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PIONEER PARK SEEMS ON ITS WAY TO BEING A `FUNKY, LIVELY' AREA

Salt Lake City's new blueprint for its downtown Pioneer Park calls for turning it and the surrounding area into a "funky, lively, mixed-use urban neighborhood."

By all appearances, the city has a long way to go. But looks can be deceiving.I drove past the park the other day in the early afternoon. The only funk I saw was blue. Each of the tall, sturdy trees that surround the park's perimeter was a giant pillow supporting the head of a sleeping person. Snoring bundles of humanity similarly occupied each bench. The park was filled with people yet devoid of life, like nap time in some surreal adult nursery.

Despite the green grass, it was hardly an inviting spot for a downtown worker to retreat with a sack lunch.

But that doesn't mean the city has forgotten about its commitment to clean one of the most historically significant square blocks in Salt Lake City. Nor does it mean the park hasn't improved over the past year.

Nor, in fact, does it mean anything is wrong. Sleeping in the park is not illegal. On the contrary, police are happy people now feel comfortable enough to close their eyes.

One year ago, as April drew to a close, people venturing into the park had to keep their eyes wide open. Pioneer Park was a green-carpeted one-stop-shopping center for criminals. Finally, when a 17-year-old boy was shot five times and his father was shot once for refusing to buy drugs from a man, the city decided enough was enough.

A concerted crackdown was started. The mayor all but declared martial law in the park. Police reached way into the dusty recesses of the ordinance books to find ways to get the message across. People were arrested for jaywalking, camping, littering, even spitting. For several weeks, even Boy Scout troops couldn't have passed through without being cited for something.

Make no doubt, police would have cited the Scouts, or nuns, or little old ladies, or anyone else. Fearful of civil liberatarians, they were handing out tickets to everyone, including the upscale, lunchtime crowd at the nearby Rio Grande Cafe.

It worked. By mid-July, the Rio Grande Neighborhood Coalition staged a party at the park that attracted more than 500 people. Folks handed out bags of peanuts emblazoned with, "Pioneer Park . . . It's great to have you back."

As of last Tuesday, police said they hadn't made a felony arrest in the park for three months. They still keep a sharp eye out for jaywalkers and spitters.

Now the city's plans include new restrooms, drinking fountains, tennis courts, a sand-volleyball court and picnic facilities. The old steam engine locomotive at the northeast end of the park, recently discovered to be leaking asbestos, would be removed. The redevelopment agency wants to put street lights, curbs and gutters in the surrounding neighborhood, although business owners have balked at their $635,000 portion of the bill.

Together with the final completion of a set of half-finished apartments across the street and renovated "artsy" housing being carved out of old warehouses nearby, the area would have what it needs to be a "funky, lively, urban neighborhood."

But while visions dance in their heads, city officials and residents alike need to understand that Pioneer Park will never be the kind of place where some mothers feel comfortable wheeling their strollers at midday. Perhaps this is more a function of people's innate prejudices than anything else. The vagabonds, the mid-day sleepers and the folks with dirty clothes and no homes will remain.

The park is in the hub of a region that includes numerous shelters, rescue missions and blood banks. Railroad yards one block away provide a steady stream of drifters who hop off freight cars.

Police have made the point that these people aren't necessarily synonymous with crime. They may act as vulnerable magnets for criminals, but, like roaches fleeing the light, the bad element has been forced elsewhere by the constant glare of police. Today's drug deals tend to happen along 200 and 500 West, instead.

The city talks about moving the railroad tracks some day, to a place where trains can whiz by at speeds that prohibit people from jumping on or off. That may be good for many reasons. A lot of land would be freed up for development in west downtown.

But Pioneer Park, because of its location, probably always will be a place that struggles to attract families amid the sleeping homeless. Perhaps forcing those two groups to deal with each other isn't such a bad thing.