“People from Salt Lake, people from Utah County, they think Ogden sucks. It did — particularly 25th Street — but it doesn’t anymore.”
But some people broke the rules. Maybe they were thrill-seekers, there to see a fight, watch drunks stumble around or witness a john pay off a prostitute.
The area wasn’t totally off limits, but it was once common practice that if civilized, law-abiding Ogdenites dared venture to 25th Street, they only did so in their cars.
Doors locked, windows up and the engine running.
“You had a sense that it was just another world,” says longtime Ogden resident and Weber State University history professor Gene Sessions.
Sessions and other experts say that reputation is the root of an idea that prevails among many locals today — that Ogden is a dangerous, low-class town.
In a recent poll, the Standard-Examiner gathered more than 600 people's general perceptions of Ogden.
One of the survey questions asked respondents to list the first word that came to mind when someone mentioned Ogden. While some chose favorable words like “home,” “beautiful, “eclectic” and “mountains,” a large number tossed out phrases like “ghetto,” “crime,” “dangerous” or “armpit.”
“Those (negative) opinions still persist,” Sessions said. “And I think the heart of the legend is 25th Street. I really believe that.”
THE COMING OF THE RAILROAD, THE BIRTH OF THE TWO-BIT STREET
Though Ogden was settled by Mormon pioneers, the railroad played a huge role in shaping the city, particularly 25th Street.
Richard Sadler, another history professor at WSU who spent much of his career researching, writing and publishing works about Ogden, said the city has had a rough reputation since the railroad came to town in 1869.
Union Station eventually served as the biggest rail center between the Midwest and the West Coast. Travelers from all over the world passed through the city. So did soldiers during World War II. Union Station’s position — centered at the west end of 25th Street — spawned the activity for which the corridor became infamous.
The railroad ushered in ethnic diversity still seen in Ogden, but it also brought transients, many of whom were looking for a quick good time or for trouble on 25th Street.
Sadler said as 25th Street’s rough reputation grew, Ogden’s did too, by association.
“Many people felt Ogden was perhaps even off limits, especially for their children,” Sadler said. “That reputation carried over in the 50 years following World War II.”
Throughout its evolution, 25th Street has been known for brothels, bar fights, biker gangs, gambling, opium dens, vagrancy and vacancy. The vices and problems found on the street changed with the era, but until the early 1990s, 25th Street deserved its notorious reputation.
“25th Street catered to that kind of thing,” said Sarah Singh, curator of WSU’s Stewart Library Special Collections. “For a long time, 25th Street was known as a place where you could get off the train and find anything a man desired.”
Sessions’ earliest memories of 25th Street are from the 1950s, though his father and grandfather were also from Ogden and passed along tales of notoriety. The historian said while the street was raucous, to say the least, the rest of Ogden typically has not been.
“Were there stabbings and muggings going on every day? I don’t know. Probably not. But there’s no reason to doubt that 25th Street was a real rough-and-tumble kind of place,” Sessions said. “But the rest of the city, once you got out of that core, Ogden was a really nice place.”
Sessions pointed to the many wealthy families that lived in and around Ogden, the mansions on the city’s East Bench and a thriving shopping district.
THE END OF THE RAILROAD’S HEYDAY, 25TH STREET AS SKID ROW
In the years following World War II, activity on 25th Street mirrored the decline in passenger and freight rail traffic.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, 25th Street become more desolate, but no less scandalous.
Charles Trentelman, a former Standard-Examiner reporter and columnist who wrote about Ogden until 2013, arrived in the city in 1978.
“When I got there, in the late ‘70s, 25th Street was probably best described as Ogden’s skid row,” Trentelman said. “There was a lot of vagrancy, street prostitution, a few bars. That was pretty much it.”
Doug Lucero, a former Ogden Police sergeant who began patrolling 25th Street in 1984, said the street was a constant problem for police. One bar in particular, the El Borracho (which means ‘the drunk’ in Spanish) seemed to be the epicenter.
“This wasn’t a place people would go to have a drink or two with dinner,” Lucero said. “They went to get sloppy-ass drunk. We had a general rule that you were not allowed to go into El Borracho by yourself. If you went in there to arrest one individual, you had to fight the whole bar.”
Trentelman said it wasn’t uncommon to see employees hose blood off of the pavement in front of El Borracho. Lucero said anytime he was dispatched to 25th Street during the 1980s, he knew there would be big trouble.
“Because back then, that’s all there was down there,” he said.
The skid row days of 25th Street continued to plague Ogden’s reputation.
THE PERCEPTION LIVES ON, DESPITE CHANGE
While 25th Street has been a major factor in crafting Ogden’s perceived character, it’s not the only contributor.
Lucero thinks more recent phenomena like gang and drug activity also plays a major role.
Sessions said the city’s ethnic diversity, which was brought on by the railroad, also plays a part.
“Utah is a pretty lilly-white place, but Ogden has a pretty diverse racial makeup,” he said. “There’s no doubt that ethnic diversity led people to think of Ogden as a rough or lower-class place. It’s all related to good, old-fashioned racism and classism.”
Despite major changes in the downtown corridor, the experts all seem to agree, people still think of Ogden in negative terms.
“You hear it all the time,” Lucero said. “People from Salt Lake, people from Utah County, they think Ogden sucks. It did —particularly 25th Street — but it doesn’t anymore.”
Trentelman said he’s recently spoken with Ogden residents who avoid 25th Street still today, mainly because of its tawdry reputation.
But in the mid-90s, Ogden’s Two-Bit Street began to turn away from its violent, rowdy roots toward security and commerce.
Today, you’ll find 25th lined with numerous art houses, restaurants, bakeries, yoga studios, coffee shops and boutiques. It hosts a thriving farmers market all summer and festivals all year.
That kind of activity has expanded beyond 25th Street, to other areas of the city like Washington Boulevard and The Junction.
Sessions, Singh, Trentelman and Lucero all say Ogden still has its problems — gangs, poverty, drugs — but those aren’t exclusive to Ogden.
“Once you get a reputation like Ogden has, it’s hard to get away from that,” Lucero said. “It still has its issues, but I went from seeing dead bodies on 25th Street to seeing actual tourists. I never, ever thought I’d see that. It’s kind of a miracle.”