Long-Delayed Revival of Little Rock
Arkansas capital throws off racism's shadow, with boost from a president.
LITTLE ROCK, ARK.
The year was 1957.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.