West side versus east side: addressing the divide in Salt Lake City

Story by SPENCER BUCHANAN

In 2019, an interesting dichotomy formed in the Salt Lake City mayoral election. Salt Lake City has been divided, physically and socially, by an east-side and west-side axis. And during the race the two most competitive candidates, then Salt Lake City city councilor Erin Mendenhall and Utah state senator Luz Escamilla, fell into that axis. Escamilla lives in the Rose Park neighborhood on the west side while Mendenhall lives in the east-side neighborhood known as 9th and 9th. Mendenhall won the election and currently serves as mayor of Salt Lake City.

Even for a smaller city, Salt Lake City has numerous issues including some of the worst air pollution in the nation, homelessness, rapid growth, and urban blight. In a piece by the Salt Lake Tribune, when it came to solutions, Mendenhall and Escamilla generally agreed on most issues. But their biggest differences were their backgrounds and priorities as mayor.

On her campaign website, Escamilla said her main priority was “uniting Salt Lake City” and she touted “her ability to find effective solutions, find common ground, and build bridges among those with different interests.” With her background as an immigrant and work as the director of the State Office of Ethnic Affairs, Escamilla often addressed the issue of “representation” among minority groups.

At a debate during the election covered by the Salt Lake Tribune, Escamilla argued that Salt Lake City hasn’t had leadership that “intentionally cares about the west side.” During the same debate, Mendenhall expressed a commitment to the west side.

“People who have less economic and education resources tend to be less inclined to contact government officials and make demands of them,” said Matthew Burbank, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, in a phone interview.

According to Burbank, residents of the west side experience the same issue as many other urban working-class and minority communities when interacting with government.

“Where we see this in Salt Lake, is generally the west side. We have more people who are poorer and less educated and are less likely to contact government officials than east-side residents of Salt Lake,” Burbank said.

Escamilla’s run for mayor had a chance for historic change and representation for the west side. But Mendenhall won and for some it felt like a confirmation and continuation of the power dichotomy between the west side and east side.

But according to Turner Bitton, the chair of the Glendale Community Council, the attitude around the 2019 mayoral election was much more nuanced.

“It was very split. Believe it or not. There were a lot of residents that were supportive of Erin Mendenhall and a lot of residents that were supportive of Luz Escamilla,” Bitton said, referencing voters on the west side.

Bitton stated in a phone interview that the election wasn’t as divisive as other recent elections and that sentiment was mixed toward both candidates.

“The overall sentiment that I saw over and over again was: they’re both great and wish we could have both,” Bitton said.

And after Mendenhall won, Bitton said he’s found the first few months to be a smooth transition and added he has been impressed with her communication with west-side organizations. Bitton noted that he was especially pleased with how Mendenhall kept much of the same people who worked in previous administrations. Bitton said that keeping many of the same people is what has formed a good dialogue between the mayor, her office, and the west side.

“This speaks to Mayor Mendenhall’s experience as an organizer. She understands how those models of communication are so important and why it matters to have communication going both ways,” Bitton said.

On March 2, Mendenhall gave her State of the City address from Meadowlark Elementary, located in the Jordan Meadows neighborhood on the west side. Mendenhall spoke extensively on her ambitions making Salt Lake City more “sustainable” and “green.” But near the end of the address she focused on her desire for more diverse voices in city hall.

In the address, Mendenhall said, “Making a place for diverse perspectives in positions of influence is essential to ensuring new policies are inclusive of the needs of all populations and help to shape an equitable and inclusive city where all individuals can feel welcome, respected, supported, and safe.”

Joshua Rebello, a community liaison for the mayor’s office, said, “The mayor’s goals fall under three categories: growth, environment, and communities.”

As a community liaison, Rebello works as a bridge between the mayor’s office and neighborhoods. He works with community councils, residents, and businesses within city council districts 1 and 2, which encompass the west side.

Rebello stated that one of Mendenhall’s focuses is on “creating more inclusive communities” and harnessing the rapid growth to benefit all residents. He also outlined how Mendenhall has framed her environmental and infrastructure ambitions toward the west side.

“Residents of the west side carry a bigger burden when it comes to poor air quality,” Rebello said.

Rebello stated that Mendenhall has been particularly focused on the Utah Inland Port, and the effects that it will uniquely have on the residents of the west side.

“They’re out by the airport already, they deal with noise pollution from airplanes. They’d have to deal with more rail traffic, cargo traffic, it’s something that could negatively impact the community,” Rebello said.

Along with trying to frame her infrastructure and environmental priorities toward the west side, Mendenhall announced in February 2020 on the city’s website that she would hold “office hours” where residents could “share their ideas and priorities for their communities and neighborhoods in the city.” The office hours are scheduled to occur twice monthly, offering both scheduled and open-door formats.

“It’s an opportunity for any resident to talk to the mayor about what issue they’d like the mayor to be aware of and to address it,” Rebello said.

He stated that Mendenhall has made it a priority that her office hours are accessible to as many possible residents. The location of the office shifts between the City and County Building in downtown to the various library branches across the city.

Rebello said that Mendenhall consciously chose the Chapman Library Branch located on 577 S. 900 West on the west side in order to address the issues and tension that residents there feel.

“A lot of people have spoken up for the neighborhood and community. The mayor really wants to encourage people to do that — but not just those that have in the past — but anyone,” Rebello said. “It’s why she’s making an effort to go out to the public libraries and anywhere possible, to where the residents are.”

The 2019 Salt Lake City mayoral election put the west side and east side divide front and center. The race between Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla showed some of the tension that still permeates between the neighborhoods. But Mayor Mendenhall has made efforts to relieve tensions and has reached out specifically to those who may feel the system doesn’t work for them. Mendenhall has lofty goals for Salt Lake City and time will tell how those ambitions will include the west side.