Little Rock: The 2005 American Heritage Great American Place


I was stunned. My first panicked thought was to repeat one of Virginia’s irreverent jokes—“I want to be buried by Roger Clinton so I can torture him for eternity!” But then I told him what I really believed, which was that she had always expected to be buried in her hometown of Hope next to Bill Blythe, her first husband and the President’s father. A couple of days later Beth and I were there as Virginia was laid to rest.

As I sat upstairs watching the elm limbs spread, the alien Little Rock of my beginnings became a place that felt like home.

The pivotal middle ground of Hillcrest was cozy, comfortable, and liberal. It provided a good vantage point for monitoring the changes in the city, which during our years there almost outnumbered the drinks they were discussed over on our front porch. The most entertaining topics tended to be the perennial tug of war between west and east, the far suburbs and downtown. Beyond West Little Rock, a forest had been razed to make way for a glitzy community of unspeakably ersatz French châteaux called Chenal Valley, which gave us folks in the original ’burbs a lot to laugh about—not that we had actually driven out there to see it. At the same time, the people out west, and even some in our area, were hooting over the continued efforts to revive downtown. We in the middle felt blessed, in a tree-lined neighborhood within walking distance of stores and restaurants.

Inevitably, though, the best movie theaters moved west, so Beth and I often found ourselves heading that way late on weekday afternoons to get the early-bird price and beat the crowds. One day as we were driving out Cantrell Road, I rounded a certain curve and there was no mountain in my windshield. It was obscured by a multistory office tower.

It’s amazing how huge buildings can sneak up on you. Until that day my actual, conscious, personal perception of the rampant changes out west had remained anecdotal, the stuff of front-porch laughter. Yes, of course we had driven west to patronize Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Home Depot, CompUSA, Barnes & Noble, Target, Old Navy, and the Sharper Image. But they were just stores, places to get things—until my own Little Rock past was wounded by the change.

I opened my eyes and tried to remember old impressions. Stopped one afternoon at a traffic light at the corner of North Rodney Parham and Hinson Roads, I summoned up a picture I hadn’t thought about in years. I had lived near that intersection when I first moved to town, and on that corner there had been a well-kept cottage that belonged to a little old couple who tended a roadside garden: lettuce, tomatoes, peas, melons, even corn. I had loved getting caught by that light so I could survey the scene from my car window. After Chicago it had felt charmingly small town—even quasi-rural. Now, suddenly—or so it seemed—the cottage and its garden were gone. A sleek black Merrill Lynch tower had taken their place.

Downtown Little Rock
arkansas department of parks and tourism2005_5_53

In today’s America, reclaiming the past makes more news than replacing it. Even as West Little Rock was surreptitiously becoming a center of gleaming warehouse stores, the downtown warehouse district was giving new life to old brick. Back when Beth and I married, Jimmy Moses, the M of the original A/M/R dreamers, was talking about turning old downtown buildings into loft apartments. Sometime in the mid-nineties a revolution happened: People began actually living in the former printing plant opposite our old Southern Magazine offices. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings citizens from all over town, presumably even a few from West Little Rock, came to shop for the tomatoes and corn and okra Arkansas farmers put out for sale at the open-air River Market. The store where we at the magazine had bought cheap desk chairs was now a hip outdoor outfitter. Across the street was a brew bar selling beer by the hundreds of brands. Art galleries, restaurants, an amphitheater, even the city library had been reborn in that sun-baked wasteland where I’d spent my days in the mid-eighties. Now people straight out of J. Crew were sipping lattes a mere bean’s throw from la petite roche . In that respect, West Little Rock and downtown had finally come together.

And what did we in the middle bring to the party? Boulevard Bread Company, that’s what. In the momentous year 2000 a young Arkansas chef trained at Alice Waters’s famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, in California came home to open his own place in an area now known as the Heights. A more sophisticated Little Rock welcomed Scott McGehee with open arms—which were soon loaded down with French and Italian cheeses, fresh-baked baguettes, exotic meats, and gourmet takeout dinners. In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that one of my stepdaughters worked in his bakery. Many nights Beth and I sat, impatiently, on our porch waiting for her to bring food home.