50 Years’ Perspective

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50 years later: Governor Mike Beebe recites John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech on the steps of post office in North Little Rock, Arkansas

1963: The year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the year my only sibling, Lesli Ann, was born.

Today, during a gloriously sunny noon hour, I was one of about 200 people gathered at the steps of the former Argenta Post Office (now Laman Library branch) in North Little Rock to listen as Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe read John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. You know the most famous passage of that address: “… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I was struck by other passages that, despite being spoken more than 50 years ago, are very relevant today. Passages such as, “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

And, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

In Arkansas we have the divisive issues of gun and abortion rights. Nationally we have the equality of marriage act being debated in the California Supreme Court, gun control and the never-ending questioning of tax laws. Meanwhile, our fellow citizens are starving, going without shelter, with ineffective education, without jobs, without basic healthcare, and those babies who are born to mothers who cannot care for them go in need of loving adoptive families, of any gender combination.

I talked with my mom this past weekend about the upcoming JFK photography exhibit in Argenta. I told her I hoped to listen to Governor Beebe’s address and to look at the photos.

She said wistfully, “I lived it. I don’t have to see it.” I wonder if I’ll feel that way about 9/11 memorial exhibitions many years from now.

Mom told me again as she’s told me in the past: When she was pregnant with my sister in 1963, following the national tension of electing the first non-Protestant president, especially one who was seen to have such “radical” views (in the South) on race relations and equality, the Watts riots and related events, she remembers wondering what kind of tumultuous world she was bringing a child into. Let me be clear – she supported then and still supports racial equality – but she saw what the struggle had brought forth.

View from the triple underpass overlooking the grassy knoll and Dealey Plaze in Dallas.

View from the triple underpass overlooking the grassy knoll and Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

In five years, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. would be dead, and a year after those tragedies, the United States would put a man on the moon. Tumultuous times indeed. But no different than today.

As Governor Beebe recited the famous words spoken by our 35th president, I thought about my visit to Dealey Plaza in Dallas this past Friday. I thought about President Kennedy on his inauguration day, laying out his vision for the nation’s future, full of hope. And I thought about the video I’ve seen – we’ve all seen – of the president’s motorcade in Dallas, of the deadly shot, of Jackie scooping up pieces of her husband’s brains, of the chaos and speculation that ensued.

Kelley and I stood looking over that very place. The place where this young president was assassinated. By exactly whom and why is still speculated. The place where thousands and thousands of visitors pay homage each year, especially this year. Fifty years later.

I can’t help thinking: what will be our children’s and grandchildren’s perspective 50 years from now?

My hope is we’ll have the same view on marriage equality and homosexuality then as (most of us do) now on racial equality and women’s rights. I hope the debates in the Arkansas legislature and in the nation’s capital don’t put us in reverse.

Related links

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!

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.

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 

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

Freedom: Embraced, Exercised and Attacked

The light of liberty and sunshine

We ended our trip by spending Monday visiting some of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.

Freedom Embraced

First was the Statue of Liberty, or as we learned, the statue is actually named Liberty Enlightening the World. A gift from the people of France, the statue is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. I encourage you to read about Lady Liberty’s history and symbolism here: http://www.nps.gov/stli/historyculture/index.htm

Kelley and I have learned the value of the audio tours often available at historic sites and museums. This was certainly the case here. It was a glorious morning on Liberty Island as we circled the statue’s base, listening to descriptions of the day the statue was dedicated in 1886, and about the decade of construction that preceded it.

Gustav Eiffel – yes, of the Eiffel Tower– designed the labyrinth of internal iron trusses that supports the statue’s copper skin, which is only the thickness of two pennies.

It was truly humbling and thrilling to stand at the base of this ENORMOUS work of art – the international symbol ofAmerica’s promise of freedom. Adding to that specialness was the clear blue cloudless sky above and the fact that there were very few others on the island with us.

We had reserved space on the very first boat of the morning and that put us in the park in time to see the way morning light illuminated the statue. I took many, many photos, as you might imagine, and didn’t have to elbow through crowds to do so.

The Statue of Liberty has been the symbol of hope and awaiting freedom for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have made our country what it is today. She and her torch were what welcomed those ships full of weary travelers to our shores, but passing through processing at Ellis Island is what gave them the key.

Ellis Island is a complex of buildings on its own island reached by a short ferry ride from the lady herself. Kelley and I were surprised to see how many buildings actually comprise the site. When we learned more about the immigration process in the late 1880s through the 1950s, it became apparent why so many buildings were needed.

Third class steam ship passengers from other countries, who wished to live in the United States, were “processed” at Ellis Island to determine whether they would be granted legal entry. Most passed through in a matter of hours, but some were detained for further medical, intellectual or mental testing. Those who were truly ill were kept in the hospital there until they recovered or were sent back home, and their accompanying family members lived on the island in dorms until the hospitalized relative’s fate was determined.

We saw the court room where immigrants threatened with being returned to their homeland pled their cases. We also saw the room where those who were allowed through met up with their loved ones already in America.

I imagine the sight of the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island continued to give immigrants hope as they boarded a ferry bound for New York’s shore, and that those who passed by her once again as they were sent out to sea, rejected by America’s freedom, loathed her sight.

Freedom Exercised

Back on the mainland, we made our way to the city’s financial district. We had tickets to visit the newly-opened 9/11 memorial there. It wasn’t planned – but was a nice coincidence – that we passed right by the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters who are still occupying Wall Street from their camp at Liberty Square.

The space is tightly-packed with tents and peaceful protesters playing music and holding up signs. A few protesters engage the MANY passersby clogging the sidewalk with the “rubberneck” factor, though officers periodically asked people to keep the sidewalk traffic flowing. There is definitely a police presence, but no palpable tension between them and the campers.

What comes of the Occupy movement remains to be seen, but America’s freedoms allow the protesters to assemble. I had the feeling that we walked past the birthplace of a movement that will have historical significance and impact.

Freedom Attacked

Just a couple blocks away from the Occupy camp is the entrance to the newly opened 9/11 Memorial site. Tickets are free but reservations are required.

Before being allowed to walk the long path toward the memorial, which winds around the construction site of new World Trade Center buildings, visitors go through airport-like security. No one minds; it’s an understatement to say visitors comprehend why that level of security is needed at this particular location. The horrific events at this tragic site gave rise to the increased security and screenings Americans have become accustomed to over the past 10 years.

The memorial site is a peaceful, orderly and respectful place filled with trees now dressed in fall’s colors. The two square pools, which are on the actual footprints of the north and south towers, are discovered as visitors proceed through the paths and trees.

You’ve likely read about the square black granite fountains/pools and the seemingly bottomless square drains in the center of each footprint. The design combines an embodiment of endless falling blackness with elegance and beauty – an amazing accomplishment. The pools are mesmerizing.

The sound of the water when standing right at the pools drowns out the city’s noise, even the din of construction right outside the memorial’s borders. The water sound is important; it lays a blanket of reverence over this plot of hallowed ground.

The names of those lost in the towers, the planes that struck the towers, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93 are deeply embossed into the black metal frame-like railing surrounding each pool. Also there are the names of first-responders who were lost. I hadn’t gotten choked up until Kelley pointed out to me the first and last name of a woman, followed immediately by the words, “and her unborn child.”

That did it.

As we were leaving the memorial park, tears were still streaming down my face. I thought about the people who will visit this site and how they’ll think about what their loved ones endured that morning – a morning with a clear blue sky, just like the day on which we visited. I thought about those bottomless pools and deeply-grooved names – and how I hope they provide some peace.

It wasn’t until later that afternoon, as I reflected on the places we had visited, that I realized the connection between them. Each are embodiments of the freedom offered by these United States. And each illustrates how freedom’s adoption – and disdain – has shaped our country, and is shaping it still.