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.

For a long time I didn’t feel part of any of this. I was in Little Rock, but Little Rock wasn’t in me. I knew no one outside the magazine. My regular track was West Little Rock to downtown and back again. West Little Rock was where everyone downtown had fled to. Even then the area was dotted with abundant stands of woods and unspoiled vistas.

I always liked driving home along Cantrell Road. It helped ease the blow on those evenings when I wondered what in the hell I had done to my life and career by leaving Chicago and moving to Little Rock. At a certain point in the drive I would round a gentle curve and find that a mountain had filled my windshield. Behind the mountain the sun was red and sinking. It was a beautiful view, so much softer than harsh sun beating down on a rawboned burg that had seen better days.

Capital Hotel
 
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In 1989, the year Southern Magazine folded, my new wife, Beth, and I moved with her daughters into a 1923 Craftsman bungalow on the corner of Holly Street and Lee Avenue in Little Rock’s old Hillcrest neighborhood. Our place was between West Little Rock and downtown, closer to downtown. “Ah, Hillcrest,” said an acquaintance when I told him where we lived, “the city’s first white-flight subdivision.”

The house at 501 Holly was the one with 56 windows, including a skylight that we carved into the erstwhile attic that became my writing space. The irony of my long relationship with Little Rock is that once I began sitting still inside that Craftsman bungalow, the city—its past and its future—seemed determined to sneak in and seek me out.

One day in October 1991 the governor stood with his wife and daughter on the veranda of the Old State House and announced that he was running for President of the United States. Suddenly Little Rock didn’t seem quite so out of the way. Soon I found myself traveling with candidate Clinton for what would become an 8,000-word cover story in the Washington Post Magazine . When it came out, I got a call from an agent in New York who wanted to represent me. He had a big idea for a book, a collaboration with Virginia Kelley, Clinton’s outrageous horse-playing mother, who lived in Hot Springs.

“I don’t want to write an as-told-to book,” I said.

“It’s not like it’s Jon Bon Jovi,” the agent said.

By then I had my own hot book idea. My friend’s comment about white flight had led me to research the background of the subdivision called Pulaski Heights, of which Hillcrest was a part. In the 1890s its developers, two men from Michigan, had built Quapawesque mansions in this no man’s land in order to showcase the quality of life they envisioned in this higher, cooler ground a mile from downtown.

Eyes glazed over en masse when I told people I wanted to write a book about the history of my house. But by researching the lives that had been lived in that one Craftsman bungalow for much of the twentieth century, I was connecting myself to Little Rock. History is best when it’s personal, like an old friend you meet on the street and whose secrets you know by heart. I had already discovered that one of those run-down warehouses near my Southern Magazine office had once been a NuGrape bottling plant owned by C. W. L. Armour, the man who built my house. The architect he had chosen had also designed War Memorial Stadium, whose Art Deco facade I stared at every day from a treadmill at the War Memorial Fitness Center.

Through the lives of Jessie and Charlie Armour, I learned about Little Rock during the hopeful twenties, the hard Depression (Charlie went bankrupt), and World War II (which their only son spent in a Japanese POW camp). Through the next owners, Ruth and Billie Murphree, I touched fingertips with that most infamous of Little Rock episodes, the 1957 Central High School integration crisis, in which President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine black children through a mob of jeering, spitting white people. The Murphrees were the parents of a daughter who graduated from Central that year and of a second girl who ran off and got married, at 16, during the “lost year” following Gov. Orval Faubus’s closing of the public schools in 1958. My own stepdaughters would both attend Central, but each time I entered those labyrinthine halls the faces I saw were those of the Murphree girls.

Eventually I would write books about both Virginia Kelley and 501 Holly, and as I sat upstairs watching the elm limbs spread, the alien Little Rock of my beginnings became a place that felt like home. The extent of that change was underscored by an extraordinary telephone call one day eight years after my arrival in the city. I’ve never told this story before, but I think it belongs here. Virginia Kelley had just died of breast cancer, and when I picked up the phone, an official voice on the other end asked me to “hold for the President.”

I stared out the window for the longest time. Then he was on the line. “Jim,” said the President, “I’m here with Roger and Dick,” referring to his half-brother and his stepfather, Dick Kelley, Virginia’s last husband. During my book research President Clinton had told me, “My mother has lived a big, sprawling, messy life,” and this call was one of the results. “There’s a question about where she would want to be buried,” he was now saying, the choices being next to Bill’s dad, Roger’s dad, or Dick. “We’d like your opinion.”

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
 
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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.

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.