When we were in the thick of raising our small children a couple decades ago, we were so concerned about what we perceived as a lack of diversity in Salt Lake City that we intentionally moved back and forth to Washington, D.C. We had an office in both places and wanted our children to experience both cultures. We didn’t want them growing up in a bubble and thinking that the whole world was like the East Bench of the Wasatch Front.
When we would look in on their classroom at their Salt Lake elementary school, it looked like all the kids in the room were their brothers and sisters, or at least their cousins. When we looked in on their Washington, D.C., school classroom, it was like looking in on a junior United Nations.
But times have changed. Utah’s Wasatch Front has changed. And we have changed.
Utah is, in many ways, a very diverse and remarkably cross-cultural place. Today, anyone who thinks of Salt Lake and its vicinity as a parochial, back-woods, homogenous, Mormon-controlled place is not paying attention, or has not been here recently.
A couple of illustrations: We were in Vail, Colo., recently talking to some people from Atlanta who happened to mention that their favorite restaurant in the world was Valter’s Osteria in downtown Salt Lake City. They said that whenever they come to Utah to ski, they spend time in Salt Lake because of how wonderful it is “culinary-ily” as well as culturally.
We had never been to Valter’s so we went the other night. The clientele could have been from any gourmet eatery in midtown New York. We spent a half hour or so talking with Valter Nassi himself, a gregarious, demonstrative, enthusiastic Italian who told us how much he loved the quality and diversity of the people of Utah. He chose to live and work in Salt Lake over Rome or Paris or New York because it has all the upsides and none of the downsides (at least on a breezy day when the inversion had cleared out).
And then take our daughter Saren. With degrees from Wellesley and Harvard, a husband with a degree from MIT and stints living in London and Eastern Europe, you would think she would choose a more diverse and perhaps more “sophisticated” place than Utah to live. But Saren, Jared and their family live in Ogden and they love it — for the very things that many accuse Utah of not having.
They live in a restored Victorian house in the historic part of town and have as much diversity of race, religion and perspective on their block as you could find on any Chicago street. Their kids go to a terrific (and very diverse) charter school, the recreation opportunities in and above Ogden are legendary, and you can’t find more good ethnic food restaurants in one block on New York’s upper east side than you can on the block of Ogden’s 25th street just below Washington.
Almost everybody knows that Utah has fabulous skiing and mountains and desert, but not nearly enough people know how much diversity and variety we have in Utah, not to mention a breadth of cultural, sport and art institutions rare for a city the size of Salt Lake City.
Actually, Salt Lake City was a pretty diverse place even 20 or 30 years ago. We just didn’t know where to look.
And therein lies the problem. When parents stay in their comfort zone and only associate with those in their own neighborhood or their own church, the blessings and perspective of diversity are lost both on them and on their kids.
Children who grow up in a cultural bubble and who hang out only with people who could be their cousins miss out on the breadth and perspective they could have if their circles of association and experience were a little bigger. And that kind of broader perspective will serve them well when they go off on their own.
As parents, we need to ask ourselves what diverse offerings are available — from concerts to cultural fairs to ethnic restaurants to service opportunities. We need to first ask ourselves, and then do something about exposing ourselves and our kids to more of it.