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

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.

Music, MoMA and Marathon

Empty wine bottles fill the frames of City Winery’s staircase wall

Saturday morning’s plan was to visit the Museum of Modern Art, a 15-minute walk from our home base. Of course we have no car here, and wouldn’t drive in this crazy city traffic if we did! Walking, subway and taxis for us – and for 99.9% of New Yorkers.

 

It’s ironic to me how easy it is to get into the “walk to where we need to go” mindset here as opposed to how it is in Little Rock, especially since we live downtown there too. Of course here in New York, you can find anything you need within a few minutes’ walk. In downtown Little Rock, more things are available now than in recent years but still a long way to go. But I digress… 

Music

Backing up a bit… We enjoyed a delightful dinner and concert Thursday evening at City Winery (http://citywinery.com), a working winery, restaurant and intimate concert venue in SoHo. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin was the headliner but the opening act was Charlie Mars, a very talented singer-songwriter who was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, but grew up in Mississippi. The handsome southern boy charmed the city folk and put on a great performance.

Not many 40/50 year old women could pull off this look but Shawn did!

Shawn Colvin’s voice sounded amazing and she really engaged the audience with stories of her songwriting and concert tour with Sting.

It was magic being in the audience as the whole crowd sung along to her biggest-ever hit, “Sunny Came Home” (listen to song on YouTube: http://youtu.be/qfKKBDFCiIA).  Periodic rumblings from the subway trains passing below were the only thing that brought me out of the transfixed state that only a perfect concert experience can evoke.

 MoMA

Saturday morning, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was abuzz. We happily joined in, picked up the free audio guides and headed upstairs to the deKooning exhibit (http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/dekooning). I guess I shouldn’t admit it, but I had no prior knowledge of his work, but really enjoyed the exhibit. There are hundreds of the influential Dutch painter’s works on display and working our way through them took longer than we had allotted and expected.

We then sought out the museum’s collection of impressionist paintings by Degas, Monet, VanGogh and many others. The enormous panels from Monet’s “Water Lillies” took my breath away. It’s surreal to see in person works of art that you’ve known about your whole life but only seen in the pages of books or on postcards and posters. I highly recommend it!

Hangin' with VanGogh

VanGogh’s “Starry Night” is at the MoMA and it is Kelley’s all-time favorite painting. We found it, paid our respects along with hundreds of other museum-goers and I snapped a picture of Kelley beside it. Amazingly, given the painting’s popularity, there were no ribbons or railings in front of it, though there was an assigned guard who admonished Kelley to be sure and not get close enough to brush against the frame while he posed for the shot. There is never any flash photography allowed in museums, so my picture isn’t the best (see below).

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to see much of the “Talk to Me” exhibit there which is so “down my alley.” The exhibit examines the modern and developing communication and connection we humans have with machines and technology. I hope to snag a book online that details the exhibit.

The New York City Marathon

This is my second-ever trip to New York; coincidentally, both times have been during the weekend of the marathon. Kelley has been here dozens of times. He says the chatter of streets always has a mixture of non-English languages – plus the NYC dialect, which is nearly a language in and of itself – but it is even more so when the marathon is on. Indeed we have seen many T-shirts, bags and hats bearing various country names, particularly a lot from France.

Marathoners - and we - cruise the finish line area in Central Park the day before the race

Our home base is along Central Park South which, as you might expect, is at the southern end of Central Park. The last mile of the marathon runs right by our building so there has been an elaborate maze of barricades, fencing, signage and spectator bleachers along the street and in the park.

The past two mornings we’ve enjoyed long walks among all the logistical preparations. Hundreds of the race participants were milling around the finish line area yesterday morning (see pic), I suppose scoping out their ultimate destination for today’s race. My friend, Stacey Jones, ran the marathon today, her first. Congratulations, Stacey! (The NY Times has a great blog about the marathon: http://marathon.blogs.nytimes.com – worth visiting for the pics alone.)

At noon today (Sunday) we had a family brunch here at the apartment with Kelley’s NYC nieces and nephews, and with his Parisian sister who is in the U.S. for a few weeks. This is her place we’re happily staying in. We’ve just returned from a matinee on Broadway where we saw the FABULOUS “Relatively Speaking” (http://relativelyspeakingbroadway.com/about/synopsis) – a play that recently opened to rave reviews. Tonight we’re going to dinner at a fine restaurant of meat-lovers’ acclaim, Quality Meats (http://qualitymeatsnyc.com).

Another big day in the Big Apple! It is also our one-year wedding anniversary, the main reason for our trip. Happy anniversary and a big thank-you to the man, who, as previously blogged, has revolutionized my life.

Monday holds in store a trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, then the 9/11 Memorial and an evening at New York Taste (http://nymag.com/taste). Wheeeee!

A delightful morning walk along Central Park West yielded this shot

The marathon has a great ad design team

Couldn’t ask for anything more …

Trying on shades at the Warby Parker headquarters was fun!

Our first full day in the Big Apple began with – of all things – my appointment at the budget-friendly yet boutique-quality spectacles shop, Warby Parker.

If you’re not familiar with the company, I encourage you to visit their website http://www.warbyparker.com. They are the Tom’s Shoes of eyeglasses, giving away a pair to someone in need for every pair they sell. What’s unexpected is the price – only $95 – which includes the frames AND lenses.

Their business is through mail order but they do have showrooms in a few cities. New York is their home base, so the SoHo loft showroom is also their corporate headquarters. In my sights today, pun intended, was to buy a pair of non-prescription Warby Parker sunglasses. I found the perfect pair, placed my order, and my new shades will be mailed to me in a few days.

Steam vapor from some subterranean generator provided a surreal backdrop for these Union Square visitors. 

Our agenda was loose from that point on and we had many hours until our 8:00 pm date to see singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin at the fantastic City Winery (a performance and vino venue). Our own research and friends’ recommendations had given us a list of places to go and see, so we leisurely worked our way through the list.

The fall weather in the city was GLORIOUS; not a cloud shared the sky with Mr. Sunshine. We walked and subwayed ourselves to spots which pictures do as much or more justice as words, so I’ll post them, then bid you goodnight after sharing my thought of thanksgiving:

If we’re lucky, we humans get a few perfect days sprinkled among the thousands we’ll live. Today was one of mine. I was moved to tears twice tonight listening to the pure voice and heart-sung lyrics of Shawn Colvin. I am so grateful for Kelley, and for the gift of his love and friendship, which has revolutionized my life and heart. At one point today, totally unbidden, he leaned over to me and said, “There’s no one on this planet that I’d rather spend time with than you.”

Perfect. Day.

It was a thrill to see these sunlit and wind-blown flags that surround the Rockefeller Center plaza.

This wall-sized statement was the focal point of the largest and most busy Starbucks I've ever visited.

At Union Square, vendors by the dozen sell their produce and products. These sunlit radishes were picture perfect.

Chelsea Bagel is a New York institution. We bagged a few to go.

I read about "The Meadow" in Rachael Ray's magazine and knew I had to visit the NYC shop. They specialize in gourmet salts and chocolate. Here, containers of salt are displayed on a wall of shallow shelves.

To blog or not to blog…

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a while now. Actually, Kelley and I authored a short-term travel blog in the spring of 2010, but it had a hard beginning and a hard stop. A neat little capsule.

(See: Getting an Eiffel of Paris)

We’re leaving tomorrow for New York City – yea! I considered doing another travel blog, covering just our six days in the Big Apple. I even came up with a title: “The Apple of My Eyes.”(Corny? Yes. Catchy? I think so.)

Instead I’ve decided to bite the bullet and create a blog for the long term (as long of a term as blog can have). I wanted a blog in which I could share excerpts from NYC, but continue the sharing once we were back on Arkansas soil.

The general theme will be “city life” – mostly downtown Little Rock city life because that’s where we live – with the occasional diversion of what another city has to offer. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for reading!