A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with the Magna Times, my “hometown” newspaper. And by “hometown,” I mean “town of my youth.” And I don’t mean “town of my youth,” really, either, because I grew up in West Valley City, not Magna. I did go to high school in Magna, though, proudly wearing the blue and gold of the Cyprus Pirates.
The essence of the interview was this: How did it affect you, growing up here? Your sense of self, your goals, the things you choose to write about? At first I found it a tricky conversation because, while growing up in WVC and attending high school in Magna influenced my life in plenty of positive ways, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, for many years, I lugged around some baggage related to my “West Side Girl” roots.
Even if you’re not from Utah, many members of the church have ties to Utah and probably know something of the East Side / West Side identity politics that have been going on ever since certain rabble rousers and non-Mormon military were relegated to the west side of Redwood Road in the 19th century. My parents moved to WVC (then Hunter) when I was four years old, building a small split-entry house in a new neighborhood just off of 6000 West. My dad spent most of his adolescence on Salt Lake’s East bench and had never even considered living west of 700 East. My mom grew up in Oregon, but remembers when my family drove out to our new home’s lot for the first time, we started driving west and kept going, and going, and going . . . she never knew Salt Lake County kept going like that, and wondered if she’d ever feel at home way out on the “boonies.” But my dad had recently been hired by the Salt Lake City Police Department, they had three small kids to take care of, and the houses on the West Side were affordable and new.
We were home.
I spent elementary school, junior high and high school in that house and neighborhood and ward, and it was a great place to live in many ways. At that time, the neighborhood was nicely kept, and most of the homes were occupied by young families just like mine. There were tons of kids to play with. Most of my neighbors were solidly middle-class: my friends’ dads were teachers and insurance salesmen and electricians (although one family we were good friends with was pretty wealthy and had an outdoor swimming pool and a trampoline built in their giant family room—you could take the trampoline off its hinges and a big hardwood floor would rise up out of the ground to take its place).
There was some real poverty—my own husband, whom I met in high school, was poor enough that one year he got a book of Lifesavers for Christmas, and nothing else—but back in the 70s and 80s, I didn’t find West Valley to be the rough, “scary” place that some people assumed it to be. I enjoyed my childhood. I also enjoyed a lot of other benefits from my West Side upbringing that I didn’t realize until later. I hadn’t learned to be materialistic. When I was a cheerleader in 9th grade (okay, okay, YES I was a cheerleader, but not a very good one). ANYWAY . . . I remember the group of us deciding to get our cheerleading shoes at Payless because they were cheapest there, and none of us had the money for anything fancier. And it was totally fine.
The fact that I even was a cheerleader also attests to another benefit: I had lots of opportunity. People’s parents didn’t start grooming them at age five to be on the tennis team or first chair in the orchestra. Generally speaking, at Cyprus High if you wanted to do something extracurricular, you could, no matter how much money or time your parents had invested when you were a kid. (I say “generally,” though, because certain key areas, like boys’ sports and drill team, were pretty dang competitive.) There was also a good amount of racial diversity. My friends—and boyfriends—were Asian and Polynesian and Hispanic (although there weren’t many African Americans in West Valley in the 80s, and as far as I know, there still aren’t).
But just as I didn’t feel the positive effects of my hometown until later, it wasn’t until I went away to college that some of the negative effects really showed up. Not only did I seem to see my estimation (and IQ) drop a few percentage points whenever I told classmates at BYU where I went to high school, but I’d unconsciously begun to believe my own bad press. I was one of only a handful of my graduating class who ended up at BYU. Most of my good friends went to Salt Lake Community College, although a few went to Ricks. This wasn’t because my friends couldn’t hack it at BYU, though. Many of my friends had, like me, done well on the PSAT, so their mailboxes were stuffed with literature from colleges all over the country. Really GOOD colleges. But there was this sense that the good colleges weren’t really for “us.” I felt like I was pushing my luck with BYU, even. Never in a million years would I have considered the honors program at BYU. That was for the *really* smart and talented kids. You know, the ones who went to Brighton High.
It wasn’t until my late 20s—until I’d moved away from Utah entirely—when I started to figure out that the tiny sliver of the world’s population who happened to live east of 700 East in Salt Lake City, Utah, had not, in fact, been dusted with an extra helping of intelligence and beauty and creativity and wit by the magic East Side Advantage Fairies. In fact, the only difference between them and me and all my friends was that (again, generally speaking) they had more money. And that was about it.
I feel lucky to have figured it out, though. I know firsthand that the stories you tell yourself about yourself—and the stories that other people project on to you—have real and lasting effects. Although I’m grateful in many ways for my childhood, a part of me feels like I had to work extra hard to overcome some of the weight of negative stereotypes, and I have childhood friends who have yet to overcome those stereotypes and still consider themselves somehow “less than,” just because of an address.
And speaking of addresses: my parents sold my childhood home about seven years ago and moved to South Jordan. After my Magna Times interview, I decided to drive by the old homestead. It looked terrible. Grass and weeds growing knee high; dirty blinds hanging crookedly in the window; and old rusty car sitting in the driveway. It had been a lovely home when I was a kid. And now it was every negative stereotype of West Valley City. It made me want to cry. When I looked around and saw the homes that were still making a go of it—lush green lawns, beautifully manicured flower gardens, fresh coats of paint—I didn’t know if I should be proud of them for sticking it out even when the neighborhood had gone so obviously kaput, or if I should wish for them to get away before the neighborhood took them down with it.
Once again, conflicted feelings about the place I used to call home.
This kind of stereotyping doesn’t happen just in Salt Lake County, of course. How has your hometown affected your life and identity? How does the place you live shape who you are and who you’ll become . . . or does it?