Above Photo: The state capitol of Arkansas in Little Rock
Driving into Little Rock, Arkansas, I kept humming the number performed by Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Aside from that little ditty, all I knew about Little Rock was it is: 1) the state capital of Arkansas; 2) home to the Clinton Presidential Library; and 3) the site of the infamous attempt at public school desegregation in September 1957, when “The Little Rock Nine” were turned way, twice, before federal government intervention. Little Rock is much more than these things, and I was fortunate to spend ten days there.
BRIDGES OVER WORKING WATERS
While there are more quiet parks outside Little Rock (namely, Willow Beach and Maumelle), I opted for the Downtown Riverside RV Park, in North Little Rock, operated by the city, and directly on the Arkansas River, overlooking Little Rock’s waterfront.
The Arkansas River is a working river. It is the sixth longest river in the United States, and the lower part of the river is in Little Rock.
Even the traffic noise from Interstate 30 did not spoil the vistas. Sitting in the RV overlooking the river and looking east, there is the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge (1898), a former Rock Island Railroad bridge re-purposed for pedestrian use in 2011.
To the west is Interstate 35, followed by the Junction Bridge (1884), another pedestrian-only bridge which leads directly to the River Market. (Isn’t the sign framing the bridge for a photo clever?)
Both the Presidential Bridge and the Junction Bridge are colorfully lit at night and change colors – a lovely addition to the riverfront.
NORTH LITTLE ROCK/ARGENTA
North Little Rock is home to Little Rock’s primary entertainment venue, the Verizon Arena, and Dickey-Stephens Park, where the Arkansas Travelers, a Texas league farm team for the Seattle Mariners, play. It is also home to the Argenta Arts District, with businesses, restaurants, performance theaters, studios, salons, and galleries. There are several buildings from the late 19th century and early 20th century in Argenta. Condos are going up as fast as they can build ’em, and a two bedroom will set you back about $300,000. Argenta is also home to the Argenta Drug Store; built in 1887, it is the oldest continuously operating pharmacy west of the Mississippi.
THE LITTLE ROCK RIVERFRONT
The RV park provides direct access to the Presidential Bridge, and the dogs and I walked across the river on our first morning in Little Rock.
The bridge takes you directly to the Presidential Library and Museum, which opened in 2004.
The old Choctaw railroad station is now the Clinton School of Public Service.
Heifer International, in the same complex, also opened its international headquarters in 2004.
It is apparent that these additions brought commerce to those Little Rock wetlands, evidenced by the thriving adjacent River Market, along the Arkansas River Trail.
River Market is home to an outdoor concert venue, farmers market, and restaurants, bars, and shops along President Clinton Avenue. I happened upon the Little Rock Gay Pride Parade as I perused the shops one sunny weekend.
Despite all this growth, the downtown core itself has languished, with life moving east to River Market and further south on Main Street. There was little on north Main street except for a wig shop. I was surprised by empty and boarded up storefronts. At lunch at The Southern Goumasian, a food truck turned brick and mortar restaurant, the eatery was the only open business in the entire block.
SOUTH MAIN STREET – WHERE IT’S AT
Local brochures touted the Esse Purse Museum – one of only three museums in the world devoted to handbags. (The other two are in Amsterdam and Seoul.) Being the handbag hounddog that I am, I knew I could not pass it up. I also figured that any part of town that housed a purse museum had to be pretty cool. And I was right.
South Main (“SOMA”) is a collection of shops and restaurants, the Purse Museum, and fun and funky people. I parked outside Moxie Modern Mercantile, a vintage and modern store full of unique and hip wares. The owner, Laura, and I, talked for a good long while. She recommended The Root Cafe for lunch, where I noshed on a spicy banh mi sandwich and sipped sarsaparilla cream soda.
The Esse Purse Museum did not disappoint.
The bags were displayed according to decade, and there was a special exhibit of shoes arranged in the same fashion.
I was in heaven! It made me wonder if I should have held onto all those handbags and created a museum myself.
Over 4,000 purses are on display, which the clerk told me was only a small percentage of the owner’s personal collection.
I capped off my Little Rock Main Street experience a few nights later at South on Main, a popular restaurant by Chef Matthew Bell, opened in 2013. Mary Steenburgen is a co-owner. On this particular night the eatery hosted a fundraiser for the magazine “Oxford American,” devoted to Southern music and literature. Along with a buffet of traditional barbecue and bourbon-based cocktails, renowned Grammy-winning bluegrass band, “The Earls of Leicester” played the event.
Excuse me for a moment while I geek out on the band. They play only songs by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, but to call them a tribute band would be a travesty. Dobro master Jerry Douglas (14 Grammys; 3-time CMA musician of the year; IBMA 2015 dobro player of the year), mandolin player Jeff White (Vince Gill collaborator), and bassist Barry Bales (2016 IBMA bass player of the year) played with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Fiddler Johnny Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played with Flatt and Scruggs, on the same fiddle. Banjo player Charlie Cushman is the 2016 IBMA banjo player of the year. Vocalist Shawn Camp, Arkansas native, won IBMA’s 2015 male vocalist of the year. Their self-titled first album won the Grammy for best bluegrass album in 2015.
Some of the richest and hippest Little Rock neighborhoods are to the west. Hillcrest is one of the earliest residential areas of the city and has many turn of the century homes and cottages dating back to the early part of the 20th century. The Heights is a trendy, upscale area with gift shops, boutiques, restaurants, cafés, and antique shops. Riverdale, on the river, has a harbor, and many apartments and condos are springing up in this already dense area.
LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
When in Little Rock, it is a must to take a poignant and sobering tour of Central High School, a thriving high school of over 2,000 students, and a National Historic Site.
There is a film, small gift shop, and exhibit at the visitor center, and tour guides take you inside the school itself.
In these political times, it is wise to remind ourselves of how far we have come, and just how far we have regressed. We must stay strong, and vigilant.
GOOD INFRASTRUCTURE – GOOD DOG!
Much can be discerned when a city has an off-leash dog park, both from a public funds and priorities standpoint. Little Rock has two in the metropolitan area. A short jaunt over the river took us to MacArthur Park, where I did not find a cake left out in the rain. What I did find was a fabulous, free off-leash dog park, with separate areas for small and big dogs, water feature, and plenty of rocks for climbing.
THE PEOPLE OF LITTLE ROCK
I have The Constant Companion to thank for some of my most memorable introductions to Little Rock’s citizens. First there was the police officer who let me go just in time for me to make it to the bathroom. Then, there were the two nurses who came to the rig and administered my Entyvio infusion for October – Angel and Terri. I’m sorry I did not get a photo of all of us together! I never knew I could have so much fun during an infusion. We talked about Little Rock, they gave me some great suggestions for things to see and do, and they loved on the furry copilots.
Little Rock was such a pleasant surprise. I would definitely return for another visit the next time I’m in the area.