A 23-year musical neighborhood tradition goes quiet on Kensington

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The neighborhood of 15th and 15th is well known and beloved for its bustle of bars, cafes, restaurants and retail. It may seem odd, then, that on summer Saturday nights for the past 23 years, people from the area settled into one neighbor’s backyard for company and entertainment. 

Yes, it may seem odd, but it also speaks to the choices people make in their communities when the options are between what requires payment, planning and foresight and what’s free and easy.

In the backyard garden of Carolyn Turkanis, pot luck dinner, live local music, and the presence of neighbors and friends made it the free and easy destination for residents in the 15th and 15th neighborhood, attracting a loyal, constant attendance.

While the standard of American homeowner often indulges in the privacy and independence of their properties, Turkanis made the unique effort to transform her yard into what effectively functioned as a public third space — open to neighbors, their friends, visiting musicians, all welcome to indulge in music, food and each others’ company. 

Third spaces are meaningful social spaces that exist between the workplace and the home. Many third spaces in the world are free to access, like public plazas, stoops, parks and libraries. Many are also monetized, like coffee shops and bars. The ability to settle down somewhere and chat with people around you is, simple as it sounds, part of the bedrock of a strong community.

15th and 15th is a great neighborhood for third spaces, albeit the monetized kind. So when Turkanis, 81, tapped into her yard’s potential and made it a free gathering space in the same neighborhood as some of the city’s most popular restaurants and bars, it’s no wonder people flocked to it for two decades.

Those gatherings will come to an end this year, after an new policy interpretation and a neighbor’s complaints closed the yard for good.

The years-long process that led to this end brings up interesting details about what happens in our city and where — and raises some hard questions about life in the city.

The building of a backyard third space

Carolyn Turkanis, for her part, could not have foreseen what would come of her first “house concert” in 2000. 

After attending a free, local show her friend Megan Peters hosted at her own home, Turkanis was enchanted and decided that she wanted to host the same kind of event at her home on Kensington Avenue. 

But when Turkanis got back to her “little Sugar House bungalow,” she realized her rooms were too small. So she turned her attention to her backyard. 

With the help of Peters’ music connections and some of her own, musicians began loading gear up her drive every Saturday night.

“When I started this originally, I wanted to get to know my neighbors better. I knew my neighbors one house east and one house west and I knew the family across the street, but that was about it,” Turkanis explains. “But as word spread other people heard that I was supporting musicians and trying to build a sense of community in the neighborhood. Neighbors invited friends (and) if I’d hosted a musician they would invite friends, so it grew. There were people who came from around the valley, but the intent was to create community.” 

Peters and other local musicians Building Salt Lake spoke to like Bronwen Beecher, Nathan Spenser and Tommy Mortensen, came to look forward to the summer season at Turkanis’ because they got to play for what they all described as a “listening audience.”

“She’s connecting people. She’s connecting musicians with an audience who will listen and appreciate that kind of music, where you don’t have to go out until 11 at night,” Peters said. “You can go down the street … and know your neighbors, know the people of your city.” 

Turkanis echoes this, noting that like herself, many of her neighbors were “mature,” so the ease of getting to the gatherings was a draw. She says her guests appreciated being able “to walk out their door on a Saturday night with a green salad or salsa and chips or a plate of Costco cookies … and come sit in the garden with neighbors,” instead of having to drive to an event or concert somewhere else in the city.

Almost as a side-effect, the gatherings at Carolyn’s home addressed two issues in how American neighborhoods (don’t) function: the lack of neighborhood third spaces for people to engage in spontaneous, free socialization and the lack of social spaces that are safe and accessible for older people to get to, as mobility and transportation are less available to them. 

Abiding by the “invite only” code

It was likely because of these community-fostering elements that in 2010, Turkanis received a letter from the city saying that an Interpretive Review Team had determined that while her residence was not zoned for concerts, Carolyn’s gatherings were “certainly a benefit to you and your community,” the city told her at the time.

The letter went on to recommend that Turkanis go forward with the events but operate them like a private party. She needed to make them invite-only, take down her website that listed upcoming gatherings and use a Facebook page instead to post about gatherings and invite friends.

Turkanis obliged these recommendations on top of efforts she was already making to follow city ordinances. She encouraged people to carpool or use rideshare apps if they weren’t walking over, and shows ended before 10 p.m.—usually between 9 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.

While music was playing, she’d make regular jaunts down to the curb with a decibel-reading app open on her phone, to make sure the volume wasn’t above what was allowed—which, as described by the Salt Lake County Health Department, should not exceed 60 decibels after 10 p.m. in single-family residential structures. The musicians we spoke to all recall these precautions being a regular part of Turkanis’ hosting habits. 

In 2014, she says, she considered getting special event permits, but it would have been expensive for how often she held gatherings.

“I didn’t see any point of (doing) that because this letter that I got said that I was being of service to the community, and if it’s a private party and you take down your website, it’s compliant. So from 2010 to the end of 2022, I thought it was compliant,” she says.  

Come 2022, a neighbor sent a complaint to the city that the music from the gatherings was too loud, that requests to lower the volume had been ignored and that congestion on the street made it impossible for other neighbors to have guests over and had resulted in other cars being damaged. The city opened a case, and in 2022 Civil Enforcement staff met with Turkanis and told her concerts were prohibited in her R-1-5,000 zoning district—Turkanis hosted a few more gatherings after that meeting, and resumed them in May 2023.

Websites, concerts, donations—what are they, even? 

Turkanis’s case seems to have been complicated when terms like “website,” “concerts” and a limited understanding of what does and doesn’t constitute a concert ticket fell under the city’s microscope.

In 2010 she’d taken down her website because, being in the public domain, it implied an invite to anyone in the public—a violation of her residential zoning. She was recommended to and did switch to a Facebook page. But a report from the city attorney dated January 11, 2024 shows that the City has since changed its judgment about Facebook being an appropriate way to advertise private parties, with descriptions that align it more with their definitions of a public domain website. That is, Facebook is now too available to the public, just as Caroline’s old website was deemed. 

Another point of tension was whether the gatherings were monetized. A screenshot from the same report shows an event page from Now Playing Utah, a website independent of Turkanis. The page includes a suggested donation of $15 to attend—but a suggested donation is not a ticket.

“She’s not making any money, she’s only putting into the community,” Peters says of the gatherings. “No one’s ever been turned away because they couldn’t donate. They have a suggested donation but all of her neighbors come for free and the artists know that.”

Donations were requested, but any money made went to the artists, not Turkanis. 

And between August 2022 and 2023, the neighbor continued the steady stream of complaints to the city—but this time the emails included attached photos of streets full of parked cars and people milling around in Turkanis’ yard. This evidence seems to have swayed Civil Enforcement to the conclusion that the gatherings were an inappropriate use for the property—13 years after Turikanis’ gatherings were deemed a community benefit, they were re-evaluated as illegal concerts. 

Turkanis’s lawyer has pointed out that there is not a clear definition of “concert” in the code the City referred to in their communications or in the resulting report on the matter, and wonders, “Where do you differentiate between a concert and a party? Because a lot of people could have a party and have a live musician, and maybe that’s fine.” 

“I felt picked on by the city,” says Turkanis. “I know that there are house concerts all over this city.”

Peters, who was on her way to another such house concert the night we spoke, backs this up. She also notes that Carolyn’s gatherings were hardly the only contributing factor to Kensington congestion, pointing out that Caputos often hosted a jazz band the whole neighborhood could hear, and that even the noise of local frat parties would drift down the block.

As for the issue of parking, Peters points out, “It’s public parking on the street, it’s not permitted parking, so you don’t own the parking in front of your house. With 15 businesses there, where do (people) park? They park on Kensington.” 

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

On August 8 of 2023, the City issued a Notice and Order that directed Turkanis to cease holding “concerts” at her home, or she’d be fined $25 a day. A seemingly small sum, her lawyer pointed out that it wasn’t clear if that meant $25 per concert, or $25 every single day after a reported concert until someone had determined she’d stopped. Like the potentially indefinite $25-a-day fee, there was also a threat of further “legal action,” which wasn’t defined. On August 9, Turkanis requested an extension to comply, writing that she believed she’d done everything suggested to be in compliance as a “private party.” 

Over 40 people signed a letter in support of Turkanis, sending it to Civil Enforcement the same day. All but one of the signers listed their addresses as being from the immediate Kensington neighborhood. In the letter, they described their experiences of the gatherings:

“They have been very important in creating and maintaining a sense of community in this area of our beautiful city. They are a source of enjoyment that is welcome and anticipated, promoting our well-being, safety, and security. We gather for a backyard picnic and the opportunity to get to know one (another). We enjoy food, fellowship, and music. The potluck begins around 6:30 p.m. and the evening winds down at about 9:00 p.m. We believe that these are valuable neighborhood gatherings and we strongly urge Salt Lake City Officials to recognize them as such—and nothing more.” 

Nonetheless, the City attorney rejected Turkanis’s appeal, citing the “size, frequency, non-private, and compensation elements” of the events as demonstrating that they were not occasional private social gatherings, but better fit the description of “live performance theater.” The letter also claimed, 

“Because the concerts are not held year-round, the City further evaluated Turkanis’s right to conduct the concerts as a temporary use. On August 18, 2022, the zoning administrator opined that the concerts likely fell into the “Festivals, Bazaars, Large Scale Outdoor Sale Events, Carnivals, Circuses, And Other Special Events” category of temporary uses. This temporary use is also not permitted in the R-1-5,000 zoning district.” 

And the Utah law regarding “public clamor”—meaning public opinion unsupported by credible evidence—overruled the support of the 40 neighbors, with the City also stating it cannot apply City Code to “land use activity popularity.” The lack of evidence supporting Turkanis’s definition of her events, versus the influx received from the complainant neighbor, were the nail in the coffin for her gatherings. And since Turkanis lives off of a limited retiree income, the prospect of fines and legal action were enough to discourage her from appealing again. So the gatherings in her garden will not return in 2024. 

“I’ve cried many tears,” says Carolyn. “I’ve loved supporting local musicians, it’s meant so much to me. I’ve met so many very dear friends in my garden. And I have a deeper connection with a lot of my neighbors that I didn’t know very well.” 

Musicians like Peters and Beecher see it as a greater disappointment than just the loss of a venue or a potluck. “What does it mean when a city that supposedly supports the arts doesn’t support something like this?” Beecher wonders. 

There is plenty of evidence in the city attorney’s report that explains why the code that has shut down this neighborhood tradition was enacted to “maintain the life, health, safety, and general welfare of the inhabitants of Salt Lake City.” For most of the last two decades, though, the city was in agreement that Carolyn’s backyard gatherings were providing benefit—a third space the community loved.

It’s maybe ironic that her gatherings faced such scrutiny, given the recent push for new developments in our city to include more third space-friendly commercial spaces on their ground floors. Or given how many new city-permitted events featuring music and food crop each summer. What the conflict over Turkanis’ gatherings seem to show is that Salt Lake still doesn’t really “get” third spaces—not if they’re in the wrong zoning, anyways. At the end of last summer, the city settled their opinion: the shows will not go on. 

Email Erin Moore

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