This is the first in a recurring column looking at the culture of Provo and the surrounding area, exploring changes that have occurred and are occurring, highlighting greatness and the not so great.
If I had to sum up what this column is going to be about in one sentence, one word even, it would be change, mostly in the Provo area. But before someone corrects me, when I say Provo, I often mean a large part of Orem as well; the world of a BYU student. However, before we can talk about change, we have to ask ourselves, is there change in Provo? As I ponder this question, I must admit that it’s hard to say.
I came to Provo as a freshman at BYU in 2009. That has not left me a lot of time to observe the town, but I have tried to get out and experience the city the best I could. I did the freshman experience. I lived in the dorms, I shooed girls out of my building by midnight before the RAs made their nightly rounds, and I spent the next three hours after midnight searching for something, anything to do. My only other experience with Provo before that was a week at EFY after which I discovered something called Brick Oven and house-made root beer. That weeklong experience, and the root beer, left a good enough taste in my mouth that I only applied to BYU and BYU-I. And because that’s what a good Mormon does, right?
I guess my faith was strong enough to merit an acceptance letter to BYU, or perhaps there was a glitch in the system, but either way, I ended up driving with my parents, the entirety of my life loaded up in the trunk of my car. Again, Provo welcomed me with its bounty of food as we stumbled upon a delicious little dumpling house in downtown Provo. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but there was a rooster on the door, which my dad pointed out to the management was actually a chicken. The menu was simple (mostly dumplings, dumplings and more fresh, tender, hand made dumplings laid in a row before you with the vapor rising to greet you before you could lift your chopsticks). To me it was heaven. When I go visit my dad in Los Angeles, four years later, he still says that he would go back to Provo just for the “Rooster place.”
Aside from the dumplings, the good times continued to roll in Provo my freshman year with dance parties, midnight runs to Walmart, fast food, and a lot, a lot of Mormon ‘get to know you’ games. Truly, that was some of the best times of my life, but thirteen months and one medical release later, I returned back from my mission only to discover the awful truth about Provo: that some things do change, while others remain stubbornly in place. My Rooster Dumpling house was gone, and so In-n-Out rose back up to the top of the charts of available eateries. Other than that, campus was just as racially diverse as I remembered it, and when old friends and I tried to decide what to do, “I don’t know, Walmart?” seemed to be the only answer we could come up with.
What I couldn’t understand were the numbers. There are thirty, almost forty thousand students at BYU, creative, talented, often business minded individuals, all of them a little strange. Some of the students are very much overqualified to be at BYU, having rejected more reputable schools in favor of a morally strict environment. And all the better for us. More talent for us, or so I thought until I looked around town and asked myself where does all that talent go? Where were the pop up stores, the artistic restaurants, the street art? Was Provo destined to remain small in size, small minded, more of a family town than the eclectic student shelter it had the potential to be? The only good things that people talked about had nothing to do with this human potential; the mountains, the autumn leaves, the skiing. Was the creativity and ingenuity times 40,000 meant to stay confined to the De Jong Concert hall, the Tanner building, the JFSB, until these students graduated and moved away?
Then, shortly after my mission, something started to happen. I began to become aware of some amazing restaurants. More to my surprise, they were not only sticking around, I often couldn’t get in without a reservation. And who are these local bands Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees? I am diggin’ the Desert Noises. Then I rediscovered my bike and I learned to appreciate the beauty of the canyon. A new bike path was set to be opened in Orem. A bike co-op set up shop in downtown Provo, ten years after Salt Lake City set up their own. Pretty soon I started seeing change all over the place.
They literally began to tear down the Heritage halls dorms where I started my Provo experience, and almost symbolically, newer, larger buildings rose up in their places. Rumors of USGA videos and conferences at BYU brought the difficult issue of homosexuality to the forefront and BYU students approached it with a spirit of enlightenment and without hesitation. Knowing what my fellow students could do, I was not the least bit surprised.
I said at the beginning of this article that it is hard to say if there is change in Provo or not. Now let me clarify. I believe that in the past couple of years things have been changing in Provo— that the stage is being set for a great transformation. I also believe that I am being made more aware of this by the day. But I believe Provo, the Provo of my dreams, has always been there, waiting to be unearthed.
I have a vision of a Provo where the creativity and intellectualism of BYU and UVU and all those who live here seep out of the classroom, out of the dorms, out of the apartments, and into the streets, applied into the city that houses and nourishes them. I see a Provo that has become a cultural hub of the desert. I see a Provo setting the example and pushing the rest of Utah in civic discourse, in tolerance, in the arts and sciences. And I see that change beginning now.
Recently the first gay pride celebration ever held in Provo happened. It was small, but it saw visitors all day long. Many local business and activist groups, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, had a presence showing support for their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. I visited and had the chance to talk to Francis, one of the leaders of the Affirmation LGBT Mormons and Friends booth. I asked him why Provo was ready for this now. Why was Provo ready at all? He responded that it was because of BYU. “USGA at BYU has done the greatest work. If you can talk about it at BYU, you can probably talk about it in the community.”
I am looking forward to seeing more changes at BYU- spreading from campus and changing the city that we live in. I for one am going to continue to talk about the changes, and what still needs to be changed here in Provo. I hope that the rest of us do too and take the steps to make it happen. The stage is set. Let’s make a difference.
As I left the gay pride festival, I listened to a musician talk about Provo. “I haven’t been to Provo in a long time. Things have changed. It’s not that I didn’t like what I saw before, I just like what I am seeing now.” I feel the same way.