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Big Easy dreamin'

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The Observer recently spent a weekend way down yonder in New Orleans and — between the soft-shell crab, wailing trombones and Sazerac cocktails — he thought about Little Rock: Could New Orleans offer some guidance to Little Rock, even though culturally we could never claim the gumbo of influences that make New Orleans such a tourist mecca.

We stayed downtown, in the warehouse district that underwent a modest resurgence during the World's Fair years ago but has accelerated noticeably in recent years. People now live in the warehouse district. Restaurants and bars serve neighbors as well as tourists. Retail shops have opened on former skid rows. Professionals — lawyers, engineers, architects — have opened offices in rehabilitated old buildings.

Streetcars full of people come and go from the district at all hours. Some deliver professionals. Some deliver uniformed workers for the hospitality industry.

Why couldn't Little Rock continue on its own, similar path? We've seen rehab and new building downtown. A small residential community is growing. We even have a convenience store! We have a streetcar line and bus service, sadly underused. Why couldn't it be used? We have a handsome period neighborhood nearby to ogle. The Quapaw Quarter isn't St. Charles Avenue, but it's not bad.

What would I do if I could wave a magic wand? I'd tell Mayor Mark Stodola to lead. I'd tell him to tell the Tech Park board to quit fiddling around. Downtown is the logical place to start the enterprise and there'd be not a peep about neighborhood disruption. Financier Warren Stephens has vacant lots on Main Street aplenty for development. He might donate some ground, as he did the ballpark land in North Little Rock, for a $22 million city-financed tech park building that would instantly put Little Rock in the business incubation business (and provide a lift to neighboring Stephens property).

More people — professional and technical types — would want to live near such a development. Some people might also like the idea of a mass transit commute. More residents and more offices would inevitably mean more service and restaurant business.

Threat of hurricane damage is small. Let us dream.

The Observer went OUT to dinner last Saturday night. Our party went in two cars.

When the other driver arrived, he walked up to the table and said, "Well, I got hit up by the guy from Camden who needs gas again."

The guy from Camden? Gas? AGAIN?

Lightbulb-in-brain moment.

The Observer had gone grocery shopping at the Kroger on Cantrell Road a few weeks ago.

As The Observer rolled a shopping cart to his car, a car pulled alongside. It was a clean, nearly new Chevy. The driver, a clean-cut young white man in a button-up shirt and slacks, rolled down his window. He said something like this:

"I just got up and found someone stole my wallet from the car. I know it was really stupid to leave it there. I work for Lion Oil company." [At this point, he displayed a laminated photo ID card.]

"I'm broke. They took my money and credit cards. I need some gas to get back home to Camden. I'm really sorry. I'll pay you back. Is there any way you could help?"

The Observer had a single $20. He just handed over the bill. It was Sunday. The young man thanked The Observer profusely. He asked how he could pay the money back. The Observer gave him his name. "Just go to arktimes.com. You'll find an address. Send a check."

No check ever arrived.

A hard-luck traveler isn't exactly a new trick for panhandling. But the new car. The clean-cut young man. Camden.

This fellow apparently has been working parking lots for a good while. It's a pretty good object lesson in human psychology. Might people be a softer touch for a deserving looking crime victim from Camden than for a grimy street person, clearly scrounging for beer money?

It all made The Observer feel better about providing a high-priced breakfast, including a large cafe mocha, to a panhandler who stopped him the next day outside Boulevard Bread on Main. You may recall The Observer's hand got called when he volunteered breakfast instead of money. It could be he really was hungry.

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