Columns » Jay Barth

In search of Little Rock's Cory Booker

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In his 2012 State of the City Address, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola claimed that his city has the potential to be "the next great American city in the South." While the mayor's phrasing was awkward, I thoroughly share the sentiment that Little Rock has potential to be a truly great city. From its distinctive topography that produces exceptional recreational opportunities to its commitment to the arts that shows the city's underlying creative culture, Little Rock has many of the key elements of any great city. For folks who are drawn to numbers, the urban guru Richard Florida notes that Little Rock has one of the highest percentage of "creative workers" — those who "engage in creative problem-solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems" — of any mid-size American city.

But, there are key barriers to Little Rock's achievement of "greatness." Most would point to the challenged public school system that continues to lose wealthier students to private schools (albeit at slower rates than other Southern cities) as a fundamental obstacle to the city's success. Just as important is a hydra-headed city government structure that creates confusion by combining a city manager with a sorta-strong mayor and adds to the mix three at-large representatives with ultimate power in city policymaking.

The biggest barrier to greatness, however, is the reinforcing forces of race and class that create two separate cities in the physical space that is Little Rock. That division, of course, has its roots in Jim Crow. Its modern day permanence has been shaped by a multi-lane slap of concrete that bifurcates the city, creating an African-American population that deeply distrusts those individuals and institutions with power. While that distrust is understandable, it provides a fundamental obstacle to Little Rock's becoming a city where everyone feels that they have a place at the table, an essential element in any forward-moving city.

As evidenced by his recent visibility on immigration reform and his leadership on planning for a "Creative Corridor" along Main Street, Stodola is genuine in his commitment to the city's progress. However, his life experience limits his ability to close the trust gap and create a unified city. This was shown tangibly in the 2011 sales tax election — the moment that Stodola would likely cite as his greatest accomplishment as mayor — where precincts south of I-630 (excepting the racially mixed Quapaw Quarter/SoMa area) emphatically rejected the proposal. No matter the fact that he will leave the city better than he found it, the current mayor will not be the transformational civic leader who leads Little Rock to greatness.

Instead, the fuel for Little Rock's becoming "the next great American city in the South" will likely come from a cadre of African-American leaders who combine two traits: authentic connection with the African-American community that can build trust between civic institutions and that community, and an awareness that the city can only move forward if bridges are built across lines of difference. One current model of this style of civic leadership is Newark's Cory Booker, who governs a decidedly more troubled city and now appears to be on his way to the U.S. Senate. Embracing diversity in its many forms and with an ability to work with business interests for essential economic development, Booker has made progress in rebranding a city most thought unsalvageable.

Younger African-Americans who came of age here, left for educational opportunities, and returned committed to creating a unified and progressive Little Rock populate the leadership of the city's nonprofit sector. However, they have not yet moved towards holding city government positions (other African-Americans with these bridge-building traits have focused instead on state legislative service). This has meant that older African-American civic leaders too often driven towards maintaining factionalism (the recent statements by City Director Erma Hendrix opposing bike lanes on South Main as being imposed by white folks on the black residents in the ward represent an extreme version of this style) continue to dominate Little Rock's African-American city leadership.

With three more about to be lighted by Entergy, bridges are the icons of this river city. The bridges that really matter, however, are those that can — and must — be built to link a deeply divided city. It is the next generation of leaders — of all races — who will determine if Little Rock becomes a "great American city."

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