Long-Delayed Revival of Little Rock

Arkansas capital throws off racism's shadow, with boost from a president.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The year was 1957.

Grainy images of nine black students trying to enter an all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., burned into the American memory. Overnight, Little Rock came to symbolize simmering tensions between blacks and whites and their separate systems of education. And from that moment on, Little Rock possessed an inferiority problem.

Four decades later, Little Rock is a thriving Southern city beginning to rise above these memories. The reasons for its nascent prosperity are many, but not surprisingly, hometown boy Bill Clinton's rise to the presidency is right at the top of the list. Tying together history and politics, this city of 184,000 is now experiencing a rebirth that many say should have come long ago.

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"I am positive that what happened in this city in 1957 set us back economically and culturally at least 25, maybe 50, years," says Mayor Jim Dailey in his spare office overlooking Markham Street, which will soon be renamed Clinton Avenue. "We had the momentum then and it has taken us a long time to get it back.

I think now we have the energy to become a small Atlanta."

Little Rock teeters on the edge of major growth and prosperity. And an important part of the surge comes from the city's connection to President Clinton. From the Wallace Grill mom and pop diner on South Main Street to funky art galleries that have popped up around town, he has helped give the city a sense of renewed pride.

"Because of the president, Little Rock became elevated to a status where people all over the world knew we existed," says Mayor Dailey. "It doesn't matter if it's good or bad press about the president, because of it Little Rock has become well-known as a Southern city. The media began coming to the city and they spread the message that Little Rock was a friendly and beautiful city."

Besides, the time has simply arrived for Little Rock to take its place as an economic and cultural powerhouse in the South, he adds. And so it has.

In the past 18 months, the River Market District on the bank of the Arkansas River has prospered with initial investments from both public and private sectors. Restaurants, specialty shops, museums, art galleries, and a farmers' market now entice people to shop downtown on Saturdays, a sight not seen since the 1960s.

A new much-needed, high-tech public library sits in the heart of the River Market District. Construction has begun on the $50-million Alltell Arena across the river in North Little Rock, which in the recent past has been a rival of Little Rock for industry and exposure as well as the Clinton presidential library site. A minor league ice hockey franchise will call the arena home in 1999 when the building is completed. By connecting the two cities with a proposed light-rail system, both hope to reap the benefits of development.

Demise of a city

For years, Little Rock was trapped in time. The city's residents seemed content with living in the shadow of a racial crisis. Industry did not locate to the state, and the downtown died as urban sprawl eventually took over the city and moved Little Rock westward. Little Rock's movers and shakers abandoned the city's heart, leaving only office buildings that emptied out after the workday ended. City officials thought little of saving downtown except in the early 1980s, when an ill-planned attempt to create a Main Street shopping mall failed.

In 1992, when Mr. Clinton announced his candidacy on the steps of the Old State House, the eyes of the world focused on Little Rock for the first time since 1957, and city leaders, who had been working on various revitalization plans, opened their eyes.

"Little Rock seized a moment that it was given," says Dailey. "We were ready with a plan and when the president was elected it gave us a chance to put the plan into action."

In the early 1990s, the Future Little Rock Initiative, a group of 400 to 600 citizens, gathered for a few months to discuss what was needed to propel Little Rock into the 21st century. City leaders listened. While Little Rock's center raced westward into suburbia, its citizens wanted its heart revived near the Old State House. The Clinton presidency was the time to act.

"I think two things have really generated this growth," explains Paul Latture, executive vice president of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. "One, the fact that the president is from here has gotten Little Rock a lot of attention and that started a lot of the projects. Then, because of the public and private investments that started in this downtown area, the president chose his library to be built nearby."

A home for presidential papers

Clinton selected a 27.7-acre site east of the River Market District for his presidential library and museum in November, after intense lobbying from Little Rock leaders. The city knew all along it would have to supply the land for the project and looked at it as an investment. According to some figures, an estimated 300,000 visitors will tour the library annually and bring in $10.2 million for the city with additional revenue generated by tourists at hotels and restaurants.

Little Rock plans to buy the land, demolish industrial buildings on the property, transform an old railroad bridge into a pedestrian bridge, relocate a railroad switch on the property, and declare the area a city park. From the presidential library, the city will radiate outward, say planners, and connect via a thoroughfare to the State Capitol, where Clinton started his political career.

"We should make this area, especially with the presidential library, a civic and tourist focal point," says George Whittenberg, architect and director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Donaghey Project for Urban Design, a planning and development center that is overseeing Little Rock's transformation. "We are calling this river area the Six Bridges District, and from here we plan to generate a sphere of activities. It's important to renew and concentrate on downtown, to have a unique area where people can go."

In a twist, Little Rock has come full circle by highlighting the very episode that hindered its development - the 1957 crisis. Last year, the city hosted the event's 40th anniversary, which the president and first lady attended, with much fanfare and unveiled the Central High Museum and Visitor Center housed in a renovated service station across from the high school.

"This is one of the most exciting times in Little Rock history," says Dailey enthusiastically. "We have been elevated in the world to a status where people now know we exist. As this city develops, though, we have to remember it isn't just for the glitz, but also for the glory."

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