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About the city Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Misbehaving in Saint City

Saturday, February 09, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- I had walked a few blocks south from the icy granite Mormon temple with its glowing Tabernacle dome one night, through an array of church-owned buildings that could have been inspired by an Ayn Rand novel, when I first detected the smell. It was hard to mistake: sweet, smoky, pungent, hempy. Not a Salt Lake City kind of smell.

The culprits, whom I soon nosed down behind a store, were a pair of snowboarders in their early 20s. They showed a cheerful disregard for the nearby looming headquarters of an institution whose members must forswear booze, tobacco, coffee, tea and most definitely the substance these guys were using to scent the mountain air.

"I'm from a Mormon family, and my parents would kill me if they knew I was here," said Mix, the older, blonder one.

They told me about some interesting local music, which could be heard that night in a secret place in the middle of an industrial park.

I asked if they were planning to leave the restrictive confines of their hometown any time soon. "No way," said Darren, who was slightly less blond. "I'm having too much fun here."

In any other city, there would be nothing exciting about the presence of red-eyed youths, crowded back-room watering holes, spicy food, interesting art galleries or noisy late-night music.

But Salt Lake City, as so many visitors have discovered, is not that kind of town. It is a place that often deserves its reputation for blandness, a place with a homogeneity of taste that is reinforced by the church in the centre of town, given an extra coat of whitewash by the region's demographic sameness, and made worse by Salt Lake's presence in the inland American west, a region known for bad cooking, worse coffee and scant funk.

This week, the Olympics have created an artificial playground here, and put the town under a public microscope. But there is more than one reason to set foot in this mountain valley, one that few visitors to the Games will notice: There is something going on here, or at least the beginning of something. You could call it the Utah Underground, and in truth it is still so subterranean that it feels more exciting than real. It is too hidden to be called a whole new city, too muted to be a transformation, not quite advanced enough to be a cultural rupture. It is a rumour, a hairline fissure, a scent in the air.

"There's something really unique about this place right now. It's become really comfortable, a kind of underground community, and now people who left because it's boring are starting to come back. People are getting excited about some of the things that are starting to happen," said Angela Brown, a 26-year-old figure in the local music community and publisher of the magazine SLUG (Salt Lake Under Ground).

SLUG, a witty and prosperous small-print bundle of profane jokes, musical analysis and cultural ribbing, has been banned from most respectable venues. It has the typographic look of a punk-rock screed, but in the local underground's ecumenical style, it extends its rays to adventurous country musicians, jazz experimentation and snowboarder culture, all of which seem to be related here.

The connection between these things, which in any other town would simply be lumped under "having a good time," has a lot to do with the fact that so many of them are frowned upon by the city's religious plurality. There is still a distinct, vestigially guilty sense that they involve doing something forbidden.

Indeed, many of these things are forbidden, to 40 per cent of the city's residents, and until quite recently it was impossible to find any urban pleasures here.

But a few years ago, the non-Mormon population became a majority, and its varied members -- immigrants from central America and Asia, children of Mormon recruits from all over the world, descendants of Irish miners and Nordic locals, fallen Mormons such as Angela Brown -- started to become acquainted with one another. When they get together, it can be quite an event. Here, misbehaviour isn't just self-indulgence -- it's a form of identity politics.

To discover Salt Lake City's underground, you have to wander south from the superclean cluster of goods and services that surround the Mormon temple and the state capital. Go a little further, and you enter a slightly mustier region, with burned-out neon signs and peeling paint. Turn down an almost invisible side street tucked between two light-industrial buildings, go past some sad looking insulbrick houses, and you come to an odd cluster of buildings at the street's dead end.

This complex of haphazardly converted factory-worker cottages, called Kilby Court after the street, could be mistaken for a juke joint somewhere in the South, but for the pale complexions of its guests, who wander about the three tiny buildings, clustering in small groups, checking out a distraction here and there, huddling around fires lit in oil drums.

All sorts of things are going on here. At one little cottage, an art gallery-store-workshop-beer bar-hangout, a small crowd is examining a pretty decent artwork featuring all manner of things stuck to a wall, with text written in between.

A second cottage is filled with a spider web of string, from which are strung hundreds of colour photos, which may or may not be related in some way. In between, someone is putting on a street performance involving fire.

And in the third, soundproofed cottage, a variety of bands are playing, all night, every night, some better than others. I see some really interesting things here: A band composed of four bass drums and a piccolo, producing amazingly good music; excellent superloud sounds laden with wit, rather than the usual angst; some decent experiments combining genres of music that don't usually hang out together, like emo punk and bluegrass and Mexican pop.

"This feels like Queen Street in the mid-seventies," says my photographer, a Torontonian who remembers that moment when his grim industrial town was just beginning to develop something that still hadn't quite figured out whether to call itself an artistic community. Indeed, Salt Lake City today has a lot in common with Canada's cities a generation ago: a monoculture in the early stages of discovering that it has become a multiculture.

But here it is not centred in a district, or on a street, or even in a neighbourhood. It is a collection of places and gatherings and phenomena, which sometime soon might coalesce into something more.

You notice it when you go out for a bite, and wander farther afield. Along the barren road that leads from downtown to the airport, the typically overcooked sterility of Utah's cuisine is beginning to break down. Here, right next to the Wonder Bread factory, whose in-house store is alarmingly busy, you'll find a bright orange shack filled with people and divergent smells.

The Red Iguana is one of dozens of little Mexican joints along this stretch, which appeared with the wave of Latin American immigration here during the past two decades. But it is far more exciting than standard Tex-Mex: Rather than the usual bean-and-cheese concoctions that pass for Mexican in this region, there are complex and mysterious dishes from central Mexico, chickens infused with wine and a dozen kinds of mole sauce and, of course, great volumes of tequila, just to keep it feeling wicked.

"Even though [these places] are scattered all over town, people have the same kind of ideas, and we run into each other all over the place," John Saltas tells me. "It's like a neighbourhood without a specific location."

Saltas, publisher of the alternative City Weekly, is holding court at his corner table in the Port o' Call, a sprawling bar that has somehow managed to navigate around Utah's odder drinking laws, such as the requirement that guests must sign up as members of a private club before entering.

Next door are the offices of his newspaper, which in any other town would be a homogenous listings-and-protests weekly. Here, it is the place where the city's secular population spars with the religious authorities. (In a move to shut it down, pious politicians recently tried to ban beer ads in newspapers.)

Saltas offers a theory to explain Salt Lake City's emerging culture. "You have to come here on St. Patrick's Day to really understand it," he says while ordering yet another rye and coke.

Salt Lake City has come to host one of the largest St. Patrick's Day parades in the United States, in part because there is a sizable population of Irish descendants who came to work the silver mines of nearby Park City, but also because the Irish have come to be symbols of the non-Mormon population. The parade, and the city-wide bash that accompanies it, in recent years has changed from an Irish affair into a swirl of Mexicans, Greeks, Asians, old hippies, ex-Mormons, rebellious kids, visiting bon vivants and snowboarders, none of whom knew each other before.

Saltas breaks off his conversation to poke his head in to a booth to say hello to Rocky Anderson, the city's very non-religious mayor, who is explaining to a USA Today reporter that the city is more fun than its stereotype suggests. The mayor's new slogan, which he has had printed on pamphlets he hopes to send home with visitors, is "Salt Lake City: Saltier Than You Think."

Later, the reporter will visit one of the city's lively and very well established gay bars -- lesbians and gays have long had a successful, if cloistered, underground here -- and the mayor will lead him on a late-night pub crawl, as he is wont to do.

In the bars sanctified by the civil-libertarian mayor, there is another mood emerging: one of normality. Unlike the lively spirit of cultural deflowering at Kilby Court, or some nights at Burt's Tiki Lounge, a splendidly grotty place nearby, places such as the Port o' Call are beginning to feel just like regular old drinking spots, not symbols of a samizdat culture.

"To be an anarchist in Salt Lake City in 1985 was no easy task," says Stevo, the blue-haired protagonist in James Merendino's 1999 movie SLC Punk, a chronicle of one young man's attempt to be a rebel in this town during the Reagan era. In those days, it was all extremes: Either you were a believer, or you were a violent rebel. Both extremes seemed ultimately antiseptic.

To be an anarchist in Salt Lake City in 2002 is no longer really necessary. There are still believers, and there are still petulant rebels. In between, though, there is a splendid new mood, evidenced at dozens of little shacks and halls and hangouts around town, a coalescence that someday might turn into nothing more than another city's arts-and-entertainment complex. For the moment, though, it is much more exciting, because it still carries that vital sense of being bad.

Salt Lake Weather 





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