It was November 3rd, 1992. The nation’s spotlight shone and throngs of supporters cheered on the lawn and brick walk of the Old State House in Arkansas’ capital as William Jefferson Clinton appeared. Arkansas’ favorite son was the new President of the United States, creating an instant notoriety for his home town.
Now, 12 years later and half a mile east on the same street (part of it named for him), the revelry has returned to Little Rock as the Clinton Presidential Center and Park opens this month. The gala round of activities is set to include visits from former U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries.
Balanced on a pedestal, the glass-clad rectangular building is a beacon on the bluff above the Arkansas River. It’s not far from the small outcropping that inspired the name given to the city by French explorer Bernard de La Harpe in 1722. The building’s form represents a kind of glass bridge symbolizing the theme of the Clinton administration—”Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.”
Besides chronicling the 42nd president’s life with exhibits and interpretive stations, it holds the largest archival collection in American presidential history. Bridging old and new, the historic 1899 rail station nearby has been restored as the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The project has even brought new life to an abandoned rail bridge, now restored as a walkway across the river to North Little Rock, a “satellite” city currently experiencing its own renaissance.
The Clinton library/museum is anything but a stand-alone attraction. “It was a conscious decision to put it near I-30 and I-40 (they converge near downtown just north of the river) which carry one of the greatest numbers of vehicles in the country,” says Scott Carter, the public relations manager for the City of Little Rock. “The library is near hotels and entertainment venues – something to do at night.” True Clinton devotees can visit “historic” Clinton sites, including his favorite McDonald’s at 701 Broadway St., on self-guided tours using brochures available at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Carter is convinced that it’s also one of two keystones that have brought abundant life back to a once-languishing downtown. The other: River Market Entertainment District, a $3.5 million dining/shopping/culture/entertainment complex that opened in 1996. It’s a neighbor to a long-time farmers’ market and Riverfront Park, a grassy refuge with a 6,000-seat amphitheater. Thanks to the Clinton pedestrian bridge, Little Rock should soon become a link in a projected Millennium Trail stretching from Pinnacle Mountain State Park ten miles west to the Little Rock National Airport on the eastern edge of the city.
A chain of events
According to Carter and others, the River Market started the domino effect. The buzz of activity was music to Bill Clinton’s ears when deciding on a building site. A flurry of new downtown dwellers in renovated lofts and new apartments made it an irresistible locale for new business buildings, new and rejuvenated hotels, and the transformation of two old manufacturing facilities into a downtown public library and the Museum of Discovery, transplanted from a less-trafficked neighborhood.
The Downtown Partnership, an organization that expedites central city revival, reports that more than 41,000 workers now live downtown. Downtown upstarts also include state-of-the-art venues for two major corporations, a new banking/hotel complex and extensively upgraded buildings for several long-time downtown banks.
A vintage attraction, Riverfest Arts and Music Festival, started in 1978 by the Junior League, has seen monumental growth. The end-of-May event has spilled across the river to North Little Rock and was recently named one of the Top Events for 2005 by the American Bus Association, a trade organization for tour operators.
In the words of David Gerson, DO, a born-and-bred New Yorker, Little Rock has become “a little big city,” free of the Big Apple frenzy but more than adequately endowed with big-city amenities. “It also doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg for theater tickets or to go to museums,” he says.
Little Rock’s cultural scene includes a symphony, ballet company, chamber orchestra, Broadway theater series, repertory theater, and several community arts groups. Visitors to The Arkansas Art Center can see works by the Old Masters and a large collection of drawings. And, on the west side of the city, surrounded by gardens, the unusual Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts presents music and drama in a pristine setting, offers summer arts camps for kids in grade and high schools, and hosts a month-long eclectic arts festival throughout June.
Back in town, the city’s quieter historic neighborhoods make it “a little dated, but there’s something nice about that,” says Gerson. They, too, are making a comeback as more and more families move into inviting homes on tree-lined residential streets, including quiet areas of the venerable Quapaw Quarter (named for an early Indian tribe.) One Quapaw area, MacArthur Park, is named for the family of the fabled World War II general born there while his military father was stationed at the then Federal Arsenal. The Quarter’s mix of Greek Revival, Steamboat Gothic, Edwardian, and Victorian styles is a nostalgic reminder of bygone gracious lifestyles.