Little Rock: The 2005 American Heritage Great American Place

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How do you know when it’s time to go? If you’re a writer, it has more to do with something inside than outside. By the turn of the millennium Beth and I had begun to feel a kind of completeness in Little Rock, as though we had sat through a beautiful play whose loose ends had all been neatly tied up. A city’s loose ends are never tightly tied, of course; these were our own that we were feeling—daughters heading off to college, a big house settling into silence. In 2002, just before we left for France, we put our house on the market. It sold a few months later.

In the fall of 2003 we were back in Little Rock for a long visit. The city looked more beautiful than ever. We stayed with friends who live on a hill out west, and there the sunsets were spectacular, like the one I used to see glowing behind the mountain. We did a lot of the things we used to do: ate steaks at the Faded Rose near the river, met friends for drinks at Loca Luna, took the girls to lunch at Canon Grill. Naturally we had to see friends in our old Hillcrest neighborhood. That was a little strange, sitting on a front porch facing our old house, whose new owners had painted the blue front door black. From that vantage point I reflected on the very first communication I had received regarding the book about 501 Holly. It was from a woman whose family had lived across the street for much of the century. With her letter she included a black-and-white photograph, from 1927 or 1928, showing two young women in the snow on Holly Street, and behind them was my house. I could see the window I looked through when I wrote, the window I looked at now from the outside. That big elm in the front yard was hardly more than a twig.

Despite familiar touchstones, Little Rock had moved on without us. A gigantic new multiplex theater, the Rave, had opened out west on a site formerly occupied by hardwoods. The good old Wallace Grill was long gone, sacrificed for an upscale eating place that would never deign to list a chicken-salad sandwich on its menu. Progress can be cruel. In the River Market area, a hot new restaurant, the Vermillion Water Grille, was doing big business on the ground floor of a once run-down shell that had metamorphosed into a luxury apartment building that is home, or at least one home, to the actress and native daughter Mary Steenburgen and her husband, Ted Danson. From their riverview window they’re able to look northeast at the big glass rectangle, the presidential library for their old friend Bill.

When Beth and I left for France, the Clinton Presidential Center seemed to consist of architects’ drawings and lawsuits over property rights. Now we wanted to see what the place looked like. Driving the expressway in from West Little Rock, we found that the same old go-nowhere cloverleaf that I had taken to Southern Magazine had become the exit to the future.

The Clinton Library appears to be all windows, which no doubt will spark jokes about people who live in glass houses. No matter. Even aside from its unique purpose and meaning, this presidential library is that rarest and most impressive of events in a modern American city, an example of new life sprouting among the old.

I dearly hoped to be there for the opening, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, I was still in France, looking out on the Pyrenees, pondering Henri Matisse and his fascination with windows. At the moment my theory is this: Ultimately they weren’t important so much for what he saw outside when he looked through them as for what that view revealed to him about himself. Considering my experience in Little Rock, I think old Matisse was on to something.