The death of George Floyd, and ensuing protests across the country, have once again highlighted vast social divisions. We have literally built these fractures into our world. In most every U.S. city, you will find poorer and minority communities living on the “bad” side of town.
We think of the reputations of places as obvious. As a result of crime, gangs, violence, graffiti and dilapidated buildings, we label communities as “ghettos,” “bad neighborhoods,” “shady” or “sketchy.” Locally, we created our own term for the city of Ogden – “the armpit of Utah.” At the same time, places with few problems gain good reputations.
Considering Ogden, I began to question these assumptions. The city definitely has its troubles, but they are a far cry from those found in other urban areas. Salt Lake City, which has a much better reputation than Ogden, has a much higher crime rate.
I decided to study Ogden’s reputation.
I found that, despite its local image, residents overwhelmingly love the city. Many fume that the bad reputation is inaccurate and unfair. Latino immigrant residents especially embrace this place. As one said, “There is safety here. You can go walking. You can go in your car. You can leave your car door open, and you can go to the store and leave your car door unlocked.”
For them, Ogden is not coal. It is a diamond.
How do people look at the same place and see such dramatically different things?
Ogden’s problems do not explain its reputation. In fact, those with the highest opinion of Ogden tend to have the most experience with its crime and other troubles. Those with negative views rarely step foot in the place.
Instead, I argue that the reputations of places are tools of inequality. Those living outside of Ogden define the city as an “armpit” in order to help maintain their higher status. They draw physical boundaries between themselves and people who are lower down the ladder from them. Ogden’s residents challenge negative views. They wish to raise their status and unite with others.
These currents run deep. Historically, Ogden was a rough and tumble railroad town filled with working class, people of color and immigrant communities. Boundaries between this diverse city and the comparatively homogeneous Mormon culture that surrounds Ogden continue to shape the city’s reputation.
Ultimately, our misguided thinking is costly. Campaigns to clean up the images of places, based on our misunderstandings of urban reputations, are expensive and invasive. Already struggling communities face harsh crackdowns and crusades that flatten their established cultures and traditions.
We all pay a costly wage of fear. We are needlessly frightened, isolating ourselves from entire communities. While all areas have problems, we think of places like Ogden as only the sum of theirs.
Better solutions start with recognizing how bad reputations develop in places like Ogden. It isn’t from the sinful behavior of their residents.
Pepper Glass is associate professor of sociology at Weber State University. His book on Ogden’s reputation, “Misplacing Ogden, Utah: Race, Class, Immigration, and the Construction of Urban Reputations,” is available from University of Utah Press.