Restaurant closures have become commonplace lately, especially during COVID, but it was a gut-punch to learn that Salt Lake City's iconic Blue Plate Diner will permanently close its doors in May. In my pre-Celiac era, when my guts were still on good terms with gluten and dairy, I spent many happy hours at the Blue Plate, munching on cheese sandwiches and conversing with beloved friends. Twenty years is a good run for a restaurant but the reason for the closure—the sale of the retro diner to pave the way for a mixed-use development—is symptomatic of a larger erosion of the most eclectic corners of Salt Lake City's culture. The city appears to be going steadily the way of California: overpopulated, overdeveloped and too expensive for anyone but the highest earners to sustain a reasonable quality of life in.
In 2007, developer Craig Mecham dreamed up the bougie "Sugar House Loop," which was to include sleek high rises and fancy new businesses. Mecham's grand plans booted out many established small businesses in the 2100 South and 1100 East area. As a teenager in the '90s, that area was my stomping ground where I bounced around drinking peach Italian sodas at Java Jive, peering into the open door of a palm reader's shop as she foretold the future and saved my lunch money to buy provocative patterned tights from the Blue Boutique.
My heart broke after the buildings of my beloved stretch of Sugar House were razed, only for the land they sat on to sit empty and undeveloped for years after Mecham's project stalled. Some of my favorite spots in Salt Lake City were gutted by greed only to languish like a picked over-carcass. In 2018, on one of my trips to Salt Lake (I now live in News Orleans), I visited the "new" Sugar House and will forever mourn the loss of Experienced Books, Java Jive, the Blue Boutique, the fortune teller and the creek adjacent to the library being channeled to make way for big-box stores. At least the Sprague Library is still intact despite its basement being inundated by a flood in 2017.
My sister-in-law recently posted a listing for a three-bedroom house on Browning Avenue selling for $710,000. I couldn't believe my eyes. Isn't $710,000 what you'd pay for a McMansion on the East Bench or beach-front property? How are businesses like Java Jive and Experienced Books supposed to survive in a city where a fixer-upper sells for nearly a million dollars?
I have heard the same smug refrain from the most privileged among us: "Just get a job that pays more money." That would be nice—but wages in many industries are hardly keeping up with the cost of living. We can't all be lawyers, doctors and tech wizards. The people who stock our groceries, serve our food and fix our fancy cars and houses are just as important to the fabric of Salt Lake City as those who make six-figure salaries.
What type of quality of life do we really have if businesses like Blue Plate Diner disappear to make room for yet another round of garish condos? I understand that change is inevitable—and businesses naturally come and go. But what happens when rising rents make it impossible for a new mom and pop eatery to open in Blue Plate Diner's space? Meet your new chain eatery. Does a city populated entirely by soulless condos, restaurant chains and big-box stores sound remotely appealing?
A similar gentrification process is taking place in my adopted home of New Orleans. I cringe every time I park my bike next to the tacky condos springing up in the Bywater next to my favorite library. The difference between Salt Lake City and New Orleans is that in NOLA, people fight harder to preserve old buildings. Also, small businesses are the lifeblood of the community. Salt Lake City is too eager to let money talk when it comes to new developments and the fate of old buildings. San Francisco also allowed money to talk—and now that once-vibrant artistic hub is an astronomically expensive playground for the wealthy where few artists and working-class people can afford to live.
Salt Lake City is still home to many thriving local businesses, and my hope is that it values them enough to support them and shield them from developers. I had a mini panic attack when I saw that developers had their eyes on Ken Sanders Rare Books. While it's heartening that the community has rallied behind Ken and offered him financial support via a GoFundMe page, it doesn't mean he'll keep his building. At this point, he's launched a book boutique at The Leonardo while we wait to see what happens with his larger collection.
Every time I set foot in Salt Lake City, another beloved small business which I once frequented has closed, and another eyesore of a condo that no one I know can afford to live in has sprung up in its place. If I get priced out of New Orleans, I couldn't afford to move back to Salt Lake City. There's still some beach-front property in Mississippi that's in my price range—I think a lot of us are going to end up there in the coming years. I never thought that my hometown would become a playground for the rich, but I suppose nearly every mid-to-large American city is on its way to becoming obscenely expensive. If the cost of living in Salt Lake City keeps rising, those eclectic residents who make life interesting will have to take their shine elsewhere.
Private Eye is off this week. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org