioneer Park area holds scores of overlapping physical, historical, and cultural imprints.”

A Place of Constant Transition: Since its beginning, Salt Lake City’s west side has hosted hundreds if not thousands of buildings and homes. Many, of course, have been torn down, renovated, or repurposed to adapt to the changing economy of the United States. For example, the Pioneer Park neighborhood’s railroad depots—the Union Pacific on North Temple and the Denver & Rio Grande Western on West Broadway—no longer transport passengers nor move cargo. Today, the west side is transforming again into a new urban neighborhood. The west side now hosts a number of new complexes and structures, retail and offices buildings, restaurants, and theaters. One of the most noteworthy additions is the opening of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Since its original settlement by Utah’s Native American peoples, the west side has changed dramatically as new people have moved in and out of the area.

Large Development Projects: The west side is constantly undergoing construction projects. Large civic and business developments now cover much of the north side of the neighborhood. For example, the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center, built 1969 and rebuilt in 1995, encompasses three entire blocks. Other businesses call the Pioneer Park neighborhood home including the Triad Center completed in 1984 (95 North 300 West, now the LDS Business College, KSL TV & Radio), the Vivint Smart Home Arena completed in 1991 (301 South Temple) and the Gateway Development in 2001 (between 50 North and 200 South and between 400 and 500 West). Besides numerous apartment complexes, there are at least two future multiple block size projects winding their way through the process of funding, approval, and development. The Pioneer Park neighborhood has a long history of change, and current projects contribute to this legacy. For more information check out the Search Station Center and Royal Wood Plaza article in the urban development newsletter Building Salt Lake.

A Need for More “Placemaking:” It is appropriate and timely to take stock in the neighborhood’s enduring stories and historical sites. City planners call this “place making,” which identifies, preserves, and capitalizes on unique physical, historical, and cultural resources, so to create places that promotes health, happiness, beauty, well-being, and enjoyment. This history seeks to help in the “place making” of Salt Lake City. Salt Lake West Side Stories seeks to help in the “placemaking” of this neighborhood while also sharing some of the area’s engaging and fascinating history.

This introductory post has provided you with an overview of Salt Lake West Side Stories. The next post explores neighborhood boundaries, how street names have changed, the many names used for the neighborhood, and how Salt Lake City’s Pacific Islander communities connect to the Pioneer Park neighborhood.  We hope that you journey with us into the history of Salt Lake’s Pioneer Park neighborhood! 

Would you like to read the next post? THE PIONEER PARK NEIGHBORHOOD’S BOUNDARIES


Do you have a question or comment? Write us at “ask a historian” – askahistorian@utah.gov

Related Activity: Take note of the following when you arrive or leave downtown Salt Lake City by way of I-15. SR-269 eastbound, 600 South, a one-way off-ramp of I-15, is named “Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard,” named by the city in 1993; while SR-269 westbound, or 500 South, which is a one-way on-ramp to I-15, is designated “Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard,” named by the city in 2002.  Both boulevards are vital transportation arteries, and both so far as I-15 is concerned, begin or end, in the Pioneer Park Neighborhood, the unofficial historic international district of Salt Lake City. Naming these streets King and Chavez Boulevards are fitting, as the city’s African American community and it’s Mexican and Latino American communities both had their beginnings in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

Contributors: Special thanks go to the Pioneer Park Coalition (PPC), who approached the Department of Heritage and Arts (DHA) regarding the writing of a history of Salt Lake’s original west side neighborhood. I also want to thank Scott Howell and Vikram Ravi, the latter who initiated the project and served as its first co-chair. We also want to thank Will Bagley, Jenny Lund, Janet B. Seegmiller, Cassie Clark, and Aaron West for contributing to this series.