LITTLE ROCK ROCKS by Nell Raun-Linde

“This place rocks,” a Little Rock, Arkansas picture postcard announced. I laughed at the words flowing across the Arkansas River scene with a bridge that spans it, a River Rail electric streetcar atop it with the woodsy River Trail and colorful buildings in the background. Acquired by the U.S. in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, Arkansas became a state in 1836. Little Rock emphasizes state and local history, cultures of the state and arts of the world. History comes to life in the city’s many museums.
And there’s more: good ethnic and regional restaurants; polite and hospitable people; the fun, old-fashioned (but new) River Rail electric street cars; the elegant Peabody Hotel with its ducks; the international headquarters of the Heifer Project; the wonderful 17-mile River Trail that was built for walkers and cyclists. As you can see, this native Californian is smitten with the city.

The 17-mile, paved River Trail travels along both sides of the river. The opposite bank is North Little Rock, very much like Little Rock itself. The trail has landscaping of trees and flowers, a peaceful ambiance with paved paths. At the river’s edge, on the Little Rock side, I strolled under an open-air gazebo. The history of Little Rock, Arkansas, is posted on hanging plaques. Below, we saw the children’s park with a fountain that spouted streams of water into a large, shallow pool for children to climb into. I saw one father regulating the height of the fountain spouts, kids shrieking, “Higher, higher.” In this children’s area, “caves” go into the hillside and big climbing rocks rest on top of the bank and down its slope, ready for climbing.

The River Market overlooks this and more of the river area. The market has a large block of shops, restaurants, and taverns that are fun to roam. There is also a twice-a – week, open-air Farmer’s Market. Here, local people sell fruit and vegetables, and other goods out of the backs of their trucks. The River Market borders both the main street, President Clinton Ave (Markam Street), and the river.

One night, my daughter Dee and I walked across a nearby bridge over the Arkansas River to go to a fun baseball game in North Little Rock. The AA team, the Arkansas Travelers, claims the Dickey-Stephens field as home, and later in the players’ careers, they might belong to the major league Anaheim Angels (California!). The crowd was enthusiastic and also polite to the opposing team, as were people we climbed over to get to our seats or waited in line with for hot dogs.

We did not have time for all the museums in the city but spent half-days in many. My favorite was the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. We took the fun River Rail trolley to reach it. The trolley conductors also act as tour guides. Much information about the city sites (like the Tuf Nut building) gets passed out along on the way.

At the Clinton Center, I enjoyed the interactive exhibits: Just press a button and get a history lesson of the presidential year being represented. Other exhibits heralded milestones in Clinton’s presidency and did not shirk the facts about the impeachment trial, which did not pass the Senate. We also walked into rooms that are replicas of the Oval Office and Clinton’s Cabinet Meeting Room. And read some family stories.
My second favorite is the Old State House Museum. Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for United States President on its steps. The State House opened in 1836 when Arkansas was admitted to the Union. The first statehouse was built with logs and rebuilt as a Greek Revival-style building. It is imposing. The Territorial Governor said in 1842, “The capitol should be near, and in view of the river, built with taste and elegance.” That it is.

The Arkansas Art Center impressed Dee the most. The collections of 19th century impressionist artists (Renoir, Monet, Cezanne) are small but engaging. The Art Center has a collection of art by Paul Signac, the largest assemblage of his art anywhere. The Art Center also promotes local artistic talent through private and public schools and has a professional children’s theater company. And, the Art Center promotes classes for the community in arts and crafts. “I would be there, no doubt,” Dee told our guide.

Another large community service comes from the Art Center taking art on the road in an Artmobile called Art on Wheels. “We are a rural state, you know,” said our guide. In September 2009, an exhibit, “The World of the Pharaohs,” came to the Art Center from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Little Rock Art Center will have it until July 5, 2010. Part of the time, it will go on the road throughout Arkansas. Its sub-title, “Treasures of Egypt Revealed,” indicates that the collection of 200 artifacts explores the vanished world of ancient Egypt. The people of Little Rock and Arkansas are proud of being chosen to display this collection, one of four museums in the U.S. to be chosen.

The Heifer Project has its International Headquarters in Little Rock. It’s easy to find, near the Clinton Library, same trolley stop. Heifer gives animals to people in the U.S. and other countries in the world. The receiver pays in kind when the animal has an offspring and gives a like gift to another person in their community.

In the new conservation building, I found there is more going on than buying a goat or a flock of chickens. A model village shows how people in Africa, for instance, can be taught conservation in new ways. Animal droppings can be converted into methane gas, hillside terraces can be built for crops. Heifer promotes “green” lifestyles along with giving service. It advocates volunteering in home communities . . . making us all aware of responsibilities to our fellow man/woman.

We found Just-for-fun places, too. One night we went to Willie D’s, an informal night-club bar and watched the dueling pianos. The Peabody Hotel’s expansive lobby area has a cozy bar area with quiet live music. The Peabody is an experience in itself. Ducks march into the lobby (around the corner from the bar area!) each morning along a red carpet from their rooftop home to the large pool in front of the glass atrium elevators. At 5 p.m., the ducks climb out of the pool, onto red carpeted stairs and march to classic Sousa marches on the way back to the elevator.

A visit to Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park makes a great one day side trip. We rented a car and drove out into the countryside, green with forests. The national park claims fame as the smallest and oldest of the parks in the National Park system dating from 1832. The Hot Springs Reservation was the first federally protected area in the nation’s history and officially became a national park in 1921.

Hot Springs is a city, and at the edge of the city sits the National Park. The park starts with the bath houses along bathhouse row. A self-guiding tour of the restored, elegant Fordyce Bathhouse show what the great American Spa was like. People came to the springs, still running at 143 degrees, to rest and recuperate. For a view of the area, we drove up a narrow twisting road to the lookout tower that has a view in all directions of about seventy miles out. There are hiking trails up the mountain and through the peaceful woods.
We needed more than six days to see Little Rock. We found the outside of the capital building looks much like the U.S. capital. On the long approach to the building, we saw the statues of the nine courageous Central High teen-agers who tried to enter that segregated school in 1951. With a quick pass through at the Arkansas History Museum, we learned about the Indian heritage of the territory. On the expansive grounds, visitors can tour with a guide the four reconstructed cabins from the early 1800’s.

More to see: The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History where General Douglas MacArthur was born while his general father was stationed in Little Rock; the Natural Science museum along the river deserves more than our quick glimpse at closing time.

There’s much to see and to admire about this lovely city. It’s safe, clean and upscale. It promotes history and culture. It gives off good vibes . . . and it rocks.