The West has long been shaped by human migrations, and the inevitable melding — and clashing — of cultures. That’s no less true today than it was in the days of tribal warfare or gold panning. In fact, it is probably more so.
Americans have flocked to the Interior West in recent years to escape the crowded coastal cities, to find work, or to claim a piece of Western paradise. Migrant workers cross the deserts to the south, both legally and illegally, to pick our fruit, butcher our beef, cook our food, tend our lawns, watch our children. Tourists traipse through our towns, and we happily relieve them of every possible dime.
In Utah, this story of migration, growth and culture clash comes into striking focus. Over the past century and a half, Utah’s boosters have built an economic and spiritual machine, and a brand that has drawn pilgrims from the world over. Mexicans have come seeking economic opportunity. Afghanis, Somalis and Bosnians have come seeking refuge from wars.
But perhaps the biggest driver of growth in Utah is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church’s army of missionaries is saving souls around the globe, making Mormonism one of today’s fastest-growing religions. Many of its converts, from Central America, South America and especially Polynesia, have left poverty- and violence-stricken cities and villages to take part in building this new place.
Within many Mormon families, growth continues to be the driving philosophy, too. Some still branch their trees a dozen limbs at a time. But the Mormon Zion, as this issue’s cover story shows, is not immune to the problems that plague other growing cities. Parts of the Salt Lake Valley are now home to a suburban wasteland, where L.A.-style gang violence rages.
One of the ironies — and tragedies — of this story lies in the fact that many gang members are in Utah because of the church. Their parents were converts who came to the holy land. But while the church has helped create this mess, it has done little to help clean it up. Church higher-ups have opted to leave the gang problem in the hands of neighborhood and local church leaders, who are clearly overwhelmed.
The problem of gang violence in Salt Lake offers a disturbing glimpse into Utah’s conflicted soul: The state continues to pack more people into its desert cities, but is slow to deal with the consequences. Salt Lake is also a mirror for cities around the West, which are stoking the fires of growth, while failing to see that as their populations boom, some Westerners are getting burned.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.