Columns » Warwick Sabin

The migration of cool

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It wasn’t long ago that Fayetteville was arguably Arkansas’s cultural and intellectual capital. Much of the vitality was drawn from the students and professors at the state’s flagship university, but it also benefited from its isolated position, nestled high in the Boston Mountains. The relaxed bohemian spirit gave the city its unique character, making Fayetteville like nowhere else in Arkansas.

An article in last Sunday’s Democrat-Gazette about the loss of live music venues along Dickson Street in Fayetteville crystallized my thoughts on the evolution of Fayetteville and Little Rock over the last decade. Some of the people quoted in the story attributed the transformation to young people’s diminishing interest in hearing live music — an assertion that would be easily debunked with a look at other college towns and major cities around the country.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is confined to Fayetteville, and it is merely one symptom of the dramatic changes that have been taking place there in recent years.

The live music scene was a key ingredient in the secret recipe that gave Fayetteville its distinctive identity and edge. Now all of those funky juke joints on Dickson Street have been replaced with upscale martini bars and trendy lounges, but not because college students aren’t interested in hearing live music. In fact, the juke joints appealed to the typical Fayetteville residents who used to be the exclusive nighttime denizens there: professors, students, laid-back professionals and the professional laid-back.

But with the Wal-Mart-induced growth of the region, the clientele there has changed. Now there are many more corporate young professionals looking for a place to spend their considerable salaries, and they tend to be more comfortable in a cigar bar than rubbing elbows with the hippies. The local business owners have simply adjusted their establishments to meet the new demand.

And this is only one element of the sterilization and homogenization of Fayetteville that is happening as a result of the economic boom there. It is infected by the exurban sprawl that surrounds the college town, bringing strip malls, chain stores and McMansions.

The infection also spreads from its core, as the University of Arkansas elevates its business school and corporate-sponsored research while willfully neglecting the liberal arts. Fayetteville is becoming a company town, conservative and buttoned-up instead of eccentric and expansive.

Gauging a city’s atmosphere is admittedly unscientific, but I get the sense of Fayetteville’s increasingly amplified gentrification each time I visit. It used to feel like Austin. Now it feels like Springfield.

Even as Fayetteville has been bleeding its distinctive flavor, Little Rock has been acquiring its own.

Ten years ago, Little Rock seemed bland compared to Fayetteville. But the state’s largest city is finally starting to harness its urban energy, thanks to a downtown renaissance and enhanced cultural and intellectual opportunities. Live music venues are actually multiplying here. In one example, Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock’s River Market district was opened by two veterans of J.R.’s Lightbulb Club — once one of Fayetteville’s signature live music establishments, but which closed this year.

Someone recently told me that, with so many prominent thinkers and leaders visiting Little Rock to deliver lectures at the Clinton School of Public Service, he feels like he is living in an Ivy League college town. Plus, the non-profit sector is expanding. There is a symphony and a vibrant music scene across a variety of genres; a repertory theater and weekend theater; an arts center and new art galleries springing up; daily and weekly newspapers and new independent magazines.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare Fayetteville and Little Rock, because their sizes are disparate and Little Rock is not without its homogeneity and sprawl.

But the inescapable point is that the cities are moving in opposite directions. Fayetteville had forged an identity as a unique, funky college town and is in danger of losing it. Little Rock used to be fairly nondescript but is becoming more culturally vibrant and interesting.

Both cities are feeling the effects of progress, but they are managing it differently. Places like Austin and Portland demonstrate that leaders can preserve identity if they make it a priority. And it should be a priority, because identity has real value.

As Little Rock builds on its momentum (it was named American Heritage magazine’s “Great American Place” this year), we can only hope that Fayetteville will be able to preserve the distinctiveness that remains. Because the one thing a city doesn’t want to be is just like anyplace else.

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