Wharton: A visit to Midvale’s historic downtown
Published: April 4, 2013 03:24PM
Updated: April 4, 2013 03:23PM
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Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake Tribune One of many Hispanic-oriented stores located near Midvale's old town.

Midvale • For the most part, the little shopping enclaves that gave the Salt Lake Valley personality have slowly disappeared. Downtown has become a Disney-like montage of chain stores. Sugar House has lost much of its former charm. Murray’s main drag tries, but it is obviously slowly losing the battle to franchises.

That leaves Magna and Midvale’s old-fashioned Main Streets as perhaps the last of a dying era.

A recent stroll through the heart of Midvale revealed some interesting changes to what remains a charming little piece of nostalgic, small-town history.

Clark Phelps, who owns an antique shop on Main Street and whose family has operated a business there since 1903, is an unofficial historian. He said Midvale became a city in 1909. Before that it was known as Bingham Junction.

The old-style Main Street has made Midvale a magnet for movies such as “The Sandlot” and “Halloween 4” as well as television shows such as “Everwood,” “The Stand” and “Touched by an Angel.” It harkens back to the ’50s style Main Streets filled with little mom and pop stores.

Indeed, some of the historic homes that surround the heart of Old Town Midvale remind me of a mining company town, the kind that you might see in Price, Helper, Magna or old Park City. I once shot baskets for hours in the now torn-down gym adjacent to Midvale Elementary School where my dad was an assistant principal. I remember seeing that gym in a John Stockton bank commercial.

“Midvale has always had an ethnic mix,” said Phelps. “It was a blue-collar smelter town. … We had great cultures of Greeks, Croats, Serbians and Italians. Later in the 1970s we received Vietnamese and Hmong refugees. Today there are a lot of Hispanics.”

The most recent U.S. Census shows that 24.3 percent of Midvale’s population of 28,434 residents are Hispanic. That fact is reflected in many of the businesses that can be found in the heart of Midvale.

My Spanish isn’t good, but there were a number of businesses that seemed to specialize in money wire transfers, cell phones, notary publics, tax preparation, translation and phone cards. There were several tiny markets specializing in Latino foods and products. One had colorful piñatas hanging from the ceiling. At least two taco carts used parking lots at the back or sides of buildings.

I counted at least three authentic-looking Mexican restaurants, an evangelical church with a Hispanic name and several hair salons that appeared to cater to Hispanics. St. Therese’s Catholic Church, which has a thrift store on Main Street, offers two Masses in English and two in Spanish on Sundays.

“I thank the Mexican community for keeping Main street alive,” said Phelps. “There are interesting grocery stores, street food, good and bad restaurants and occasionally I get a haircut while I practice my feeble Spanish language skills. The Good Friday procession is an interesting cultural event. And the Cinco de Mayo parade that does go down Main Street should not be missed.”

Latinos weren’t the only culture represented. Just off Main Street, a large building housed the Hawaiian Cultural Center.

The town center also provided most of the services anyone would need. There was a theater specializing in comedy and live productions, the Old Towne Tavern that advertised darts, pool and karaoke and looked much like a small Midwestern bar, a state liquor store, an ice cream parlor, a tire store, a baseball diamond, a dentist, antique store, tattoo parlor, business offices and a number of churches.

Midvale’s brick town hall, designed by architects Clark Scott and George Welch and built in 1939, sits right on the intersection of Center and Main Street.

One thing that Old Town Midvale lacks, sadly, is a drug store. Vincent Drug, a stalwart for years and a featured part of the movie The Sandlot, is closed. Its owner retired and the classic drug store with its soda fountain and narrow aisles looks as if he just walked away one day. A few products still can be seen through the front windows on shelves but the floor is littered with paper. It is as if an era ended, kind of like when Woolworth’s closed in Sugar House or Kress’s shut down on Main Street in Salt Lake.

That said, in a valley filled with strip malls, franchises and sameness, the tree-lined Main Street of Midvale’s Old Town retains an inviting flavor that invites further exploration.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton