What people get wrong about life in West Valley City

Misperceptions, some of it rooted in racism, abound about crime, dining, housing and parks.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Riders are all smiles as they spin around on a carnival ride during WestFest held behind the Centennial Park Sports Complex in West Valley City on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

West Valley City • You may have heard some of these knocks against West Valley City:

Too much crime. Too few parks. Too few good restaurants. Too many shabby homes.

But do the raps match reality?

No, according to the folks who should know: the residents who call Utah’s second most-populous city home.

“It’s just a good community,” said Mayor-elect Karen Lang, a City Council member who will make history next month as the first woman to lead West Valley City. “[The city gets] that reputation as the rough town. But once they come and visit, they fall in love.”

With more than 140,000 residents, the city is big. But there’s something Lang notices when she is working the front desk at her family’s nursery, Oakbridge Greenhouse. Many customers either know one another or share some connection.

“We’re the second largest city in Utah,” she said, “but we still have that small-town feel.”

This majority-minority suburban city boasts diverse neighborhoods with distinct characteristics. White people make up 44% of the city’s populace and Hispanics 39%. With that, residents and visitors live different experiences. But statistics show a glimpse of a safe and ethnically diverse city that some residents can empirically confirm.

“We have a population that has been underserved not only by local authorities but by state and national authorities,” said Teresa Molina, associate director of University Neighborhood Partners, a University of Utah organization whose goal is to find solutions to issues alongside neighbors. “We just have to serve them.”

Crime: fact vs. fiction

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City police officers Tyler Longman and Amy Maurer compare how they did while shopping for kids in need chosen from the giving tree at the Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City in 2009. Crime rates are lower in West Valley City than Salt Lake County overall.

Crime rates might be one of the most repeated concerns West Valley City newcomers hear.

Although the reported crimes are significant, the numbers do not show an extraordinary level of offenses when the city is compared to east-side areas, including Salt Lake City.

In fact, crime rates in West Valley City were slightly below the Salt Lake County average in 2020, according to a Utah Department of Public Safety report.

The county’s index crime rate, which includes homicide, rape and robbery, was nearly 42 reports per 1,000 residents in 2020. Salt Lake City’s rate in the same year was 82.21 per 1,000 people.

Now look at West Valley City’s index crime rate in 2020. It was 38.25 reports per 1,000 people. And that number is down from 48.63 in 2010.

Still, the perception of prevalent crime has dogged the city and prejudice, frankly, might be partly at play, Molina said. “A lot of issues we have in the country have a tight relationship with racism and social discrimination, which makes us see some things of lesser value.”

Ed Munoz, associate professor of ethnic studies at the U., echoed that view, especially when it comes to a majority-minority city.

“Historically, there’s been this perception that nonwhite people are more criminal than whites,” Munoz said. “That’s how people have been justifying the marginalization of nonwhite people throughout history, as we’ve seen even recently.”

In addition, communities of color are usually overpoliced, Munoz said, contributing to disparities in criminal justice statistics.

“These stereotypes not only impact how people feel about West Valley City, they impact how they feel about Latinos that live in Salt Lake City, Latinos that live up on the east bench,” he said. “We’ve also seen that, even if you have higher socioeconomic status, that doesn’t fully protect you from being the victim of overpolicing.”

The food scene

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu Bar and Tonkotsu Ramen Bar, on 3500 South in West Valley City, on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

There is a widespread belief that most West Valley City businesses are chain operations and that most residents can’t afford nicer stores or restaurants.

Yes, the city, like most other municipalities, has plenty of franchises, but there is a dominating power in the local food scene: namely, family-owned ethnic food businesses.

Residents point to the international backgrounds of their populace as a strength — one that extends to their distinct cuisines.

Laa Hernando, who co-owns Tonkotsu Ramen Bar, a Japanese soul food restaurant in West Valley City, knew from the beginning this is the place where she wanted to have her business.

“Asian food is a thing here,” she said. “We thought that West Valley is the best place to open these kinds of businesses because its people are open to different cultures and cuisines.”

Customers from across the Salt Lake Valley go to Tonkotsu for their fresh wheat noodles, served in a creamy pork broth with toppings such as bamboo shoots, bok choy or bean sprouts. The business has been so well received, Hernando and business partner Dennis Nguyen also opened Gosu, an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue spot nearby.

“It’s pretty hot because all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue is something that just boomed here in West Valley,” she said. “The food scene is so important here. We love to eat.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gosu Korean BBQ, on 3500 South in West Valley City, on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

The city has more than 300 restaurants and the range of options does not disappoint.

“If you’re looking for a slice of America,” said Barbara Riddle, president of ChamberWest, “West Valley is a place to find it.”

Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian foods, they’re all there and more, as well as all-American breakfast, barbecue and burger joints.

Chamber-associated businesses carry a strong sense of belonging in the West Valley City community, Riddle said, and any negative assertions come from those who haven’t ventured there.

“In my role, I invite state leaders on a regular basis to come out and to meet with me in West Valley,” she said, “and they’re just really surprised at the growth, the development, the commerce, and just how amazing West Valley City really is.”

The housing picture

Is West Valley City overrun with neglected neighborhoods and run-down houses?

No, say residents and real estate agents. In fact, the city has a housing stock that fits a variety of needs.

Laurie Rice, a real estate agent who lives in West Valley City, has gathered positive features that build the city’s character for her Facebook followers.

“We have new developments that are going up all the time,” she said, “and we have … really nice neighborhoods that are safe, and the people are just awesome.”

Whether single or multifamily units, higher-end homes or condominiums, there’s something for everyone, said Rice. “There are homes that are 2,800 square feet minimum,” Rice said. “They’re just beautiful houses that range between $600,000 and, I believe, $900,000.”

And there are relative bargains to be found.

“I would point out that West Valley City offers an amazing bang for your buck in this housing crisis,” said Rep. Mike Winder, a former mayor who now serves in the Utah House. “You can buy a nice house 10 minutes from an international airport, 20 minutes from downtown. And the same house would be much more expensive if it was farther south or farther east.”

Just like the rest of Salt Lake County, West Valley City is growing and, with it, housing affordability is worrisome. According to the Wasatch Front Regional Multiple Listing Service, home prices in three West Valley City ZIP codes have jumped by 26% to nearly 30% in a year.

But with median prices in the range of $390,000 to $450,000, many West Valley City homes remain more affordable than those going for $500,000 to $800,000-plus in other parts of Salt Lake County.

Parks place

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Centennial Park in West Valley City on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Parks and recreational spaces are essential for any city. West Valley City has some large open spaces but, for many, they aren’t enough.

The city hosts 37 parks and trails, including Centennial Park, a 77-acre regional park, and Lodestone Regional Park, a 60-acre district park it shares with neighboring Kearns. It has sports fields, skate parks, playgrounds, pavilions and pools.

The city’s 96,000-square-foot Family Fitness Center includes a lap pool, leisure pool, basketball and racquetball courts, an indoor track, a climbing wall, weight room and even an “edutainment” room for kids.

The county’s Acord Ice Center provides year-round ice skating and hockey.

Still, Molina, of U. Neighborhood Partners, argued the city “needs to pay better attention to its urban planning.”

“It needs to give access,” she said, “to green areas and development of recreational centers to serve all communities who live on the west side.”

Overall, what makes West Valley City’s character so distinct is its people. In the time she has spent working with the neighborhoods, Molina found great potential in the residents’ creativity and willingness to improve their community.

“The biggest obstacle would be ignoring the wealth of the city and the strong and powerful economy that happens in the city,” she said. “West Valley is a city with a young population that needs education and job opportunities and that needs a conscious integration in decision-making processes.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Centennial Park in West Valley City on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.