Monday, June 22, 2009

Rolling and Strolling in Little Rock, Arkansas

June 18-20

When we got to Little Rock in the late afternoon, our first stop was the downtown Visitor's Center. We emerged half an hour later with two icy cold bottles of complimentary Central Arkansas Water (survival supplies in this 98 degree weather), a city map marked up with so many red penciled lines and Xs that we weren't sure we could possibly remember what they all meant, and a bag full of brochures and coupons for more attractions than we could see in a week, let alone two days.

We ignored all the dining suggestions they gave us at the Visitor's Center and went to dinner at a recently opened tapas restaurant (Capi's) in the suburbs that we had read about in the Weekend section of the newspaper. We took all our tourist materials into the restaurant and strategized the rest of our visit while sharing a few small plates of wonderful Mediterranean and South American inspired treats.


We got an early start, so we could ride the River Trail before the temperature got too far into the 90s. The trail is a 17 mile paved bicycle/walking trail loop that runs along the north and south shores of the Arkansas River. The title of this section comes from the trail's slogan: "Rollin' and Strollin' the River Trail."

We parked the car in the Clinton Presidential Library Lot, unloaded our bicycles, and hopped on the trail right there. The first part of our ride took us through urban Little Rock, including some beautifully landscaped riverfront areas, and some less attractive spots, such as a street with the Salvation Army Mission on one side and a community of homeless people sleeping under sheets of cardboard on the other. As we got further outside the city, we passed attractive office parks and apartments, and scattered green spaces, until we got to an area of dedicated riverfront parkland. Lots of other people were on the trail biking, jogging, and walking their dogs.

We crossed the Arkansas River on the Big Dam Bridge, the longest bicycle/pedestrian bridge built for that purpose in the world. The bridge is built over the Murray Lock and Dam, and afforded us tremendous views of the river, the dam, and hundreds of swallows and purple martins soaring around the dam and bridge.

The trail on the north side of the river was almost all through parkland, including a spectacular wildflower meadow and miles and miles of lightly forested river banks. We enjoyed bird watching from our bicycles and frequent stops for photographs. We crossed back to the city on an old railroad bridge which had been converted to a pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

We returned to our hotel for showers and a change of clothes, then headed back to the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which we expected to be the highlight of our time in Little Rock.
The Center is a massive glass and metal rectangle that is elevated above the ground and juts out toward the river, like an unfinished bridge. President Clinton intended the architecture to symbolize his bridge to the 21st Century, but, not surprisingly, the locals, even ones who like Clinton, do not all agree; one described it as a trailer on an eighteen wheeler, and we could see his point.

Our Presidential Center visit started out very well with lunch at Café 42, a white tablecloth restaurant in a modern metal and glass space looking over Clinton Park. There were several tables of local "ladies who lunch," some celebrating a birthday—a sign we had chosen well on the dining front.

We continued to the exhibits, and were overwhelmed with too much Clinton. The main floor is organized with a chronology of the Clinton years running like a backbone 120 feet down the center of a monstrously open gallery, and eight "policy alcoves" crammed with information and artifacts running along the walls on each side of the chronology. The chronology contains a large panel for each year Clinton was in office, and each panel has at least ten accomplishments for the year listed, with no attempt at prioritization. President Clinton suggests that the visitor integrate visits to the policy alcoves with viewing of the panels while moving along the chronology of his Presidency. Additionally, underneath each panel is a shelf of loose leaf notebooks filled with Clinton's schedule for every day of that year of his Presidency (we only looked at a couple of pages of one, and thought later, hey, we should have seen what he was doing on our birthdays).

So, by the time we were done walking down the center aisle, we had 80 accomplishments skipping around in our heads, and we had seen numerous alcove videos of Clinton discussing his policies and programs, not to mention hearing his voice in our ears talking about his strategic vision and philosophy behind some of his decisions, thanks to the Audio Guides that we decided to add on to our basic ticket purchase to enhance our visit. While he was President, Clinton had a hard time with brevity, and he still does. Why couldn't he just stick with a Peace and Prosperity theme, two things we think he did well, rather than throwing so much at us that our heads felt like whirling Mixmasters when we left?

What were our favorite parts of the museum?

Gayl: Lunch, the architecture, and the Dale Chihouly glass sculpture.

Dick: The Oval Office recreation, especially the ornate desk.

After a bit of driving around town in search of geocaches, we crossed the river to North Little Rock to enjoy the Argenta Third Friday Artwalk. Argenta is striving mightily to become a gallery district, and on the third Friday of every month artists and artisans line Main Street, the art galleries open their doors and serve refreshments, and musicians set up in doorways and on street corners. We strolled the neighborhood, visited all the galleries, and enjoyed talking with a few artists with booths on the street. An ornate Victorian Bed and Breakfast displayed the work of local artists on its walls and opened its doors to visitors. The house had an interesting history—it was built around 1880 by a successful Black jockey from England, but when it was done he couldn't live in it, so he had to sell it. (The plaque left unanswered the question of how he could go through all the steps of building it before someone clued him in about segregation in the South.) We ate dinner at an eclectic restaurant in the heart of Argenta, appropriately named The Starving Artist Café.


We got an early start again today, so we could complete a walking tour of the historic neighborhood around the Governor's Mansion before the temperature got above 95 degrees. The Governor's Mansion, built in 1950 on the former site of a School for the Blind, is one of the more modest homes in the neighborhood. Most of the other homes we passed were built between the late 1800s and early 1900s for wealthy and successful businessmen, and one remarkable woman real estate speculator. We chatted with the owner of a particularly ornate and well-maintained Queen Anne-style home who was doing yard work when we passed. He told us that the house had been unoccupied for years and was condemned when he bought it in 1980. Although he and his wife have lived in it for over 20 years, he just finished rehabilitating his final room last year.

Our favorite house is now a bed and breakfast called "The Empress of Little Rock," and it deserves the title.
It is an extravagantly flamboyant Gothic Queen Ann displaying every fancy element of the style possible—wood, stucco, brick, stone and terra cotta building materials, a fancy turret, a multi-gabled irregular roofline that pops out in four directions, stained glass and decorative small panes in some of the windows, and fancy millwork on the wrap-around porch. We couldn't stop taking pictures.

We finished walking just in time to hop in the car and make the 11 a.m. tour of the world headquarters of Heifer International. Heifer International is a non-profit humanitarian organization with a mission to end hunger and poverty in sustainable ways which care for the Earth. Our church raised money for their Heifer Project, which provides livestock and training to help poor families worldwide.

Illustrating their commitment to caring for the Earth, Heifer International built their headquarters as a "green" building which has earned them a Platinum LEEDS certification. Our guide showed us how they collect rainwater from parking lots and the roof to be used for non-potable purposes such as flushing toilets. The air-conditioning vents are on the floor, and they only air condition the lower six feet of each floor. The heat vents are by the windows, since that is where the cold air is. They reduce their use of artificial light by positioning the building to optimize sunlight in work spaces, having overhead lights connected to motion detectors so that they are only on when needed, and using desk lights and sunlight, rather than overhead lighting in the office cubicle area. Local materials and many recycled products were used in construction.

It is an impressive building from the outside, but one that seems quite spare inside, for all the expense involved. Living green is a habit that takes some getting used to. Their investment will begin paying out in energy savings in ten years, optimistically.

After our tour, we visited Heifer Village, Heifer International's Museum, which has exhibits about the causes of and solutions to hunger and poverty, including many stories of Heifer International projects. We only learned about Heifer in the past ten years or so, and didn't realize that it began back in 1938 with an American Relief worker who organized a group of his Indiana farmer neighbors to provide livestock to those in need under the slogan, "not a cup, but a cow." In 1947-50, they sent cows to refugee resettlement centers in West Germany and to war-ravaged areas of Japan. In 1956, a Heifer project cross-breeding cows in India quadrupled milk production from millions of cows.

After lunch we spent most of the afternoon at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. We began the story of the desegregation of Little Rock High back at the Eisenhower Library, which highlighted Eisenhower's use of the 101st Airborne to enforce the civil rights of the nine Black students attempting to exercise their right to attend the historically all-white public high school, after the Arkansas governor called out his National Guard troops to prevent them from entering the school.

At the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the story came alive and became personal. The site had many documentary videos, including news coverage of the event, and recent video interviews with the people involved looking back on their experiences with the perspective of time. We don't think we know any high school age kids with the bravery, courage and determination that those nine high school students showed in making their way through a massive mob yelling hate-filled epithets and spitting on them, so that they could attend a school that would not allow them to play any sports or engage in other extracurricular activities. We don't know any parents who could let their children be subjected to the danger of violence from hostile mobs outside the school and the harassment by teachers and kids inside the school.

The commitment and character of "The Little Rock Nine" and their families stood in sharp contrast to the lack of respect for the law of the land and human rights shown by Governor Faubus and many in the community. Our visit to the museum was a surprisingly emotional experience for both of us.

The picture in this section is a bronze statue of "The Little Rock Nine" found on the back lawn of the State Capitol. In the background is the state's replica of the Liberty Bell, apt placement, we think, in light of the Federal Government's role in intervening to protect the liberty of the Little Rock Nine when the state refused to do so.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead) Today Little Rock Central High School's student population is about 50% Black and 50% White, it is #1 in the state in student achievement, and #62 on Newsweek's list of the Top 100 High Schools in the country.

We ended our day by celebrating our anniversary over dinner at Trio's, a fine dining restaurant in the hills high above downtown Little Rock. We chose the restaurant because it is owned by the couple that owns Capi's, where we had such an enjoyable dining experience Thursday. We had the finest meal of our trip so far, creatively prepared with fresh local produce and beautifully presented (example: I had lamb presented on a bed of local greens with black raspberries, strawberries and blueberries in a balsamic vinaigrette, served in a bowl made of crisped parmesan cheese).

As we were just about to get to bed at 11 p.m., two dogs started barking in the room across the hall. Evidently their owners had stepped out for some sort of late night activity and the dogs did not like being alone in a strange room. We ended up packing up all our stuff and moving to a room on another floor around midnight. It was a bad end to a wonderful stay in Little Rock.

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