SALT LAKE CITY — The downtown Harmons grocery is packed with lunchtime office workers rushing for deli sandwiches and Chinese takeout, but Mickelle Weber has something else in mind: dinner.
“Tonight, I’m thinking about spicy lentil and chard salad,” she says, removing her shopping basket from the back of her infant son’s stroller. “Every morning, one of the first things I do now is decide what to make for dinner. Then I just walk out the door and go get it.”
Since she and her husband, Doug, made the decision to raise a family downtown, Weber, 30, is a familiar sight on city streets as she wheels baby Grayson everywhere from art galleries and antique stores to festivals and farmer’s markets.
“You didn’t see many moms doing this when we first moved here,” she says, “but now it’s becoming more common. In fact, I’d say it’s a trend. Salt Lake City is finally catching up with the rest of the world. People are learning there is more to life than a big house in the suburbs and a long commute. You actually have more time to enjoy your family when you live downtown.”
Thrilled to have a new grocery store just a few blocks from her family’s two-bedroom loft, Weber now shops every day for fresh produce, bread and spices — much like a local living in the heart of Paris or Prague. Parking hassles are a thing of the past, along with plugging a meter or filling her gas tank.
“People in Europe and China do this, so why can’t we?” she asks. “We walk to the doctor’s office, we walk to the post office, we walk to the dentist. My husband walks to work, then we meet him at his office on Friday night and walk to dinner. One of the best things about living like we do is that the city becomes your kitchen.”
Weber wanted to tell her story in Free Lunch in the hope of enticing other young families to consider something besides half-acre lots with three-car garages. Sitting on a cushy sofa in Harmons coffee lounge, she sips a cup of chai and bounces Grayson on her lap, reflecting on life before and after she discovered the pleasures of a 10-second commute.
Six years ago, she and her husband were living in South Weber, driving in rush-hour traffic each day to Salt Lake City, where Doug works as a computer programmer and Weber is a freelance production designer.
“One day, we figured out we were devoting several hundred hours a year to commuting, not to mention the cost of gas and wear and tear on our cars,” she says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is nuts. Why don’t we buy something closer to work and spend more time together?’”
A few months later, they’d traded their 3,000-square-foot house for a 500-square-foot loft near Pioneer Park. Jazz basketball games, symphony concerts, ice-skating and Thai take-out were available within minutes.
“We felt like pioneers,” says Weber, “but some of our friends were surprised that we did it. They’re amazed that we feel safe raising our son downtown.”
Weber feels so safe, in fact, that she regularly takes Grayson to play at Pioneer Park and she doesn’t hesitate to jump on Trax at all hours for quick trips to the library or to rent movies for the weekend.
“Our neighborhood downtown is one of the most diverse in the state — we have everyone from those with no homes to those with expensive penthouses,” she says. “You never know who you’re going to see when you walk out the door. And that’s exactly why we like it.”
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Cathy Free has written "Free Lunch" for the Deseret News since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.