Artists create ‘love letters’ to Salt Lake City’s west side

Exhibition features some 30 works — paintings, photos, writing — showing affection for west-side neighborhoods.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parviz Faiz hangs a map on the wall at Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts' gallery at The Gateway, on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. It's part of a group exhibition, "Love Letters to the West Side."

What image captures the heart of Salt Lake City’s west side?

For Manuel Rodriguez, it’s a sun-drenched photograph of the Carniceria Tortilleria, at 1430 W. Indiana Ave. To Nataly Welch, it’s an oil painting of the Fastrac Gas Station at 801 S. 900 West, highlighting the building’s colors. Yexenia Young picked an ornate gold frame to put a photo of their great-great grandmother, Abuelita Luna.

Those examples are among some 30 works by artists — all responding to an open call — in a new exhibit, “Love Letters to the West Side,” opening Friday, Jan. 19, at the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, 95 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City, in The Gateway.

The group show — the only group show MICA plans this year — celebrates the neighborhoods of the city’s west side: Fairpark, Rose Park, Glendale, Westpointe and People’s Freeway. According to Bianca Velasquez, MICA’s vice chair, most of the artists live on the west side, or have at some point in their lives.

The exhibit, Velasquez said, “is not only about like paying homage to these locations, to the culture, but it’s the stories of people who have been there for decades and decades — not just what’s happening today.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Mestizo Gallery at the Gateway, on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

For example, Young’s grandmother was “a Mexican immigrant who came to the west side decades ago,” Velasquez said. Another artwork depicts tamales, and also starts a conversation about west-side food and businesses, she said.

“I really love to see the range, also, in [the artists’] background, because I feel like a lot of people when they assume ‘west side,’ they think Mexican backgrounds, right? But there’s a lot of different backgrounds,” Velasquez said.

The MICA gallery’s front window will be papered over with literal love letters that people have handwritten or typed — some of them written in Spanish.

One, signed by “RS,” is to the Jordan River. Another, written on a typewriter by Jordan Turner, is addressed “to my dearest west side.”

“We’ve been through a lot,” Turner wrote. “You’ve housed me & kept me safe through pandemics and earthquakes (we don’t want to talk about it), and fed me comfort food at All Chay. Sunsets look better over here; I fell in love over here.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Letters from the "Love Letters to the West Side" exhibit, at the Mestizo Gallery at the Gateway, on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

Another part of the exhibition happens beyond the gallery walls: A project to imagine a transit network plan for the Fairpark neighborhood.

The project is led by activist Parviz Faiz, as an assignment from the group NeighborWorks Salt Lake — which approached Faiz to create a transit network plan similar to what the Glendale neighborhood has, with a focus on biking, walking and safe intersections.

“We had a survey going around for a couple of months about the active transit plan,” Faiz said. “We knocked on people’s doors in Fairpark, sent out email blasts.” They collected data through a survey, Faiz said, where people talked about “what they see in the neighborhood, what they want changed, and how they get around.”

Some 70 survey participants also shared ideas, Faiz said, about what would “incentivize them to use a different form of transportation if they are a car-dependent commuter, whether that be more transit lines, better bike lanes, safer intersections, [or] closer proximity to work.” The next step in the project are focus groups, which Faiz is now hosting.

Velasquez said MICA is working to create exhibits that foster “community integration, connection and conversation.” Faiz’s project, she said, does all three — because it helps “stimulate conversation” on what can come to Fairpark, and ultimately to the entire west side.

Faiz doesn’t live on the west side, he said, but he rides his bike there for work.

“I utilize the infrastructure networks and transit to get there. I utilize the bike lanes. I interact with the local businesses and stuff,” he said. “That’s important when looking at Salt Lake City as a whole, because there has been such a division of the west side to the east side — and, like, how do you bridge those connectors?”

In the MICA gallery space, a map on the wall shows 300 North between 800 West and 1000 West, the project’s main focus area, just east of the Utah State Fairpark.

The goal, Faiz said, is to get people to engage with the map, and spark discussion outside the actual survey. The map comes with dry-erase markers and sticky notes, so people can write comments or suggestions — or even map out routes for bike lanes using green tape and miniature stop signs.

Faiz created a similar project in his first year of grad school, “The West Side Tesoro’s,” with a map of the entire west side. People came to the Mestizo coffee house to talk about places on the west side that were special to them.

It was there, Faiz said, that he learned “when you look at how a community is placed, and when you look at how a culture is bred from a neighborhood, it’s not something someone can go and just put a bunch of things and expect to happen without the community being involved.”