Make Salt Lake City’s Main Street walkable, George Pyle writes. And drinkable.

It won’t be ‘a little bit of Paris.’ But some European thinking on SLC’s Main Street would be welcome.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians stroll in the open streets portion of Main Street, on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

PORTO, Portugal • When I first moved to Salt Lake City in 2002, the local joke was already three years old. But people were still laughing at it. Some of you may be chuckling, still.

It was the statement that, when SLC Mayor Deedee Corradini sold the block of Main Street between North Temple and South Temple to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, making it into a pedestrian plaza with fountains would bring the city “a little bit of Paris.”

Which is exactly what it became. If, that is, Paris banned alcohol and tobacco from its streets, policed what people could wear and only allowed the expression of religious and political views its leaders approved of.

Now another mayor, Erin Mendenhall, has plans to turn another stretch of Main Street into a pedestrian-centered, retail- and restaurant-friendly plaza that is more in the nature of how cities work in Europe and, increasingly, the United States.

Mendenhall has not gone so far as to claim that her plans will rival the City of Light. Because they won’t.

But after a few months knocking around several cities in France and, now, one in Portugal, I will offer my testimony that city streets that focus on people who walk, eat, drink and shop are a great thing. Salt Lake City, Park City and Ogden, among others, should have more of them.

One impediment to such success might be Utah’s overly restrictive liquor laws. It’s impossible to imagine the pedestrian plazas of Rouen or Bordeaux without wine and beer from 10 a.m. on.

To concerns that we don’t want our Main Street an open saloon, I’d answer that when drinking is normal, and associated with food and fellowship rather than furtive rule-bending, it is much less of a hazard.

The rate of alcoholism/problem drinking in France, Portugal and much of Western Europe, according to the World Population Review, is less than 9%. In the United States, where we try a lot harder to control consumption, it’s almost 14%.

What has been striking to this casual, and often thirsty, observer is how people at these outdoor tables seem to be so intently talking to one another, from mid-morning to well after midnight, face to face, pairs of argumentative old men, dewy-eyed young couples or large groups, seldom looking at their iPhones — though they all have them.

Also, the sight of someone sitting alone at a cafe table working on a laptop for hours on end is rare. Except in Starbucks.

And though it is rare to see a table, even before noon, without a glass of wine or beer, I’ve seen little evidence of drunkenness or violent behavior.

There is more smoking than I’d like, though not as much as I’d expected, despite cigarette packages that are just one big warning. I’d go with Utah tobacco rules in Salt Lake.

This fall, Salt Lake City is closing Main Street to vehicles (except TRAX trains) between South Temple and 400 South on Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 1 a.m. This began Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 28. (This year the event is, reasonably, more fall- than summer-oriented, to avoid the heat.)

As it was the last few summers, the idea is a temporary block party. Though the city is looking at plans to make the foot-only rules permanent, called the Together on Main plan. There’s a website and a public display and request for opinions set for Oct. 20-21, at the Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main.

The city says that turning bits of downtown streets over to shoppers and diners has worked elsewhere. They cite examples that include Denver and Boulder in Colorado, Burlington in Vermont, Minneapolis in Minnesota, as well as Melbourne in Australia.

It’s also part of life in Calgary, Canada, which has been cited as a positive example by people in Washington, D.C., who are interested in doing the same in parts of the Nation’s Capital.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked everyone in 2009 when he started closing parts of that city’s major artery, Broadway, to vehicles, and has since made believers of many.

Temporary pedestrian-only access to Salt Lake City’s Main Street is given part of the credit, at least by city officials and the Downtown Alliance, for the neighborhood’s success in bringing back business after the coronavirus pandemic.

It matters that the places I’ve enjoyed the last few months are old cities, built before automobiles were ubiquitous, mostly with 20th or 21st century public transit running everywhere. The move apparently wasn’t to ban cars so much as not to let them into places where they’d never really been.

It would be more of a learning curve for Utah cities. But with the rising generation looking for a more vibrant, urban style of living, the best place to look for the city of the future would be cities of the past.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, transitioned from a teetotaler to a beer snob practically overnight, about 25 years ago.