Downtown's weekend nightlife and social scene were sparked by such dance halls as the Rainbow Rendezvous, which later became the Terrace Ballroom. Acts such as Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton and Count Basie made those places swing.
But 2012 is more than half a century removed from 1950, when Salt Lake City was the place to be, according to urban planner Stephen Goldsmith who, among others, watched downtown's vibrancy evaporate as greater mobility changed lifestyles.
"If we look at the reason why downtown began to fail," he said, "it's no coincidence that it came as the automobile began to dictate our lives."
The construction of freeways, new suburbs and shopping malls left Main Street anemic and in dire need of life support. Since then, all kinds of treatments have been prescribed.
In the early 1970s the so-called "Main Street Beautification" project sprouted fountains and trees but narrowed sidewalks and reduced parking, much to the chagrin of merchants who saw customer traffic continue to drop off.
In the late '70s, the construction of two shopping malls on the 100 block of Main Street sought to draw suburban shoppers back downtown. But business people south of 100 South say it pulled their patrons off the street.
"It's as though they were trying to kill Main Street," said bookseller Ken Sanders.
Just as significant was construction of the TRAX light rail line that began in 1997. It kept Main Street a dusty, impenetrable work zone for almost 18 months because, among other things, Salt Lake City also replaced storm drains and other aging underground infrastructure.
And in 1999, Main Street between North Temple and South Temple was closed to automobile traffic for what was dubbed the Main Street Plaza, further impeding access to local businesses. When the Gateway shopping mall opened on Rio Grand Street west of 400 West in 2002, more of downtown's remaining life shifted west.
"I didn't see a lot of ebbing and flowing," said Bill Bennion of Bennion Jewelers, which has operated in various Main Street locations for more than half a century. "I saw a lot of businesses leaving downtown."
Predicting 'synergy' • Now City Creek Center has risen on both sides of Main Street, where the Crossroads and ZCMI malls once stood. The question is, will it herald a new era for downtown? Or is it just another isolated mall project that won't benefit the rest of downtown?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pumped about $2 billion into the center a mixed-use development of housing, offices, shops and restaurants during an economic downturn when such endeavors were practically non-existent. A retail mix that includes upscale shops like Nordstrom and Tiffany, among others, is bound to draw destination shoppers. But will those customers walk south several blocks to dine, for example, at the Atlantic Restaurant, 325 S. Main, or perhaps take in a show at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway?
Ken Sanders, who operates a rare bookstore at 268 S. 200 East, doesn't think so.
"We've been here before," he said referring to the Crossroads and ZCMI malls. "City Creek will be a destination. But their clients won't venture out of that zone. Beyond 100 South, I don't think it will make a difference."
The key to a vibrant city is independent businesses and their patrons, Sanders said. He lamented that various mall projects downtown, including City Creek, have emphasized chain stores, rather than locally owned companies.
But Ted Wilson, who served as mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 to 1985, believes the ZCMI Mall, which opened in 1975, and the Crossroads Mall, which opened in 1978, "rejuvenated downtown for quite a period of time." City Creek, too, "will be stimulative," he said.
LDS leaders have always been concerned about keeping the area around Temple Square from becoming "seedy," Wilson said. "There are very few cities in the country that have the advantage of a protectorate church."
Although City Creek will initially draw retailers away from The Gateway mall, Wilson believes the two projects eventually will complement each other in a synergy that will enliven the area between them, from West Temple to 400 West.
Wanted: urban dwellers • Bill Bennion wants to believe that. If the LDS Church had not built the massive City Creek project, "downtown would be dead," he said.
Over the years, Bennion said he has witnessed downtown devolve from a dynamic center to a relic. Main Street beautification, the Main Street Plaza and construction of the TRAX light rail line all reduced traffic to his store and others downtown.
But for the first time in 30 years, Bennion is hopeful.
"I don't know if it will make a difference for all downtown," he said of City Creek. "But there should be some synergy for shops outside the mall. That's why I'm staying downtown."
Other retailers have already given up on Main Street. Tony Weller, whose father, the late Sam Weller, opened Zion's Bookstore at 254 S. Main St. in 1961, moved the store to Trolley Square earlier this year.
Sam Weller was among the few who hung on through decades of downtown decline. But the opening of The Gateway 10 years ago "was the final nail in downtown," his son said.
Tony Weller remains satisfied with the decision to leave Main Street, despite the opening of City Creek.
"We were sad to leave the neighborhood. But sentiment won't pay my bills," he said. "At Trolley Square, our foot traffic is up immeasurably."
The City Creek Center is not a silver bullet that will save downtown, said Goldsmith, the former Salt Lake City planning director who was involved in the early stages of planning the project. Rather, Goldsmith sees City Creek as a "tipping point" to provide the "connective tissue" that will bring disparate forces together to form a critical mass downtown.
Goldsmith sees a new era coming for the urban core. If the automobile killed downtown, new housing will resurrect it, he said.
The apartments and condominiums at City Creek are part of the important and ongoing expansion of urban housing, Goldsmith said. "It's not just because of City Creek," he said. "It's the commitment so many people have made to downtown."
Although shoppers at City Creek may not make their way down Main Street to Broadway, Goldsmith believes the people who live at the new project will make that trip over and over again, along with others who reside downtown.
"We've come to our senses after 50 years of bad experimenting," he said. "We're finally wising up to understand that mixed use [retail, offices, housing] keeps things alive. It's 24-7."
Goldsmith envisions residents strolling around downtown as part of their daily lives, frequenting shops, cafes and clubs throughout the urban zone.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "Twenty years from now, we'll look back and see this is one of the smartest things we've done."