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Pioneer Park: A Strange Dichotomy
June 25th, 2008

Are the city improvements making a difference in Pioneer Park? Utah Stories investigates by talking to homeless vagrants as well as police officers and farmer's market organizer Kim Angeli.
Pioneer Park Salt Lake City
300 South Salt Lake City, taken from Pioneer Park

Salt Lake City, Pioneer Park--A strange dichotomy exists under the hundred-year-old trees surrounding Pioneer Park. Vagrants sleep in the shade next to their shopping carts full of everything they own, while couples in summer shorts stroll along the North side of the park, hardly batting an eye at passed out men. Across the street from the park businesses are flourishing. Shoppers are buying bread at Carlucci's Bakery or eating big italian sandwiches outside of Tony Caputo's. Despite the $400,000 condos for sale and improvements to the area, some would argue that Pioneer Park is still the worst place in Salt Lake City (in terms of drug trade and vagrancy). However, the park is beginning to show signs of improvement. This, according to the majority of people that Utah Stories spoke to.

The Deseret News ran a story in their Sunday paper written as if the park had made a complete 180 degree turn-around. However, the reporter only witnessed the park during Farmer's Market hours. Area residents know well that when the Farmers Market closes shop, the drug trade opens and the park becomes quite a different place.

Salt Lake City Police Officer Smalley, who patrols the area regularly on his bicycle, doesn't believe that the new amenities have had any effect on the root problems. "Its a revolving door. We bust drug dealers and throw them in jail, but the jail can't afford to keep them, so they just end up right back here again. According to Smalley, the $1 million dollar make-over (installing the running track, ground level lights and dog area) has done nothing to slow down the drug trade in the park. "The only thing that will make a difference is if they spend more money too keep the drug dealers in jail," says Smalley.

Pioneer Park Salt Lake City
Sleeping man in Pioneer Park downtown Salt Lake City

Introducing myself as a reporter, I find very few who are willing to trust me with candor. One group I introduce myself to immediatly scatters as if I have the plauge. Once the police officers on bicycle patrol vacate the area the drug trade emerges with little regard for discretion. A young men join a park resident, then immediatly head North, while one man is staring back at me (to see if I'm following). The group then hides on the other side of a tree while they conduct a transaction. Despite some obvious fears many park residents have of outsiders, I find three men and one women who were willing to discuss the park changes.

I first meet John who is an elderly white man with a long beard. John didn't want to reveal his last name or permit a photo for fear his family would discover him. A few nubby, stained pearls is all that remains of John's front teeth. The teeth, hollow face are tell-tell traits of a prior meth user. However, John isn't intoxicated today. Observing the changes in the park for the past eleven years, John says the bike patrol and improvements to the park have decreased the drug trade and violence significantly. John says he can still remember when the freeway overpass was directly West of the park. In those days needles where everywhere and powder cocaine was sold in mass quantities. According to Officer Smalley powder cocaine is rarely seen anymore, the drug traded and busted the most now is crack cocaine.

Cruiser bicycle
A new element found in Pioneer Park

I then meet Joe, who is a courteous black man who offers some basic advice, "If you want to get stories and have people willing to talk to you, you need to come here with money or beer." I tell Joe I already learned this lesson when I came here with my video camera a year ago. This story was produced through bribery. Instead of beer, which might be illiegal, I used Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers and money. I traded five hamburgers and $15 for six candid interviews about the political and social barriers preventing any real "clean up" effort from happening. Without money today, I press Joe a little and he offers a bit of information. According to Joe, the the cops on bikes help. Regarding the new addition of the Guardian Angels (who recently opened a chapter in Salt Lake City) Joe said, "Those guys don't do anything, they are almost never here." Officer Smalley shares the same sentiment saying, "[The Guardian Angels] show up when the news media and cameras are around. Other than that we almost never see them."

Salt Lake City Bicycle Patrol
Salt Lake City Bicycle Patrol

Next I approach a Native American woman sitting next to two Hispanic men. She examines me suspiciously as I introduce myself. She also wishes to remain anonymous, and seems completely distrustful of my presence. Without a hint of sarcasm, she tells me the park is totally cleaned up now, she also adds that she doesn't use drugs and she doesn't know anyone in the park who buys or sells drugs anymore. I suspect she is saying these things to protect herself. I found similar reactions a year ago when several people I was speaking to also came to the conclusion that I was an under cover cop, and not to be trusted.

kim angeli
Kim Angeli and Uinise Lani and Kim Angeli in Pioneer Park

      I return to my car (parked on 400 South) and relocate to the North-end of the park, where the drug dealers fled. They are now huddled around trees and don't pay much attention to me. There I meet Kim Angeli, with the Downtown Alliance. who is meeting with Uinise Lani. They are discussing details of the Pacific Islander Festival (which will be held August 23rd during the Farmer's Market). Angeli, who has been the principle organizer of the Farmer's Market for the past three years, says that she sees a lot of improvement in how the public is using the park. She sees people now walking their dogs and taking their children in the park; whereas before this would have never occured. Angeli, however, doesn't see much hope for the vagrancy problem in the park. "The shelter (two blocks west of the park) is closed during the daytime. These folks are homeless; where else are they going to go? If I were them I would come to this park too." Angeli agrees that the drug trade probably hasn't slowed down much with the improvements. "Its not like I can say that there is an overwhelming change, because there isn't. But we have seen a difference...The Farmer's Market this year is bigger and better than ever and we are greatful that the media has helped in spreading the word."

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