Visitors to Salt Lake City during the Winter Games have seen the first signs of the city’s effort to change its public face — tree-lined mediums on major streets, a light rail system, more parks.
And some visitors have met the man behind the changes — Stephen Goldsmith, Salt Lake City director of planning and fourth-generation Salt Lake City Jew.
A longtime sculptor and activist, Goldsmith, 47, is responsible for turning Utah’s capital into a resident-friendly, ecology-friendly area. “Thirty years from now you will see fewer automobiles around the city, more people walking,” Goldsmith says. “You will see creeks that come from the mountains that are now buried.”
All of this, he tells The Jewish Week by phone, is part of his vision of tikkun olam, repairing the world. “Through my tikkun I’m repairing the world. All my art is tikkun.”
“I’m a Michael Lerner-type of Jew,” he says of the politics-of-meaning editor of Tikkun and Jewish Renewal movement rabbi. “I’m very well known as an activist here.”
His forebears, merchants and cowboys and turkey farmers, itinerant immigrants and their descendants a century age who plied the frontier West, were early residents of Salt Lake City, founded by Mormons escaping religious persecution back East.
Today he is part of a 2,000-member Jewish community in Utah, part of a minority in a still-heavily Mormon state. He was, Time magazine reported in an article about the state’s encounters with diversity, “roughed up almost every week on the way home from school.”
“You killed Jesus,” they would taunt, he says. “We’re the only true religion.”
“I was never beaten,” Goldsmith — no relation to the former Indianapolis mayor with the same name — points out. “I was in fights. I’m not conceding I was beaten up.”
On the whole, he says, Utah is welcoming to its Jews. “For the most part, the [Mormon] community embraces us, because we have parallel stories” of struggling for religious freedom.
Goldsmith attended Hebrew school and Jewish camps. Then he went to college in St. Louis and thought his Salt Lake City days were over. “I never expected to come back.” He did, for a sister’s graduation. He got a commission from a local synagogue, to sculpt a Ner Tamid eternal light, and decided to stay. “I realized I had sagebrush in my blood.”
His creative work and activism for the homeless led to his current post. He was appointed by the city’s new mayor, Rocky Anderson, of the same left-wing ilk. The election of Anderson, a one-time Mormon, is a sign of Salt Lake’s heterogeneity, Goldsmith says; it is more ethnically and racially diverse, less demographically Mormon, less conservative than the rest of the state.
Enter Goldsmith, the city’s first non-Mormon director of planning. He’s responsible for “anything in the built or natural environment.” His sympathy lies with the natural part. His vision includes urban forests and bike trails, less pollution and fewer strip malls.
Concentration on his long-term goals was superseded, for the sake of the Olympics, by immediate necessities, including temporary parking lots and homeless shelters.
Goldsmith says his children understand his message of tikkun. He has four, ages 7 to 19. One, he says, has become an animal rights activist. “I am continuing the tradition,” he says, “of raising socially responsible children.”