‘We coexist’: Provo culture is getting more hip and accepting, some say. But not without pushback.

For the most part, everyone is trying to listen to one another and be understanding, a BYU professor and Provo resident said.

Davey Ruiz II moved from East Los Angeles to Salt Lake City in 2013 before, a couple of years later, he moved south to … Provo.

Talk about culture shock.

“It’s soooo different,” Ruiz said.

In Provo, for example, he’s constantly having to explain his many tattoos. In L.A., no one asks about anyone’s tattoos, Ruiz said — it’s just normal for people to have them.

He’s been getting inked since he was 18, and now has so many that he has “lost count.” Whenever he travels to a new country, he likes to get a tattoo as a souvenir. And he has his daughter’s name, Kalaya, tattooed on his fingers.

As the owner of Salty Barbers in downtown Provo, Ruiz said he likes to look at his daughter’s name while he’s working, giving clients straight-razor shaves, sick fades and beard trims.

“I’m just a normal person who likes art,” he said. So why does a heavily tattooed guy decide to open a barbershop in Provo, Utah, of all places, when he’s been all over the world?

One reason is that Salty Barbers is totally unique in Provo, Ruiz said. In Salt Lake City, Salty Barbers would’ve been one of several barbershops.

Plus, as a shop that Ruiz describes as “open minded,” Salty Barbers has become an eclectic community space, located directly across the street from the downtown Latter-day Saint temple, in an area that’s also at the center of the city’s blossoming LGBTQ scene.

Ruiz and others who live and work in Provo say it’s starting to become more diverse and inclusive — even as it still has a ways to go. In certain neighborhoods, new voices are making themselves heard.

For Ruiz’s part, “I’m letting people know that I’m here, I’m part of the community” — handlebar mustache and all.

‘Where all the hippies live’

If you step off the eastern edge of Brigham Young University’s Provo campus and walk across 900 East, you’ll end up in the Wasatch neighborhood. But the people who live there call it the “Tree Streets,” with signs on its hilly roads bearing names like Birch, Ash, Cedar and Maple.

And it’s got a reputation.

“If you say you live in the Tree Streets, it’s understood that you are living in a progressive, liberal neighborhood that’s like the outlier of Provo,” said Scott Sanders, who lives on Willow Lane and is a professor at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In fact, when Sanders and his wife were looking for a house to buy, some Provo dwellers warned them that the Tree Streets was “where all the hippies live,” Sanders said.

But that was what they were looking for. After living in New York for 10 years, the couple knew that wherever they ended up, they wanted to be able to share their political views outwardly, Sanders said.

“I know a lot of people sometimes feel like they have to be ‘closeted’ Democrats or progressives, and we just didn’t want to do that if we moved back to Utah,” he said.

The Tree Streets was one of the neighborhoods in overwhelmingly Republican Provo that voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, according to Utah County data. Parts of the Joaquin, Maeser, Timp and Franklin neighborhoods, all located downtown, also voted blue.

When walking, biking or driving around those neighborhoods, there are signs that the “vibe” is a little different from the conservative Provo norm.

In the Tree Streets, it’s not uncommon to see rainbow flags and “Black Lives Matter” signs in people’s yards, Sanders said.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Black Lives Matter sign and a LGBTQ flag are pictured in the “Tree Streets” neighborhood in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

On a sunny afternoon in February, several homes in the Tree Streets had yellow placards out front that read “Don’t Pave Utah Lake,” referring to a proposal that would create artificial islands in the lake.

The Larsens have lived in their house on Cherry Lane since 1998, and Elena Larsen said she’d always assumed that the neighborhood was conservative, like she and her husband, Wayne.

During the 2020 presidential election, however, Elena said she was surprised by the number of Biden signs she’d see as they’d go on walks.

The political inklings in the Tree Streets represent a “spectrum of beliefs,” Wayne Larsen said.

Drama does arise from time to time. During the election, there was some strife over stolen campaign signs, Sanders said — signs for both Biden and former President Donald Trump were swiped.

But for the most part, everyone is trying to listen to one another and be understanding, he said.

“It’s a really friendly neighborhood,” Sanders said, where kids play football in the street and go trick-or-treating, and people wave to one another or stop to chat.

“We coexist,” Wayne Larsen said.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU sociology professor Scott Sanders stands for a portrait outside his home in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 10. “If you say you live in the Tree Streets, it’s understood that you are living in a progressive, liberal neighborhood that’s like the outlier of Provo,” Sanders said.

‘Popping the bubble’

Provo is smack dab in the middle of Utah County, which, in 2021, was 80.43% Latter-day Saint, according to church data. But the LGBTQ community is still becoming more and more visible there, even if signs of it can be slightly harder to spot in Provo compared to, say, Salt Lake City.

In Provo’s Joaquin neighborhood, “W.T.F.” Nights at the Bicycle Collective (bicyclecollective.org) are meant to be a judgment-free zone where women and anyone who expresses a feminine gender identity can work on bikes or just hang out.

Every Monday from 6 to 8 p.m., women, transgender people and femme folks (hence the W.T.F.) get free access to DIY bench space and tools, as well as assistance from Bicycle Collective volunteers.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Gabriel Cano, of Provo, works on a bike wheel during a weekly "W.T.F.” Nights event held for women, transgender people, and femme folks at the Provo Bicycle Collective in Provo on Monday, Feb. 14.

Kira Johnson, director of the Bicycle Collective’s Provo location, said it can be intimidating for “anybody outside of that cis-male identity to come in and feel like, ‘Is it OK for me to ask questions? Is it OK for me to not know how to do these things? Is this all stuff that I should have learned?’”

Recently brought back after the pandemic closed down the collective’s programs, “W.T.F.” Nights are a welcoming and safe space for everyone, Johnson said. “We’re all there to learn together.”

In 2013, Provo’s first Pride Festival was held at Memorial Park, on Center Street. In 2017, the first Encircle house opened just south of the downtown Provo temple, as a haven and source of therapy for LGBTQ youth. Since 2015, the Divine Sister Misters have been putting on drag shows at City Limits Tavern as a way to “claim space” for the LGBTQ community in Provo.

In March 2021, LGBTQ students at BYU lit up the “Y” above the private university in rainbow colors to mark the anniversary of the LDS Church saying that “same-sex romantic behavior” is “not compatible” with the school’s Honor Code.

Ruiz said he thought the display was “awesome.”

“Provo needs that,” he said.

Since it opened in 2020, Salty Barbers has served “a huge LGBTQ clientele,” Ruiz said, as well as members of the LDS Church.

One of the main rules of barbershops is never to talk about politics or religion, he said. So Salty Barbers is essentially a neutral space, where people of all backgrounds can come relax and enjoy some TLC.

In addition to riding around Provo on cartoonishly small motorcycles, the grooming experts at Salty Barbers hope to “open people’s eyes” to the world that exists outside the city, Ruiz said. “We’re just popping the bubble.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) “Frosti” gives Yohannes Fishman, of Provo, a haircut while Nick Hulbert observes at Salty Barbers in downtown Provo on Monday, Feb. 14. Since it opened in 2020, Salty Barbers has served “a huge LGBTQ clientele,” Ruiz said, as well as members of the LDS Church.

Inclusivity — and exclusivity

The rainbow-colored display on the “Y” in 2021 was meaningful for Amy Koide, too.

A convert to the LDS Church, Koide lives in Provo’s Maeser neighborhood with her husband and their three daughters.

She’s also bisexual, and when she saw the lights on the mountain, she told some members of her ward through a messaging app that the rainbow “Y” made “her little bi heart happy.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The "Y" on Y Mountain east of Provo is lit in rainbow colors to show on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

It was the first time Koide came out to anyone from church, and since then, she said people have been supportive and “still just as friendly as ever.”

She and her husband moved to Utah from San Francisco, and she said her ward in Provo reminds her of the one they attended in the Bay Area.

“People aren’t super fancy all the time and it’s not clique-y,” she said. “Everyone is welcoming and open and you just feel like you can be your normal self.”

The mixed-race family has noticed one big difference, though. In Provo, Koide’s oldest daughter was worried because she was the only girl with dark hair in her dance class. But in San Francisco, “it was the total opposite,” Koide said.

Jacob Rugh, a BYU sociology professor who lives in Provo, said that the percentage of city residents who aren’t white rose from 22.5% in 2010 to 29.1% in 2020, according to census data. And he has noted that Provo is 19% Latino, about the same percentage as the United States overall.

Rugh is also vocal about the racism that his Black students say they’ve experienced at BYU. In 2020, he called for the university to undergo a “long-term process of institutional repentance” in regards to race.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh stands for a portrait outside his home in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 10.

Koide, who is part Japanese, said that ever since the 2020 protests in downtown Provo against George Floyd’s killing, she has seen “more inclusivity than we saw before.”

But there has also been pushback, she said.

A year after the rainbow “Y” demonstration, BYU fenced off the iconic “Y” above the school and recently added signs warning that demonstrations there are now prohibited, after a policy change enacted in December. A school spokesperson said the policy change was about keeping individuals safe on the mountain’s steep terrain.

And about a year ago, while Koide and her family were on a walk just outside the Maeser neighborhood, they saw a Confederate flag flying outside a home. At that moment, Koide said she thought: “I don’t feel safe. I’m going to turn around and go the other way.”

On another walk with her daughters in downtown Provo, Koide said they found white supremacist stickers on two lamp posts — one outside a city building and one near the temple. They removed the stickers.

“Everyone wants their voice to be heard,” Koide said. “So it doesn’t matter what side it is — if someone feels like they’re not being heard, they’re going to talk louder.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The sun sets on Provo as seen from Slate Canyon Park on Monday, Feb. 14.

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