I volunteered on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission for eight years as a way to give back to the community. In my time as a commissioner and chair, we heard hundreds of cases. I will always remember when the Salt Palace Convention Center and Salt Lake County wanted to expand the convention space downtown with an addition that would wipe out almost all that remained of what is known as "Japantown" or "J-Town." The expansion was needed to keep those coming for the Outdoor Retailer convention happy due to their increasing needs for display space. (They now have moved their shows to Denver.)
Many American cities have pockets of ethnic peoples who entered the country as immigrants and settled together for housing and employment opportunities, and to be with those who spoke the same language and shared similar traditions. Utah's Japanese came to work on the railroad, in mines and on farms. It wasn't long before Japanese businesses, churches and festivals popped up.
And yes, the Greeks, Chinese, LatinX and Italians were doing the same thing. Greektown was located on the south side of what's now The Gateway, stretching to the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The area now has a Trax stop named Greektown.
Japantown, or J-Town, was on 100 South between 200 West and 300 West—just behind the Salt Palace. In its day, it had noodle houses, laundries, fish and tofu shops, a pool hall and the Church of Christ and a Buddhist temple.
Sadly, much of JTown was demolished when the Salt Palace was built in the 1960s, and all that remained were the two churches. The most recent expansion request from Salt Lake County sought not only more space for exhibits but also for a semi-truck staging area and loading docks.
The elder Japanese who had memories of JTown and its churches lobbied the planning commission to at least preserve some space and honor the history of the neighborhood. We were able to put in a small park as a buffer, one that was landscaped with Japanese plants and artistic fencing.
Now, a decade later, Salt Lake City has announced it will be giving more attention to the micro area, with a design that includes a street lined with cherry blossoms and ethnic art. The proposed upgrades will come with a cost, and Salt Lake City is hoping to partner with public and private backers to bring this project to completion. Given the anti-Asian crimes happening in this country, it seems fitting that positive planning and beautification of this historic area are long overdue to celebrate the peoples who helped build and populate this state. Currently, there is massive construction going up all around the old J-Town, including two 11-story buildings (one a hotel, another luxury apartments) and the 700-room Hyatt Regency convention hotel going in at the south end of the convention center.
Money, thoughtful designs with fair public input—especially from the Asian/Japanese community—will help preserve and re-activate this neighborhood. Proposals that add Asian businesses back onto the street will be a delightful addition to a downtown that is quickly being swallowed up by boxes and high rises.