Nearly 15 years after what we know today as the River Market district was born, it's still a neighborhood without a clear identity. Is it where Central Arkansas goes to drink? The cultural capital of the state? An actual neighborhood where people live and work and buy things? It depends on when and where you look.
I look on it from the perspective of someone who spends most of his time there. I don't live in the River Market district, but I may as well. Five days a week, I park my car with other cars owned by people who don't care about them under an I-30 exit ramp in a parking lot covered in pigeon scat and broken glass. From there, it's a three-block walk to Arkansas Times HQ: Across the trolley tracks and by a passing trolley, pretty to look at but always empty. Past the five-story main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, with the names of canonical writers etched in the top of the building — Dickinson, Faulkner, Thucydides — that always reminds me that I should be reading better books. Across what may be Little Rock's most complicated traffic arrangement, which in a short span brings together four on/off ramp lanes into a three-way intersection governed by rules that are broken nearly every time the light turns green. Down a pea gravel path through the latest territory the Historic Arkansas Museum has claimed for its fort of historic preservation and resurrection, where even in triple-digit heat this summer the resident blacksmith stoked the fire inside in his dark forge.
My second-floor office looks out onto the intersection of Markham and Scott and the Main Street Bridge. Almost 200 years ago in the same spot, Chester Ashley, then probably the richest man in Arkansas, looked out onto the Arkansas River idling by from his front porch. At some point, the Arkansas Gazette spent 50 years in the same intersection, the mid-point of a Newspaper Row that stretched from the Old State House down through what's now President Clinton Avenue. My great-great grandfather Alexander Millar, who edited and published the Arkansas Methodist, might've once penned Anti-Saloon League editorials mere blocks from where I now put out at least a couple of issues a year celebrating Little Rock bars.
In 1985, when the Times moved into the newly renovated Heritage West Building, the River Market didn't exist and wouldn't for more than a decade. Locals called the area Old Town or the East Markham Warehouse District. One of the few businesses in the district served as a ready metaphor for how dead Old Town was — a casket store.
The redevelopment boom that finally came in the mid-'90s was a product of the vision of people like Jimmy Moses, who sketched out an early version of the River Market building after visiting the Pike Place Market in Seattle; Bobby Roberts, who plotted the Main Library's move into the old Fones Brothers Warehouse before any plan for the River Market existed, and master politicians like Dean Kumpuris and Buddy Villines. But the key spark was public money. All the early major development that kick-started the River Market district was primarily funded from an assortment of city, county, state and federal funds.
In the early days of the development, itself only a piece of a sweeping project that led to the construction of what's now called the Verizon Arena, the renovation of the Statehouse Convention Center and the relocation and expansion of the Museum of Discovery, there were complaints — in this paper, believe it or not — about the lack of private support. Today, with much of the institutional groundwork laid and fresh off a successful public-private partnership that led to the reclamation of the old Rock Island Railroad Bridge as a pedestrian crossing, the tension is over what the neighborhood is, rather than what it's going to be.
The initial vision, like all New Urbanist revivals, called for a mix of retail, housing, parks, dining and entertainment. Retailers have given it a go. When I first moved to Little Rock a decade ago, retail shops Take a Hike and Vesta's occupied space in the first block of what's now Clinton Avenue. Today, aside from 10,000 Villages and an office furniture store, the neighborhood doesn't have a retail store that's not an outgrowth of some larger institution (like the Central Arkansas Library System or the Clinton Presidential Center).
As for park land, more than 30 acres rolls along beside the river: There's a sculpture promenade that doubles as a stretch of the River Trail; La Petite Roche (the actual Little Rock, worth a visit if only to marvel at all the fuss — and money spent — over such a dinky rock); maybe the city's best playground at Peabody Park, with boulders to climb, tunnels to explore and a massive play-fountain to run through; the Bill Clark Presidential Park Wetlands, with walkways snaking through a river backwash below the Clinton Presidential Center, and the two former railroad bridges smartly reclaimed for pedestrian use.
Thanks to River Market godfather Jimmy Moses and his business partner Rett Tucker there are plenty of places to live high in the sky in the neighborhood, though probably only for those making more money than most of us. NBA star and Little Rock native Joe Johnson has a two-story condo in the 300 Third Tower that has a shark tank in it. I suspect no one lives higher in the River Market district. Down on the goldfish-bowl end of the housing spectrum, a number of area warehouses have been converted into lofts.
Unfortunately, despite a number of failed attempts, there was nowhere as of early 2012 within walking distance for neighborhood dwellers to buy groceries or fill a prescription (a new grocery is supposedly coming soon to the recently revived Third Street corridor). There are, however, dozens of restaurants nearby. In the River Market's Ottenheimer Hall, the cornerstone for all the development that followed in the River Market district, none of the original vendors remain, though there's a nice multicultural balance. It's not quite the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, but on Saturdays during warm weather months, when farmers, trinket hawkers, busking musicians and clowns on stilts who make balloon animals pack under the pavilions behind the hall for the Little Rock Farmers Market, no place in the city is more alive.
Except maybe for a trip down President Clinton Avenue on a weekend night. Muscle cars and neon motorcycles inch along with no clear destination beyond a continuous loop. On the sidewalks, it's not hard to win at River Market district bingo: B for a bachelorette party (you can spot the bride-to-be by her tiara of condoms or some other embarrassing accoutrement); I for the impaired, walking in a zigzag; N for New Era cap-wearing, would-be rappers selling homemade CDs; G for gawkers, the pedestrian version of the cars that cruise past, people — often underage — just there to see the sights, and O for overcrowded clubs, with clumps of folks huddled near the entrances, texting furiously as they wait to get inside.
In the 20-odd blocks that comprise the broadest conception of the neighborhood, at least 10 restaurants or bars cater to drinkers with hours that extend beyond dinner service, and there are at least half a dozen more restaurants that serve booze. Want to see a concert by a touring band? Odds are you're coming to Clinton Avenue, where the largest and most active bar/venues operate and at least half a dozen other bars regularly feature live music. Want to see a handful of big-named nostalgia acts? Odds are you're among the quarter million or so who descend on the River Market district annually on Memorial Day weekend for Riverfest.
In the daytime, it's easier to make a case for the district as the cultural heart of the capital city. Most of Little Rock's museums sit within a few blocks of each other in the neighborhood, with the Clinton Library cantilevered over the banks of the Arkansas River in all its modernist glory on the eastern edge. Nearby, Heifer Village's exhibits on global poverty and hunger attract tourists and visiting school kids by the busload. Want to see art, buy Arkansas crafts, get a smoothie or research your Arkansas roots? Head to the Central Arkansas Library's sprawling campus of artfully renovated historic buildings where, at least for the near future, you can also check out books.
I'm sure it's not without precedent for a city's nightlife and cultural districts to live together in tight quarters, but I can't think of any other examples. It's not always easy for the night and day sides of the neighborhood to live together. Pushes by some in the entertainment community to close Clinton Avenue off on weekend evenings a la Beale Street have thus far not gotten very far. Ditto for an application by River Market district tenant Juanita's to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. The glass I park on every morning isn't good for either constituency. But still the people come. And the teen-aged neighborhood hums with life.