- Brian Chilson
- PLANNING A SPOTLIGHT: Ben Muldrow (left rear) and Tee Coker.
On a recent, rainy morning, as thunder boomed outside, a group of people sat in a circle at Little Rock's historic Curran Hall and told two visiting consultants specializing in neighborhood branding what they'd like to see happen in the Quapaw Quarter. The meeting was one of several held in Little Rock the week of Aug. 22-25 with representatives of consultants Arnett Muldrow and Associates on how best to get the word out that the Quapaw Quarter is more than just a collection of historic mansions downtown.
Originally a 16-square-block area bounded by Capitol Avenue on the north, Ninth Street on the south, Scott Street on the west and Bond Avenue on the east, the Quapaw Quarter was established in 1968 by a group of historically-minded residents seeking to save the mansions near MacArthur Park from urban renewal. In the 1980s, the borders were expanded to include nine square miles at the city center, including the Little Rock skyline, Central High School and the State Capitol. It now includes the River Market district and the Clinton Library. The goal of Arnett Muldrow's meetings last week was, first: figure out how to get the word out about that. Second (and harder): how to express points of pride.
One of the residents at the Curran Hall meeting was Jennifer Carman, who bought her historic home near Wright Avenue in 2004. Carman told the Greenville, S.C., consultants that her neighborhood is at a "make or break" point in its history, with the lack of city services, crumbling infrastructure and crime there causing those with the will and finances to restore older homes to buy elsewhere. That reluctance to restore results in more deteriorating houses, which the city is often eager to demolish as nuisance properties, she said. She said the branding project might help turn that around.
"There's a reason that South Main Street looks beautiful and Wright Avenue looks like a train wreck," she said. "That's our namesake, and I find it appalling. I feel like this [the rebranding project] is exactly the sort of project that might bring attention from the eyes of the city, who funnels the money ... We've got dilapidated streetlights, crumbling sidewalks that I wouldn't walk my dog on, or no sidewalks, and it's a complete atrocity. It would not happen in The Quapaw Quarter as people think of it."
Another resident at the meeting was Kwendeche, a single-named restoration architect. Kwendeche, who lives on Rice Street in a house his grandfather built in 1925, supports the branding efforts, but told the consultants that that until the city addresses the issue of crime and businesses that attract a bad element, negative perceptions about the neighborhoods south of Interstate 630 will persist.
"I really think that the stumbling block," he said, "no matter what you come up with — and you'll probably come up with a great plan, and a great branding product — but unless you deal with the negative perceptions and the negativity ... it's not going to happen. We have real issues, and it goes beyond architecture and historic things. People are not wanting to come to the neighborhood."
Ben Muldrow, who was running the meeting, said that he hopes to develop a plan that will spotlight the Quapaw Quarter and make people proud to live there. A group of preliminary designs that his firm worked up a few days later shows colorful streetlamp banners and other signage proclaiming each area as one of "the neighborhoods of the Quapaw Quarter." Sample ads show examples of the stately Victorian homes the Quapaw Quarter is traditionally known for beside inset pictures of smaller or more modern homes over the tagline: "This is the Quapaw Quarter ... and so is this."
The eventually branding plan, Muldrow said, "has to be broad. It has to be diverse. It has to be strong enough to help those neighborhoods that don't have anything going yet, and nimble enough to allow neighborhoods that are established and moving forward to be able to maintain that strong personality while attaching themselves to something larger that's moving in the right direction."
The QQA, along with the City of Little Rock, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the Little Rock Visitor Foundation and other groups, paid Arnett Muldrow and Associates $10,000 for the branding project. QQA director Rhea Roberts said the company has developed rebranding proposals for more than 250 communities in 27 states. Roberts said she hopes that institutions within the Quarter, like Arkansas Baptist College, Philander Smith College and Arkansas Children's Hospital, will help surrounding neighborhoods with the purchase of new signage and streetlamp banners, and that neighborhood groups will start using "a neighborhood of the Quapaw Quarter" on letterheads and newsletters.
"Throughout the process, we realized that we really hadn't promoted [the Quapaw Quarter] at all," Roberts said. "It was all about what people outside of the Quarter and maybe Little Rock thought about it. We'd never really done anything to brand ourselves in the first place. That's how this came about: to really start to do that, rather than let other people say what they might think, whether it's right or wrong."
One of the things many people get wrong, she said, is the idea that living in the Quapaw Quarter will mean extra restrictions on what homeowners can do to their houses. For most in the Quarter, she said, that's not the case, and the QQA hasn't done as much as they should have to quash that idea.
"As an organization, we haven't done as good of a job as we could have in that regard," she said. "It's only Capitol Zoning District or the MacArthur Park District where there are guidelines you have to follow ... Otherwise, there are no restrictions, unless you want to take advantage of the tax credit, and then there are some commonsense things the [National] Park Service wants you to do, like repair old windows rather than replace them."