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S.L.'s sober image fits — and why fight it?

SHARE S.L.'s sober image fits — and why fight it?

I was in New York City last weekend, walking into a Broadway theater with my wife and looking forward to an evening of entertainment, when the ticket-taker noticed my jacket.

It is a wonderfully warm blue parka, tastefully embroidered with "Team 2002 Deseret News" and a little Olympic torch. I received it in anticipation of my upcoming assignment to cover speedskating during the Olympics. The ticket-taker, a gregarious woman with a thick New York dialect, held up the line behind me as she said, "Deseret? You must be from Salt Lake City."

She had visited a few years ago, she said. Then she held the line up a little longer so she could ask me whether I sing for the Tabernacle Choir.

I was amused by the question. In retrospect, it made about as much sense as me asking her if she played for the Yankees or was a Rockette. But that's the way it is with geographic stereotypes. People associate certain things with certain places, based on word of mouth, what they read in books, see on television or in the movies, or what they experience personally during brief visits. Stereotypes being what they are, they don't tell the whole story, but they provide a very general mental image. And for some places, that image is welded in place with super glue.

That seems to be the case here. It's also the case with our neighbor to the south, Las Vegas.

Years ago I walked into my boss's office at a small paper in Oklahoma to tell him I had accepted a job in Las Vegas and soon would be leaving. He knew I was a religious man, so he spent several minutes cautioning me not to go. There are no churches in Las Vegas, he said. I would find myself afloat in a sea of decadence without so much as a buoy to hang onto.

I knew from experience that my denomination was well-represented in Las Vegas and that the conservative nature of much of the community off the Strip would surprise many outsiders. But I couldn't convince my old boss of that. He had been there, he said.

Later, as a reporter covering local governments in Las Vegas, I watched as a major credit card company lobbied to set up its own post office outside the city limits so that its correspondence would not bear the name Las Vegas on its postmark. It was a question of image, pure and simple. The company wanted a more dignified home address than one associated worldwide with gambling.

Why does any of this matter? Because in one month, the world will be descending on Utah, and many people both within and from outside the state will be poring over its image. Stereotypes will abound, especially among the intellectually lazy. A few others will take the time to really find out about the place. In the end, however, the world's overall perception isn't likely to change much, except perhaps among those who have no perception at all. That's because the city's image, just like Las Vegas' image, is built on a foundation of truth.

Some people have been trying hard of late to fight this. Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson led out-of-town reporters on a late-night bar-hopping tour, trying to show them that it was possible to have a "good time" and get a drink here. A few interesting newspaper accounts followed. Both the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Baltimore Sun described a scene at Port O' Call, where a young dance instructor mistook the mayor for her boyfriend and grabbed his backside playfully, and how he mouthed "Thank you" to her.

In the long run, though, this rather bizarre performance will have all the impact of a snowball thrown against a ski run. A couple of off-beat newspaper stories around the country won't budge this city's image any more than a tour of churches in Las Vegas would change that city's image.

Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, David Wharton showed he is not among the intellectually lazy. "This city," he wrote, "like any other, is too enigmatic to pin down with facts and figures." Instead, he focused on some of the ordinary people who live here, letting them tell their own stories.

Finally, he concluded that the Olympics will not be a defining moment. "For 2 1/2 weeks, the city will be awash in colorful bunting and corporate parties, fans in lederhosen ringing cowbells beside ski runs, anthems played jubilantly at medal ceremonies. How much room does that leave for analysis?"

The answer, of course, is none at all. And that shouldn't matter.

Utah's image is, in some ways, well-deserved. Most of the people here are religious and carry on without the need for bar-hopping and wild parties. Those things are available, of course, and anyone interested will be able to find them. But they won't erase the stereotype.

And why should that matter? Being asked if you sing in a world-famous choir is hardly a bad thing.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com