Little Rock: The 2005 American Heritage Great American Place

PrintPrintEmailEmailI’ve been thinking about windows. When I wrote this article, I was looking out my apartment window to the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France, where my wife and I had been living for the previous year while I researched and wrote a book about the painter Henri Matisse. Windows were an important motif in Matisse’s art, but that is only part of the reason I’ve been thinking about them. On some deeper level I was peering beyond the brooding Pyrenees back to Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.A., the city where I’d lived the longest in my life—17 years, nearly 14 in the same house. That house had 56 windows, the most of any house I’ve ever owned. There I wrote five books, at an antique table by a big upstairs window looking out on a stately elm tree. In time the tree’s sprawl of limbs, which I watched grow, became for me a measure of my connectedness to that city in the heart of America—a city that had taken me in just by chance.

Hardly a day in France goes by that I don’t think of Little Rock— la petite roche, the phrase early French explorers used to distinguish a landing on the south side of the Arkansas River from the big chalk bluff on the opposite shore. You don’t hear much French spoken in Little Rock these days, except in cases prompting the words “pardon my French.” There are a lot of those, which I tend to like, grit being a quality I admire in a place. I moved from Chicago to Little Rock in 1986, to take part in the start-up of a publication called Southern Magazine. After it ran its course, I decided to stay. For one thing, I had fallen in love with the woman who is now my wife and who had two young daughters and deep Arkansas roots. I also had lived, to that point, in 25 different dwellings, none longer than four and a half years. I yearned to put down roots of my own, and Little Rock seemed surprisingly receptive. For many reasons, I soon was aware of a happiness that I had never known before.

Part of Little Rock’s attraction was its accessible past. A native Mississippian, I had always found my home state’s history impenetrable, like those black plastic sheets laid down over the deep dirt in genteel house gardens. Little Rock’s history breathed—at least to me. Moving there, I thought I was coming back to the South, but I was wrong. The width of the big river seemed to make all the difference. To my mind, establishment Mississippi marched in lockstep; Arkansas went its own individual, contrary, almost Western way. The novelist Dan Jenkins predicted it would be only a matter of time before I’d be wearing a red Hog hat on my head, and though I’ve done it only once, I can’t say he wasn’t right.

But my deep affection for Little Rock didn’t develop overnight. During the courting process, Southern Magazine’s publisher flew me down and put me up at the swanky Capital Hotel, near the river, where well-heeled ladies and gentlemen had been congregating since the nineteenth century. The Capital reminded me of a smaller version of the Plaza Hotel in New York, with a saloon that evoked the Oak Bar. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t spend much time at the Capital once I actually made the move. The magazine’s offices were two blocks and a thousand degrees of separation away, in a refurbished old building edging onto a sleepy riverfront district of warehouses and secondhand office-furniture stores. Whenever I came to work via the expressway, I exited on a cloverleaf that appeared to be an urban planner’s miscalculation. There was nothing at the end of it—just deep shadows from the overpass above and then a searing sun that baked the same brick buildings it had been baking for a hundred years.

From my office window I looked across a parking lot to another refurbished building, nearly a twin of the one we were in. It held the offices of A/M/R, Allison Moses Redden, an idealistic firm of young architects and developers who were dreaming of bringing Little Rock’s downtown back to life. I was glad I was only trying to make a magazine out of thin air. A/M/R had restored the buildings that they and we were in, and together we constituted an oasis; otherwise our corner consisted of the bus station (by then a scuzzy echo of Norman Rockwell America), the newspaper printing plant, and a strange little log cabin that was said to be part of something called the Arkansas Territorial Restoration but which I viewed as just another down-and-out downtown structure.

In October 1991 the governor announced that he was running for President. Suddenly Little Rock didn’t seem quite so out of the way.

I usually walked a block to Main Street for lunch at the Wallace Grill, whose chicken-salad sandwiches evoked memories of the soda fountain in Tupelo where my mother used to take me as a reward for enduring a morning trip to the dentist. Up Main from the river, past Maxie’s Pawn Shop and the Army-surplus outlet, the last department store was about to give way to the influx of cut-rate joints selling off-brand clothes and shoes with “real leather uppers.” At the far south end of Main, in the Quapaw Quarter, was an area of mansions from about the 1870s, when Little Rock’s future lay ahead of it. One mansion there, though not the oldest (it was built in the 1950s) or finest, was the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, home of Bill and Hillary and Chelsea, as the First Family was called throughout the state. The Quapaw Quarter was another area I didn’t visit much at first, but occasionally at the magazine we would see the governor jogging past our windows in shorts that revealed an uncomfortable amount of meaty thigh.