The photos are of familiar places, but the details are practically unrecognizable. Miles of streetcar tracks run through downtown Salt Lake City. Is that an amusement park in Sugar House? And why are there crowds of finely dressed people walking in the middle of Main Street—not on a Conference Weekend, mind you, just a regular day?
Snapshots of life in early 20th century Salt Lake City are gaining new life online, notably in a popular Twitter thread, mournfully titled “What Salt Lake Lost,” and the Instagram account Old Salt Lake, that’s profile reads: “Salt Lake is dope—and so is its history.”
The audience enjoying these dope images is mostly millennials and zoomers decades removed from this lost Salt Lake. As a generation comes of age in an almost entirely new city, many are looking to the past and wondering what went wrong. This version of Salt Lake had what many young urbanites now value: easily accessible public transportation, walkable streets, local businesses (open late), and distinctive architecture. The Twitter thread and Instagram feeds often play before-and-after with the images, with side by side comparisons that demonstrate what’s changed in specific neighborhoods. It’s fun but also a little wistful. In the last 100 years, Salt Lake City’s streets and neighborhoods have transformed. And, in many cases, dull-high rises have sprung up alongside cookie-cutter condo towers and chain restaurants and parking garages squat where once stately, architecturally significant buildings stood.
These images, rediscovered by a new generation, raise questions about what we want our city to be. They especially resonate as Salt Lake works through another period of transition. Rapid population increases and new economic opportunities promise progress, but urban growing pains also threaten much of what makes our city unique. As more changes loom, this curation of culture feels like both an elegy and a call to action.