Utah was born where Pioneer Park now stands.
Not Temple Square, not This is the Place Monument, not on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.Within a month of arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Mormon pioneers laid out an adobe-walled fort on the land bounded by 300 and 400 South, 300 and 400 West. In that fort, the provisional state of Deseret was organized, the valley's first church wards were set up, Salt Lake City was mapped out, the first pioneer schools in the Great Basin began.
By Christmas of 1847, 2,000 Mormon pioneers - the valley's first homeless people - were sheltered in the fort, awaiting the time when they could build their own homes.
"It was not a battle-scarred fortress," wrote Bryant S. Hinckley, a prolific writer of LDS Church history. "Not a single shot was ever fired in its defense. It was not the center of bloodshed and tragedy; on the contrary, it was the center of gladness, of hope, of work and worship, of good cheer, of culture and kindness and orderly living, the nucleus of a great empire."
A monument in the park calls it the Plymouth Rock of the West. A Daughters of Utah Pioneers pamphlet proclaims, "What Plymouth is to New England, the Old Fort is to the Great West."
But Plymouth, Mass., is a well-kept historical monument. Pioneer Park, despite attempts over the past 150 years to treat it as a monument to the founding of Utah and the settlement of the West, is a public park most people hesitate to enter, a neatly landscaped enclave more feared than respected, a place where society's outsiders drink, eat, sleep and sometimes die.
"Tell you what," says occasional park resident John James Turner. "Walk through here at 12 o'clock midnight, and you'll see all the troubles in the world."
At the mention of Hiawatha Provo, Dale E. Nichol and Edward Antonio Duci started to cry.
The two men are Pioneer Park regulars. By their account, Provo was minding his own business under a tree in Pioneer Park one evening last August when someone walked over to him and slit his throat. Police arrived almost immediately, but Provo was bleeding from an artery and died at LDS Hospital.
Though many of the men who live off and on in Pioneer Park are penniless, Provo was reputed to have some money, said Nichol, so the guy that killed him could have had robbery in mind. But the day Provo died, his pockets were virtually empty.
"He'd have given the shirt off his back, and they cut his throat for fifteen cents. He was 61 years old. There was no reason to hurt that man," Nichol said.
Nichol and Duci said that Provo's murder happened at a time when the park's violence, always a fact of life, was getting worse. Asked how bad it had gotten, they and three other men began to unbutton their shirts and roll up their sleeves and pant legs to expose scars, cuts, abrasions, bruises, bandages.
The park, they said, had gotten so bad that the men had decided with some others to stand watch for their protection. "You can't even sleep around here. You have to have somebody watch you. You can't go to sleep without them. You'll lose an ear," said John Tomb.
"I was standing over there," said Tomb, waving toward 400 West, "and SOMEBODY hit me over the head with some rebar."
Travelers Aid won't let people in the shelter if they've been drinking, so even if the five men wanted to stay there, they couldn't. But Pioneer Park, they said, is becoming too dangerous for them.
"I was born in 1938. I ain't no kid any more," Duci said.
Nichol discounted stories about skinheads preying on park denizens, and he and his friends all said that the park's regulars, those who go there to drink in peace, don't cause the trouble. They theorized that turf battles between different ethnic groups are responsible for park violence.
"The drunks don't do harm," said John James Turner, whose chest was swathed in filthy bandages, his ribs and arms purple with bruises. "Our thing is to drink and go to sleep. Their thing is to drink and beat people up."
For 20 years after the Mormon pioneers first came to the Salt Lake Valley, there was no eastside-westside split in Salt Lake City, says historian John McCormick, author of a book about the development of Salt Lake City's west side.
The city's face changed with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. By 1870, there was a "wrong side of the tracks," where factories and other industrial businesses grew up around rooming houses.
On the edge of the tracks' wrong side stood Pioneer Park, which though traditionally treated as a park actually had never been officially so designated. That happened in 1898, after a proposal to build the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad depot on the park site was defeated.
Proposals to sell the park for development reappeared at least twice in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1950, the Salt Lake City Commission, operating on the assumption that the park had ceased to serve its function as a recreation center, considered selling the land to finance capital improvements and bring more tax revenues to the city treasury.
But every time the park sale proposal came up, outraged civic groups - notably the Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers - defeated it, even though such city leaders as Mayor Earl J. Glade said Pioneer Park was an unsuccessful park because of its "unfortunate placement."
The unused park, Glade said, "has nothing to remind us of the history that was made there."
In 1955, a foundation was established to raise money to turn the park into a pioneer shrine. Plans for the park included rebuilding the fort's adobe walls, a museum, replicas of original log cabins abutting the fort walls, a model of the first schoolhouse, a replica of the old Salt Lake Theater - torn down some years before in the pursuit of progress - and a colonnade housing statues of prominent pioneers.
The plans were presented again in 1966 and 1971. In 1980, the city received $400,000 in federal grant money for city park renovations, but the money couldn't be used for reconstructing the fort. Officials from the Utah State Historical Society talked about tapping descendants of the original fort inhabitants for donations - the figure of $15,000 was suggested - to finance the fort reconstruction anyway, which then-Mayor Ted Wilson said "could be put in the corner of the park or something like that." But finally, the movement to rebuild the fort as a pioneer shrine died for lack of funding.
By the following year, Pioneer Park had some $200,000 in renovations and was being touted as the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization project. A dilapidated band shell was torn down, basketball and tennis courts repaired, a children's playground constructed. Lost were a baseball diamond and the public restrooms, torn down and not rebuilt. The city was unwilling to construct and maintain permanent restrooms, but did set up portable toilets along 400 South near the viaduct.
The park also was outfitted with an automatic sprinkler system. Parks officials said the park couldn't be watered manually at night because the park was considered too dangerous for the young people hired to do the job. They also believed that automatic sprinklers turning on in different places throughout the night should discourage people from sleeping in the park.
Sprinklers, however, are a minor irritant compared to the real sleep deterrent - violence.
Stephen Goldsmith says, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that the city should post signs around Pioneer Park warning tourists of the dangers lurking nearby.
He said he has many times seen strangers to the city make the mistake of thinking that just because the park is a beautiful place - obviously well-tended, near downtown and the closest green space to the downtown freeway exit - it is also a safe place. He said he has seen families get out of their cars, take little picnics to the lawn, and within minutes pack up again and drive away.
"It's a very dangerous place," Goldsmith said. But he doesn't think everyone in the park is dangerous. He remembers park regulars who were very protective of his children - back in the days when he used to take his kids to the park, that is.
Goldsmith is the executive director of Artspace, the Pierpont Avenue warehouse renovated for working artists and partially funded by the city because it was seen as a way to help change the character of the near west side by bringing different types of people to the area.
Artspace has done that within a very small radius. But there aren't enough people living or visiting there to alter the dynamic of the entire neighborhood and nearby park, which Goldsmith said has gotten more dangerous instead of safer over the past five years.
In 1985, when Artspace was first completed, "I used to take my kids over there (to Pioneer Park) every day," Goldsmith said. "We used the swings and played on the slide and the basketball court."
Goldsmith emphasized very strongly that he doesn't believe the nearby Travelers Aid shelter has anything to do with the park's problems. But the "fear factor" has grown along with what he called "the precarious population" to the point where not only do his children no longer play in the park, he won't even walk his dog there.
"I have a gorgeous park 300 feet from my house," he said. "And I get in my car and drive to 11th Avenue to walk my dog.
Keith Walton has owned and operated Uffen Sheet Metals across the street from Pioneer Park for the past 17 years. Before that, he had a shop a block away. He figures he's been working near the park since 1950, and because of that is pretty much ignored by the park regulars, who consider him a kind of regular, too.
"They don't bother us because we don't bother them," he said.
But though the park isn't particularly dangerous for him - in the daytime, anyway - it is for others. "What do you want to talk about? Murders, rapes beatings?" he said.
Actually, he said, he doesn't have particularly high opinions of any public park, unless it's in a small town where everyone knows and says hello to the town drunk.
He shrugged when asked if the park activity affects his business. "It's just a part of the area. It was here when we came here, and we just accept it for what it is."
He pointed out the Union Pacific locomotive anchoring the northeast corner of the park, an attraction that was supposed to bring families to the park. But because vandals immediately went to work on the train - broke windows, moved into it and built fires inside, even tried to hammer a brass bell off the front of the engine - the locomotive was fenced off.
Walton said he sometimes sees people using the basketball court in the summer, but said no one uses the tennis courts.
The city's decision to remove the baseball diamond during park renovations was a mistake, Walton said, because children would use the diamond in the day, and in the evenings the city leagues brought lots of people to the park. "They took it out and made the park for the bums," he said.
But the plan to build low-cost housing near the park was perhaps the worst idea the city had, he said. Indicating the ruins of the Pioneer Village Estates apartment complex, halted by bankruptcy proceedings in 1987, Walton shook his head.
"I don't want to be here when they get that place finished," he said.
Alice Larkin Steiner, the new director of the city's redevelopment agency, agrees that if the Pioneer Village apartments were completed, they wouldn't be an attractive place to live. For one thing, the apartments are entirely too close to 300 West, a designated truck route through the city.
It would be better, she said, to build something that would serve as both a buffer and a bridge across the street's physical and psychological barriers to Pioneer Park, which Steiner said is visually pleasing, especially from three or four stories up.
Steiner said she likes the idea of building a suite hotel or perhaps a smallish cultural or performing arts center on the 300 West side of the block. One thing is reasonably certain - the Pioneer Village apartments won't be completed. The city redevelopment agency is now in the process of buying the 7.5 acres of land on Block 49 the apartment ruins now occupy. The sale could close by Dec. 14.
Pioneer Park will figure heavily in any redevelopment plans for the block. However, Steiner said, "In the development community there's a feeling that Pioneer Park is a negative. I subscribe to the theory that if you get a lot of normal users you don't notice the abnormal users so much."
But advocating a change in the park's personality by diluting its current population involves a type of social engineering that makes her somewhat uncomfortable. The park's transient population "has as much right to use the park as anyone," Steiner said.
"The question is, how bad is the real danger as opposed to the perceived danger?" she said. "If you drive by, you would never guess it was a crime pocket."
Neither the city nor the redevelopment agency has any plans for further park renovations. Steiner said her plan is to proceed with developing Block 49 and see what the new population infusion does to and for the park before reassessing alternatives.
"One of the wildest schemes I've heard is to build something right in the park," she said.