One June evening in 1965, Liberty Park was the site of Salt Lake City's first major riot, when 1,000 young people stormed over the grounds, battling police wielding nightsticks and lobbing tear gas.

Ten years later, a Salt Lake police officer patrolling on a cool, fall morning was catapulted from his motorcycle after being wounded in the leg by a gunman in the park.Finally, in the summer of 1980, Liberty Park was where a racist sniper, armed with a .30 caliber rifle, crouched in the tall weeds and fired six shots at a group of joggers, killing two black teenagers.

Now the park - which once drew crime and violence to the city's center like a black hole - is a place where children frolic, families gather, where the city celebrates everything from Easter to its forefathers' arrival.

What's happened to Liberty Park since the '60s and '70s, when it was a neglected haven for crime? What has transformed it into a 94-acre emerald-green jewel, a "Central Park" in Utah's capital city?

City leaders say Liberty Park has become Salt Lake's most popular green space following an improvement program spanning two decades.

The park took its first infant steps toward what it is today in 1976, when the city recognized Liberty Park for what it really was at that time - a haven for prostitutes, petty criminals and cruisers, Parks Director John Gust said.

"People had a fear of coming here; there were a lot of shootings and basically a bad element here," Gust said. "So, it was really an inducement to change the image of Liberty Park."

For the next dozen years, Gust said, the city set out to recapture the park, little by little, from the "bad elements" and "give it back to the families, give it back to the people."

Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis, who lives a stone's throw from the park, watched the park decline and has seen it re-emerge.

"It was really on the skids," he said, recalling how it was once dominated by "unsavory elements."

"But now, it's on the rise and it's making a comeback," he said, noting that Liberty has lent his Central City neighborhood, which has struggled against deterioration and out-migration, a degree of stability.

One of the first steps in reclaiming the park was the closure of Sixth East in 1976. That street used to bisect the park and generate bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The area once covered by concrete was replaced with grass and shrubbery. Most important, closing the street opened the interior of the park exclusively to foot traffic, said parks planner John Swain.

In 1980, the City Council adopted a five-year master plan for the park, which included restoration of the Isaac Chase Mill, a flour mill completed in 1854. After $150,000 in brickwork, the mill's exterior was restored in 1984 to its original condition.

In the fall of 1981, in an area once considered the center of vice activity in the park, the city opened a $400,000 children's park, which embraces an adventure theme. On balmy afternoons, scores of children climb on the natural wood towers, tumble in huge, nylon nets and swing on ropes.

"Ten years ago, you wouldn't have seen 10 kids here," Gust said, over the screams and shouts of children.

The city has made other improvements, including replacing some parking areas with grass and re-aligning other parking areas to afford more space.

Liberty Park is meticulously well-groomed now. Its many trees have been trimmed so police have a better view of otherwise dark and shadowy areas, Gust said.

The Tracy Aviary, built in 1938, also has been upgraded. Besides its $250,000 bird collection, the aviary will soon be opening a new amphi-theater for educational productions.

Most of the improvements have been done piecemeal, Swain said. Projects were undertaken whenever the city could make funds available.

"But the citizens have been pretty patient with us - they knew we weren't out just aimlessly tearing things up," he said.

Some of the projects were paid for with funds from other entities. The Chase Mill restoration was funded partly with money from the Utah State Historical Society as well as Community Development Block Grant funds.

Other projects were done in conjunction with necessary infrastructure plans, Swain said.

The Liberty Park pond, for example, was redone with $450,000 in Salt Lake County flood control funds. Now, the park features a refurbished pond that also controls flooding in Emigration Canyon.

All told, the city has spent $1.2 million improving Liberty Park in the last dozen years, Gust said - a good deal considering the value in improved quality of life it offers to the city.

"I don't know what we would do if Liberty Park wasn't here; it would be a pretty sad day in the valley," he said.

Police once questioned motorcycle gangs looking for leads in the 1975 shooting of a police officer in Liberty Park. Now, some of those same cycle clubs bring their bikes to the park to raise money for charity.

On July 24, Pioneer Day, thousands of runners finish the annual Deseret News-KSL Radio Marathon and 10K at Liberty Park.

The city also sponsors Neighborfair on Pioneer Day, which this year fell on July 25. The fair attracts upward of 400,000 people, who browse among booths sponsored by area non-profit organizations.

Hardly a Saturday or Sunday passes when joggers or bicyclers aren't racing through Liberty Park.

In the future, the city plans to build a band shell extending over the pond, using the side of a 50-foot high berm for natural seating. It would replace an old shell torn down years ago.

Gust calls the bandstand, projected to cost several thousand dollars, the park's "crown jewel."