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John Florez: Pioneer Park has history of bringing people together

SHARE John Florez: Pioneer Park has history of bringing people together

They're back — summer park concerts, but not just any park. I mean the park — Pioneer Park. When the pioneers made their first camp in Salt Lake City where Pioneer Park is today, little did they know that someday it could become another Woodstock. So it seems with the huge success of the first summer concert in the park.

The Pioneer Park I knew growing up was the place to be. It had summer concerts and a whole bunch of fun things for kids and adults to do that let them get out of their hot homes, when fans and a water hose were the only escape from the summer heat. Going to Pioneer Park was a family affair. Families from surrounding neighborhoods — Anglos, Mexicans and Italians from the west, blacks from the north and Greeks from the east — came together to play, picnic and, on Sundays, listen to brass band concerts performed by the city and postal service at the pavilion, the main gathering place in the park that also served as a dance floor and a stage to put on plays.

All week there was some kind of entertainment going on, and it was free. Next to the pavilion was a wading pool where kids splashed around, and swings, teeter-totters and tricky bars that today would not pass safety standards. Thursday evenings were special. That was outdoor movie night. People came early to sit around waiting for the sun to go down to start the movie. It was big, because there was no TV. Parents tried to keep us kids sitting down, even when the movie film kept breaking. There was a swimming pool, which was filled every Monday and was unheated. On Mondays, the water was freezing but did not keep us from jumping in every other hour — one for the boys and the other for the girls. In between swims, we would run to the farmers market nearby to see what watermelons might mysteriously fall off the railroad cars waiting to be unloaded; then back to the swimming pool.

During the week there were all kinds of fun things for kids — a baseball field on the northwest corner, tennis courts on the west and a large wooden building where a variety of arts and crafts could be found. It also became a studio where girls learned how to tap dance. The guys from the Douglas airplane model store would help us make model planes, a big deal for the boys, and then take us to Ensign Peak to fly them. We learned how to play soccer, ping pong, softball and tennis. Recreation leaders were looked up to with awe, especially Andy, who was so skinny and looked 10 feet tall, and always seemed to enjoy helping us kids learn basic skills.

While today we talk about a racial/geographic divide in our city, Pioneer Park was our own United Nations, where people from different backgrounds laughed and played together, including adults. There was a sense of community where folks relished the hot summer days and somehow communicated with one another in broken English or a panoply of different languages. Pioneer Park was the glue that created the community bond, and everyone got along.

The pioneers who came to Utah made Pioneer Park their first campground. Who would have thought they created heaven on earth for families to find a place where they could enjoy the hot summer and meet their neighbors from different neighborhoods? Now we are seeing a renaissance taking place in the center of our wonderful city. The recent summer concert that attracted such a large crowd is an indication of the human spirit eager to reach out to one another and celebrate. Let it be a new beginning for our community.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.