Three Sisters and SoMa

Something happens to me when I visit Little Rock’s historic Southside Main Street (SoMa) business district. I can feel the neighborhood’s soul sing to me. It sings about its recent reawakening after decades of slumber. It sings about the people who have brought it into this new 21st-century life. It praises the investment, vision, hard work and faith that nourish it each day. The district’s heartbeat seems stronger each time I visit – and it makes me smile.

In late September, the people of Southside Main, and their kin from elsewhere in the city, gathered at The Bernice Garden to celebrate the fourth-annual installation of outdoor art pieces and to congratulate their creators. Free food and drink from ‘hood businesses, Boulevard Bread Company and The Root Café, aided the festive atmosphere.

I was immediately drawn to one art piece in particular, from the many there. What I spied looked like a trellis covered in leaves and vines, twirling and twisting their way heavenward. In reality it was a cold steel structure that emanated vibrant, warm life – thanks to the talent of artist John VanHorn.

Companions: The Three Sisters (sculpture by John VanHorn)

He titled this piece “Companions: The Three Sisters” after the native American term that refers to corn, beans and squash (or pumpkins) as the three crops that, when grown simultaneously, support, nourish and protect one another.

What I saw upon closer inspection was metal stalks of corn, beans with running tendrils, and pumpkins heavy on the vine, all intertwined to form a shield-shaped structure easily eight feet high. Despite its heft, the piece was airy and had life-like movement. The green and rusty-brown patina was glossy and rustic at the same time; I couldn’t stop looking at it and touching it. Thankfully the artist didn’t mind.

VanHorn and his Three Sisters garden gate

The work is not just art for art’s sake – which would be fine – but it is functional art; designed to be a garden gate as well. Please go visit Companions and give it my regards. I will certainly be back.

VanHorn told me his grandfather was a pipeliner and taught him to stick weld. His grandfather is still alive and I’ll bet he’s proud to have provided the instruction that fuels his grandson’s talent. VanHorn told onlookers that he creates his art to please himself and figures if he enjoys making it that maybe others will enjoy seeing it. He’s certainly got that right.

I am in love with this piece. Photos don’t do it justice.

Bernice Garden is a jewel; a priceless gift from visionary Anita Davis who donated the land at the southeast corner of Daisy Gaston Bates (14th) and Main Streets, envisioning an public art oasis in the midst of the city. I encourage you to plan a visit. Pick up lunch on the way. Community Bakery is just a few blocks north as well as the aforementioned Boulevard and Root. You can’t miss the sign with the crow on top nor the striking new pavilion structure at the center of the garden. I predict a visit will make you smile as well.

A Little Rock Love Note: While writing this post, I had an epiphany. Much like the three sister crops that the Native Americans grew together for the most beneficial and sustaining result, the Little Rock metro area also has three sisters.

There are three areas that are independent and have their own life and merit, yet will produce the most bounty when fostered and encouraged together – and given TIME to grow. Those three sisters are the aforementioned Southside Main Street district, the Argenta Arts District in downtown North Little Rock, and Little Rock’s burgeoning Main Street corridor. No one is more important than the other. Instead, if one flourishes, it aids them all in return.

For the sake of this analogy, the River Market District is not a part of the trio. It had a head start; it’s the big brother. Its success is definitely aiding the growth of the younger sisters. The River Market has set a decade-long example of the bountiful harvest that a long-range vision, financial and emotional investment, and time can produce. I love the whole family.

Lagniappe

SoMa Eats

About the Bernice Garden (from their press releases)

The Bernice Garden is privately owned but intended for public use and is located at the southeast corner of South Main Street and Daisy Bates Avenue. The garden was created to celebrate the community and will host community events as well as the sculpture exhibit in an effort to foster community interaction and a sense of pride in the neighborhood. The 100 ft. x 150 ft. garden consists of landscaped areas with a crushed granite foundation for the artworks. Next to the sculpture garden is a concrete patio, benches and approximately 20 parking spaces. The sculpture exhibition is part of a multistage development plan of the garden.

Poetic Inspiration on Main Street

Kelley and I have season tickets to Little Rock’s Repertory Theater, known as The Rep. We feel so urban – and yes, a bit smug – when it’s time to go to the theater. Unlike the other patrons who have driven into downtown and searched for a parking space before the show, we’ve simply walked out the Lafayette’s 6th street side door. A half block later and we’re at the Rep’s front doors.

Wednesday evening we saw Shakespeare’s King Henry V performed by a very talented cast.  I’m a fan of the Bard from way back. I’ve read many of his plays, but watching them being performed is another thing altogether. I’ll admit, though, and I mentioned it to Kelley that night, that I prefer Shakespeare’s poetry over his plays.

As we left the Rep, instead of taking the direct route home, I suggested we walk home via the block of Main Street behind the Lafayette. It’s the west side of the 500 block of Main Street whose four buildings have recently been purchased for restoration and redevelopment.  I’ve written about the project already and I assure you I’ll be writing about it as things progress.

But, let’s get back to our night-time block walk.

We peeped into the former department stores’ dusty and recently-uncovered windows. We could see evidence inside of the environmental stabilization work already underway.

We approached the corner of Capitol and Main where the Baker’s Shoes display windows are – where the bucket list on Main’s chalkboards were. Turns out the space is still attracting written expression.

Despite the darkness, out of the corner of my eye I spotted graffiti on a display window near the former store’s entrance.  I had just been in this space a few days ago; the writing was new.  At first we thought it must be the typical graffiti we often see downtown, but upon closer inspection, this is what we found. A poem.

Poetry in an unexpected place

This is the poem just as it was written there:

Thinking of a master plan
Cos aint nothing but sweat
Inside my hand
So I start my mission
Leave my residence
Thinkin how could I get
Some dead presidents
I need money
I used to be a stickup kid
So I think of all the devious
Things I did
 I used to roll up
This is a hold up
Aint nothing funny
Stop smiling
Be still don’t nothing
Move but the money
So I dig into my pocket
All my money spent
So I dig deeper
But still comin up
With lint
But now Ive learned
Cos I’m riteous
I feel great
So maybe I might
Search for a 9 to 5
If I strive then
Maybe
I stay alive

As we stood there reading it, we were dumbstruck.

The first thing was that it was poetry and not graffiti – quite a surprise. More likely the words were intended to be song lyrics, or at least that’s my guess. But who was the writer? Would they be successful in finding their 9 to 5? Do they have the determination and encouragement to reach that goal and change their life?

It was a gift to find such a thing in our downtown block. I didn’t have my camera with me then, but the next morning I snapped some shots before going to work. I haven’t been back today to see if the words have survived or if they’ve been removed.

Just like Little Rock’s downtown, the writer is seeking a master plan. The bucket list on Main is gone, but the desire to write dreams on that corner remains. I think William Shakespeare would approve.

Capitol and Main’s Unshuttered Corner

NEW INFORMATION just in! I’ve added it to the bottom of the post. (Sept. 5)

As I’ve said in prior posts, I didn’t get to enjoy Main Street Little Rock in its commercial heyday. By the time I was conscious of the area, on periodic visits from Stuttgart, it was on the downhill side of the Metrocentre Mall days.

Seeing the once-bustling storefronts now empty, boarded over or worse, makes me sad. I’ve seen photos and own post cards showing how it once was. We live on Louisiana Street, one block west of the 500 block of Main. And I work just four blocks west, so I naturally pass through the Main Street area many times a day and have become accustomed to the way things are.

I was thrilled this week to see the dusty windows of the former Baker’s Shoes store and the Boyle Building (aka MM Cohn’s) at the southwest corner of Capitol and Main visible for the first time in many years. You probably know this corner most recently as the location of the “Bucket List on Main” chalkboard project where passersby were invited to answer the question, “Before I Die I Want To…”.

Above photo by Brian Chilson of the Arkansas Times.

The Downtown Little Rock Partnership and other like-minded organizations smartly covered the boarded-up corner with chalkboard paint in the spring of 2011 and provided chalk, which attracted a lot of attention and activity. I have enjoyed reading the responses and occasionally added one of my own. The interactive exhibit is gone, along with other sheeting that had covered and protected the store fronts and entrances on that corner. And that’s fine. They served a protective purpose.

Uncovered: the southwest corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue on Sept. 1, 2012

In early August, Oregon-based real estate developer, Scott Reed, purchased the Main Street buildings between Capitol and 6th Street (the 500 block of Main) with plans to develop the block into street-level commercial space and residential space in the upper floors. The buildings he purchased are our back-door neighbors, just south across the alley from our home at Lafayette Square. Our condo’s bedroom windows overlook that block of real estate.

You know how these things often go. A real estate deal and development is announced, but actual activity isn’t seen for months or years – sometimes never. That’s why I was surprised and delighted to see the plywood down so soon and evidence of work inside MMCohn’s former entrance on Capitol. The open-work, metal roll-down security door at that entrance has been engaged for years – it is now rolled up revealing the building’s official Boyle Building name in the glass. There is clear evidence of workers coming and going, and that makes me so happy. I can’t wait to witness and support what’s written in the next chapter of Main Street’s history book.

To see the recent revitalization of this and other blocks on Main Street after such a long dormancy makes me wonder if these silent spaces weren’t whispering their own answers to, “Before I Die I Want To …”

ON FOOT, CAMERA IN TOW

This Saturday afternoon, right before another wave of Hurricane Isaac’s outer-band storms rolled into Little Rock, I took a few minutes to explore this corner on foot with camera in tow. You can see what I saw by looking at the photos: dusty display windows and the Baker’s Shoes logo imbedded into the sidewalk, a Crayola soldier who’s flipped his lid, and the MMCohn script marking the store’s entrances.

What you can’t experience is the smell coming through those panes of glass and door cracks. It’s something you’ve likely experienced elsewhere, an olfactory time capsule. The smell of another time, yet in the current place. It said to me, “Let some fresh air in, we’re ready to breathe again.”

GALLERY

HISTORY OF THE BOYLE BUILDING

A photo from Arkansas Historic Preservation Program showing the beautiful Boyle Building which has/had Baker’s Shoes and MMCohn at street level. This photo was taken before the chalkboard and other coverings were removed from the corner.

The still-impressive, 11-story white skyscraper was Little Rock’s second tallest building when State National Bank built it in 1909. The bank went out of business in 1911 and local realtor, John Boyle, paid the back taxes and took over the building in 1916, renaming it the Boyle Building (name still evident today on the Capitol Street side). In 1949, a penthouse was added to the top floor, which I have often thought would make a fantastic modern-day condo. The views of downtown and the river must be amazing from up there. Next time you’re downtown, take a look at how beautiful the building’s upper floors are. It’s easy to let a building’s street-level condition distract from its overall beauty and character.

In 1960, MMCohn signed a 45-year lease of the space (which now we know was an overly-optimistic plan).

The above information is from what I think must be the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s nomination that the Capitol-Main Street district be added to the National Register of Historic Places – which it was in April 2012. Hooray! No doubt that designation made available historic preservation tax credits that Scott Reed took advantage of.

The entire document can be read here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/87075038/4/BLOCK-MAIN-STREET

RELATED

A Bucket List on Main, Arkansas Blog, June 2011 – http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2011/06/09/a-bucket-list-for-little-rock

Before I Die, I Want To …, ArkansasTies blog, July 2011 –  http://www.arkansasties.com/WhatsNew/2011/07/before-i-die-i-want-to

NEW INFORMATION (9/5/12) Very exciting funding and development news for my ‘hood!

In an email from the Downtown Little Rock Partnership this afternoon (thanks Becky Falkowski!) I learned that the City of Little Rock is making a big announcement tomorrow morning at the corner of Main and Capitol – right where the photos of the Baker’s Shoes storefront, above, were taken. When you read the announcement below, you’ll see that it adds important information to the big picture of Scott Reed’s purchase of the 500 block of Main Street. Great example of grant money, a preservation mindset and private real-estate investment all coming together for good. Fingers crossed it all comes to pass.

I hope I can get out of the office tomorrow morning to attend; I’d like to hear all the details for myself. The following is the notice from the city:

  • What: Main Street Redevelopment Announcement
  • When: Thursday, September 6, 2012 – 10:00 a.m.
  • Where: Corner of Main Street & Capital Avenue

Almost a million dollars will be infused into Main Street to revitalize approximately 250,000 square feet of vacant property. The announcement of this capital from the Pulaski County Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund will be announced Thursday, September 6th at 10:00 a.m. at the corner of Main and Capital.

The Brownfield Program is an intergovernmental collaboration between Pulaski County and the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock. The agreement was formed in 2000 to redevelop contaminated properties in the downtowns on both sides of the Arkansas River. The Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund is funded with a $3 million Environmental Protection Agency grant for cleaning up environmentally impacted sites.  The EPA Region 6 administrator for this program, Amber Perry, will be on hand to discuss the importance of this project

The project that will be discussed tomorrow consists of four buildings which comprise the west side of the 500 block of Main Street in downtown Little Rock.  The twelve story building at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Main Street was built in 1909 and was originally named the State Bank Building. Immediately south of the State Bank Building is the MM Cohn Building that was built in 1941. The Arkansas Building at the corner of 6th and Main Streets was built in 1899 as the headquarters of the Pfeifer Brothers Department Store.  The Arkansas Annex, also known as the Kahn building, is adjacent to the Arkansas building and was built in 1954.  The buildings each has historic significance to Main Street and downtown Little Rock.

These four properties have been vacant for many years and suffer from environmental contamination which is a major barrier to putting these historic properties back in to productive use.  The very first step that must be taken is the top to bottom environmental remediation of all four of the buildings so that they are once again safe for occupancy.

Once the environmental remediation is complete, work will begin to preserve, repair and restore the historic elements of these great properties.  With the assistance of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and the National Parks Service, the historic elements of the properties will be carefully inventoried and plans for their protection and preservation will be put into place.

The next phase of the work program will involve improvements to convert the buildings from their original uses as office buildings and department stores to a mixed use concept consisting of residential lofts on upper floors with retail spaces on the ground floors.  In keeping with the vision of Mayor Mark Stodola for an Arts District and the location across the street from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the project will have an emphasis on retail tenants, both for-profit and non-profit, who contribute to the fine arts, visual arts, and performing arts.  With the continued assistance of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and the entire Little Rock community, Main Street Lofts, LLC expects to begin rental of the loft apartments as early as next year.

A Silent Sentinal: Henry Moore sculpture

A sculpture by Henry Moore graces front lawn of Two Union National Plaza Bldg, Capitol and Louisiana Streets, Little Rock

I first became aware of this sculpture in downtown Little Rock when I worked in the office building across the street. I would examine it as I walked by. Sometimes I would stare at it from my co-worker’s window several stories above.

What was this supposed to be? A distorted puzzle piece? A flattened piece of silly putty? An armless human?

Why was it in front of this triangular building? Were the building’s developers such lovers of public art that they included this display in their plans? It was a mystery to me.

Despite working so nearby for a year, it wasn’t until my husband and I moved to the Lafayette Building in 2011, a half-a-block to the south of this sculpture, that I took the time to examine it more closely. Once we lived downtown, I made a deliberate effort to explore my new neighborhood on foot (and still do).

As I walked home from a friend’s going-away party at Copper Grill one evening, I paused to take a photo of the sculpture – the photo at the top of this post.  A closer examination revealed the following inscription on its base. Now I had something to go on.

Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961. Henry Moorehttp://www.theartstory.org/artist-moore-henry.htm

The inscription reads: “Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961. Henry Moore. Purchased for the Metrocentre Mall by Metrocentre Improvement District No. 1 and paid for by private funds from property owners within the district. 1978.”

Ah ha! It’s a relic from a prior downtown development.

Further research revealed – thank heaven for Google – that the  purchase price was $185,000. That’s quite a significant investment! No doubt its value is much higher these days. Henry Moore’s work is world-renown and very highly regarded. We’re fortunate to have this treasure on public display.

I have very faint memories of the former pedestrian shopping district, called the Metrocentre Mall, which closed a portion of Main Street in the late 1970s. Only pedestrian traffic was allowed.

I applaud the Metrocentre Mall visionaries for giving the concept a go, but they were up against an insurmountable beast of suburbanization and urban sprawl. The project was an attempt to revive downtown Little Rock’s profile just as the more modern and popular shopping destinations of McMain Mall, Park Plaza Mall and University Mall were coming into being elsewhere in the metroplex.

The sculpture was originally placed in the center of Capitol Avenue at Main Street. This photo shows how it looked there.

Henry Moore sculpture in original location

Fantastic shot of the Henry Moore sculpture at its original location in the middle of Capitol Avenue at Main Street in downtown Little Rock’s now-defunct pedestrian mall. Notice Arkansas State Capitol in the distance.

Remnants of the Metrocentre development can be seen yet today in the brick-paved raised portions of the Capitol and Main Street intersection. Vestiges of the vibrant downtown that existed prior to that, in the late 1800s through the 1950s, can also be seen in the gorgeous architecture of empty buildings.

The Henry Moore sculpture was moved in 1999 from the center of Capitol Avenue to its current location one block to the west at Capitol and Louisiana streets. Capitol and Main streets reopened to automobile traffic at that intersection then; the former “mall” buildings long since converted to office space.

I can see the logic of moving the sculpture only a very short distance – the monolith is 11 feet five inches tall and it weighs 1,200 pounds! The backdrop of the Union Plaza building was a good choice.

Right now it’s the only public art structure in the heart of original downtown.

After learning about the sculpture and why it came to be in downtown Little Rock, I now see it as a silent sentinel who represents the hope for a revived downtown. That “Large Standing Figure” stood watch over the Metrocentre Mall. It probably seemed to dance with the live music at early Riverfests held downtown (see photo below). But I suspect it has mostly stood under appreciated and misunderstood by those who pass by it during their busy work days, as I did.

The sculpture seems to dance during this band’s performance at an early Riverfest.

Many months ago I heard there was consideration of moving the sculpture to the very vibrant Rivermarket area which hosts other public art installations. Clearly, it should be in a place where there is significant and leisurely foot traffic. But I hope that’s not done. I hope it stays where it is until it witnesses a resurgence of life in the Main Street corridor – and I believe we’re on the cusp of that coming to be.

Just a few blocks away, the Arkansas Repertory Theater occupies a former department store from Main Street’s heyday. The recent multi-million-dollar renovation of The Rep has breathed new life into downtown. The update influenced the awarding of  an arts-focused grant to rehabilitate the surrounding store fronts into an arts corridor.

Just this morning, the newspaper announced the sale of other Main Street buildings, right in the shadow of our Lafayette and diagonal to The Rep. Plans are to develop the former bank and department stores into retail and event space along with living space above. This announcement follows others in recent months that indicate a revived interest in our city’s core which is emanating from the decade-long vibrance of the River Market district along the river.

In the mean time, the Henry Moore sentinel and I will be standing by, cautiously waiting and watching. Hoping this century’s version of downtown is one filled with life, light and longevity.

Related references:

Garden & Gun: Little Rock Rising (mentions Henry Moore sculpture in original place at Capitol and Main) http://gardenandgun.com/article/little-rock-rising

Encyclopedia of Arkansas article about the Henry Moore sculpture: http://alturl.com/dp687

Artistic description of the sculpture from catalog of Moore’s art on display in public spaces: http://www.henry-moore.org/works-in-public/world/united-states-of-america/little-rock/100-west-capitol-main/large-standing-figure-knife-edge-1961-lh-482a

Henry Moore bio: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-moore-henry.htm 

Sweet Memories of Little Rock

It’s only fitting a blog titled “Little Rock Love” should have a loving Valentine’s Day post about its namesake.

1940s-era post card showing Main Street, Little Rock, AR

I didn’t grow up in Little Rock, but my family made frequent trips from Stuttgart, in southeastern Arkansas, to the capital city. It was a treat to go to Little Rock, and treats usually awaited me there.

By the time I came along, the retail center of Little Rock had shifted away from Main Street. The place to shop was the new McCain Mall in North Little Rock and the open-air Park Plaza mall on University Avenue. The neighboring University Mall was within a block of Park Plaza; I never understood why two shopping centers were built so close together.

I regret not getting to experience the hustle and bustle of Little Rock’s Main Street as it existed until the early 1970s. I was born in 1969 and by the time I was old enough to remember our family’s shopping trips, that era had passed. I have seen photos of the crowded sidewalks, the “vintage” automobiles parked along the busy street and families dressed up to do their Saturday “trading” in department stores such as MM Cohn and Pfeiffer-Blass. I’ve heard my husband and family members relay memories of seeing movies in one of the four downtown movie theaters.

Even so, I have fond memories of shopping trips to McCain Mall, the shiny new retail center of my youth. We’d shop at JC Penney and Dillard’s, and visit the mall Santa Claus at Christmastime. We’d often see movies at the theater inside. On many trips we’d have along my grandparents or one of my great-great aunts who loved having lunch at Franke’s Cafeteria there. My mother was a big fan of Franke’s tomato aspic salad, which to this child, was the most unappetizing form of Jello I could imagine. (I’ve made peace with it now.)

What my childhood dreams were made of - the candy store inside Farrell's

To a child, nothing was as sweet as a birthday party at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, which included an ice cream sundae with a candle on top and a serenade by one of the waiters in a straw-brimmed hat. No trip to Farrell’s was complete – for me – without a visit to the world’s greatest candy store just inside its doors. Surely I wasn’t the only child who bought the most enormous piece of jaw breaker candy they offered, simply because it was too tempting to resist – despite there being absolutely no way it would ever fit in my mouth. Sometimes my mother would intervene and insist I get a jaw breaker of more reasonable size.

I recall many night-time rides back to Stuttgart, lying in the back seat of my family’s Oldsmobile watching the moon and the stars through the back window, seeing the power lines and street lights pass above. I often slept on the way home, though it was only about an hour’s drive. I can see myself now, drifting in and out of consciousness while my chin grows sticky from the jaw-breaker-laced-saliva escaping from my mouth.

Sweet memories indeed!

Art in Unexpected Places

Beauty can be found in ordinary objects, especially when en masse.

It’s not a novel concept – finding art in unexpected places –but it’s an important part of how I process my surroundings. I have my mother to thank for this. She taught me to spot the beauty within the ordinary and to pause a second to appreciate it. I hope you’ll do the same.

In some cases, the beauty or the art is intentional – the primary function of the object. In other cases, the artistic component emerges as secondary effect following the object’s primary function.

I recently retrieved my husband’s car from Foster’s Garage on 8th Street just east of Broadway in downtown Little Rock. It was my first time to step inside the establishment’s tiny office. While completing the transaction and getting the details of the repair to relay to Kelley, I was taken aback by what I saw on the wall.

Thousands of business cards were shingled onto and suspended from a bulletin board in a manner that seemed to defy the laws of physics. We’ve all seen a collection of business cards thumb-tacked to a cork board as a means of advertising or a business owner showing support for frequent patrons. This was beyond the ordinary in this category.

As I said, there were easily THOUSANDS of cards, and by the looks of them they had been on display for many decades. In the photos you can see the cards at the bottom of the board are very yellowed and browned with age.

The aged card colors tell the tale

A historical microcosm

The menagerie looks as if a strong breeze might send the cards flying, but there it hangs quietly, sheltered inside four concrete walls. The display is a testament to the card holders whose vehicles have been serviced by this venerable downtown business. Foster’s garage has been in business since the late 1920s –over 90 years!
Unlike probably most of the businesses and institutions represented by the business cards, Foster’s has stood the test of time – whereas time isn’t often a friend to small family-run businesses.

Now for the art part

The physical suspension of so many cards in such a tight space was what initially caught my eye, then the graduating age of the cards in the collection, and finally the card’s beautifully-shingled pattern within what was actually chaos.

Upon closer inspection I noticed several pieces of twine that ran horizontally throughout the cards providing structural support, placed there as the volume of cards grew.

The bulletin board is an art piece in and of itself. The photos do not do justice to the experience of seeing it in person. It would be perfectly acceptable to see something like this hanging as a folk art installation at a museum. The display would provide great inspiration for a set designer working on a 1940s movie.
When asked about the board, the owner told me no cards are added to it any more, understandably. He also said I wasn’t the first person to snap a few photos of it.

A typical errand at the end of a work day rewarded me with a bit of unexpected beauty. If you keep your eyes open, perhaps you’ll find similar serendipity in your day.

An objet d'art made from business cards

SoMa Snowflakes

Bernice Garden: wire and lights Christmas tree sculpture

I got a big dose of Little Rock Love tonight. I was ensconced, enveloped and mesmerized by Christmas in SoMa.


Little Rock’s southside Main Street neighborhood –branded as SoMa – is the section of Main Street south of interstate 630 to Roosevelt Road. The SoMa neighborhood boasts an urban blend of ages, races, and socioeconomic levels which seems to mimic the mix of vintage homes and storefronts that are experiencing a second wind of occupancy and restoration.

There are a few businesses that have been entrenched in SoMa, long before the rebranding and resurgence. Community Bakery is the grande dame of SoMa, as were Juanita’s and The Band Box. Those last two are no longer in this neighborhood but were steadfast SoMa businesses for decades.

The pulse of SoMa is quickening and it’s getting stronger. Over this past year the 14th and 15th street blocks of Main have welcomed a branch of our city’s venerable Boulevard Bread enterprise, The Root Café, The Green Corner Store and others. A new USA Drug Store stands where the Band Box served fabulous burgers for decades. The Bernice Garden, an oasis of outdoor art and city park all rolled into one, now boasts a sophisticated-yet-rustic roof over its concrete pad, which gives the garden a structural presence and visual weight, not to mention offering visitors actual shelter from sun and rain. But back to tonight.

Bernice Garden: community tree and craft market

Tonight was the Bernice Garden Holiday Tree Lighting and Craft Market. Local crafters, artists, restaurant owners, bakers, farmers and food truckers set up their allotted retail spaces and gathered with, as best I could tell, about 300 friends and neighbors. They were there to light the garden’s Christmas tree, socialize and support one another.

I visited with a goat’s milk soap maker, recycled glass jewelry crafter, a home-made pie baker, and a tree trimming service owner who reclaims and recycles wood into gorgeous boxes, bowls and ornaments. Members of a SoMa church were offering free hot cocoa to a line of neighbors, chilled by the evening’s December air. Bakery staff were handing out sugar cookies in holiday shapes, a choir was singing carols and a steady din of communication and commerce rose up from the crowd. Parents were taking photos of their children with Santa, and retirees were shepherding their poodles and Heinz 57 pups through the festivities.

It was a Christmas bazaar the likes of which I’ve never experienced. The feeling of community pride and the support of independent artists and businesses was palpable.

SoMa snowflakes at the Green Corner Store

I walked down the block where I found The Green Corner Store brimming with shoppers. The owner sells only items that are from environmentally conscious sources, the more natural or “green” the better. Even the hand-scissored snowflakes decorating the shop windows reflect the non-commercial bent. I browsed the store, sampled ice cream and natural sodas, fingered hand-crafted cards, wooden toys and “Arkansas Native” t-shirts.
I turned and looked back through the windows as I left the store, walking out into the frigid night. To me, the warm glow emanating from that space seemed to be a beacon of hope for SoMa’s future – and for the hope that Christmas brings. It was a Norman Rockwell Christmas print come to life.

Green Corner Store and shoppers

Read more about it:
SoMa – http://www.southsidemain.org
The Bernice Garden http://www.thebernicegarden.org
The Green Corner Store http://www.thegreencornerstore.com
The Root Café – http://therootcafe.com
Community Bakery http://communitybakery.com
Boulevard Bread http://www.boulevardbread.com