Go South, Fill Your Soul

Green Corner Store shoppers

Green Corner Store shoppers

A year ago today I had a very moving holiday experience, and it took me totally by surprise.

I experienced the sights, smells and sounds of the Bernice Garden Holiday Tree Lighting and Craft Market. The garden is in the SoMa district of downtown Little Rock – one of my most favorite spots in town.

The experience literally moved me to tears. When I returned home, I immediately wrote a blog post entitled SoMa Snowflakes. I’d love it if you’d read it.

I’d love it more if you’d join me at the event tonight.

In addition to the activities in the garden itself, be sure to walk the block and visit The Green Corner Store. I’m a little biased, but I think it’s the happiest place on earth (despite what Disney says).

If you don’t make tonight’s party, visit SoMa during the holiday season. It’ll put the joy right in ya!

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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.

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