We like state capitals. We do.
We rarely bother to get inside one, though, but we do like to point them out as we whiz by or even, when we have time, to stop and pose.
I loved how small Montpelier was, with the capital..right there.
And then we snap into roadschooling mode and repeat our recent sightings over and over in the car for a few minutes, the dome receding in the rearview mirror:
The capital of Vermont is?
(Time for religion class)
What does it mean?
So once Joseph remembered that Little Rock is a capital, he was pretty determined that we would go there on our spring break jaunt through Missouri and Arkansas this past March.
Not that I objected. It was on the way, and while I don’t care deeply about the capital building myself, I did, at the very least want to see Central High School, and just you know, check out the Little Rock vibe. Never been there, didn’t know what it was like.
This post will be longish and, more importantly, completely out of whack in relation to how much time we actually spent in Little Rock (about 3 hours), simply because the few sites I saw brought back all sorts of memories of one sort or another, and intersected with various current interests and issues.
I seem to end up living in places with struggling urban centers. Fort Wayne was like that. Birmingham is, too. So, since I like cities and a downtown/uptown energy, I do read about the issue, think about it, and always wonder…so what’s my city’s problem? Why can’t we get there?
Little Rock kindly lent evidence to one of my undoubtedly-not-original theories – water’s the thing.
Every southern or Midwestern city I’ve visited that has a successful revitalization or never had the need to revitalize in the first place is on water.
Doesn’t mean that every town or city on water is a success (Fort Wayne is built on the convergence of three rivers, but the downtown was constructed just far enough away – even just a block or two – so that the two have no real relation to each other), but it just seems to me that water gives a focal point to activity,. And a boundary as well, and something interesting to look at. Everyone likes to stand and gaze at water, day and night. It’s where we came from.
I know nothing about the history of Little Rock’s development, but I can say that the little bit I saw was very nice, and very busy, and very diverse. And on the Arkansas River.
I will not argue with you if you suggest that at least one of them is sporting the same shirt in Arkansas as he did in Vermont eight months earlier. We are profligate in some areas, frugal in others. It works out.
We rolled into Little Rock, and hit the capital building first. It was quiet and parking was easy to find. We jumped out of the car, shot a photo, walked partway around the building. I decided I wasn’t that interested in the interior, so we headed just a bit west – more than a mile, but less than two – to Little Rock Central High School.
It may be verging on The Crazy, but I’m serious when I tell you that I can’t even start to write about this without feeling incredible emotion. I wasn’t born when it happened. I never lived in the segregated South. But there is something about the story of the Little Rock Nine that moves me as deeply as any event in American history does.
Because it’s about a bunch of kids.
Kids who were as smart and good as any other kids, and just wanted a better chance. The chance – for a superior education – that they deserved.
And believe it or not, as those smart, good kids walked into a place that they hoped would give them that chance, they were threatened and reviled, and were it not for whatever semblance of authority willing to step up, might have been seriously injured, if not killed – not on a battlefield in a far-off land, but where they lived, by their peers and neighbors.
Their courage humbles me, as does the courage of those – black and white – who helped them.
It’s quiet out there in that neighborhood. We were there on our spring break, and theirs, too, apparently. The school was closed up, but the National Park Service has a fairly new visitor’s center that was open.
…catty-corner from the school. It’s a lovely little center, with helpful NPS employees (as per usual, I’ve found), and a good introduction via film and exhibit as to why.
A why which is absolutely mysterious and impenetrable to little boys born in 2001 whose little schoolmates and friends – in Birmingham, Alabama (another story) - are black and white, Filipino, Mexican, Guatamalan, of Irish, Italian and Indian extraction, and who can’t imagine life any other way.
It’s hard to explain this place, and I’m uncomfortable doing so. But at the same time, I’m so glad and grateful that I’m uncomfortable, that such a past seems absolutely insane, bizarre and alien to them.
But (of course), there’s a personal angle, too.
I taught theology in Catholic schools for a while, here and there. So did Mike. We both taught morality and social justice and we both, as a part of that, used the great documentary series – maybe the greatest ever (take that Ken Burns!) - Eyes on the Prize.
Little Rock Central High School plays a huge part in Civil Rights history, of course, and therefore a huge part in the series. Both Mike & I, in our respective schools, used the series, talked about it, quoted from it, mined it for catch phrases. (“Be cool, Mama!” “And this is my city!”) Like people do.
So – those thirty minutes I spent around Little Rock Central High?
They took me back to 1957, yes.
And to 1996. And 2001. And 2009.
All of it.
But then it was time to move on. As it always is.
Back west, past the capital, and to downtown for a bit.
Downtown Little Rock seems pretty great!
First, to the obligatory enclosed “market” one finds planted on any urban river/harbor/water side: River Market. They got lunch and ice cream, and then we headed to the Junction Bridge - only one of a few pedestrian bridges across the Arkansas River in the Little Rock area.
Then to the Peabody Park, located right there on the city side of the river, which is really one of the best city parks I’ve ever experienced. Not that I was doing the experiencing. Seriously, I think Michael, especially, could have stayed for hours, but that day, because we had to keep moving, thirty minutes would have to do.
You know what makes this park so great?
And a varied landscape and rock-climbing, but mostly tunnels.
You can read about the genesis of the park and the thinking that went into it here (it’s a .pdf, btw)
Just a fantastic park – rock-climbing, play structures, water play, space to run…and did I mention tunnels?
Not your usual tourist stop, probably, but a worthy one for children, especially. It’s a bright, airy space through which the children work their way, finding clues about some aspect of Heifer’s work and the needs of children around the world. We were there very late in the day – they were closing up as we finished, so we were by ourselves, but I’m sure the place is busy at other times, not only with school groups but with tourists who are also making a stop at the nearby Clinton Library.
I liked it. I’m a long-time supporter of Heifer, and so was my late father, who, the last few years of his life, really de-emphasized gift giving to us – it’s not that we need anything, for pete’s sake – and redirected a lot of what he might be giving to all of us at Christmas to Smile Train and Heifer. It was always a fun little ritual at Christmas for him to watch us open our cards to discover what each of us had given to a family somewhere around the world – a brood of chicks? A goat? An alpaca!
So, yes, more memories there.
I’d definitely recommend a trip to Heifer International if you’re in Little Rock. (Oh, an btw…it’s free. ) And before you get all uh…take my kids to be educated on world hunger while they’re on vacay? Really? …well, Heifer Village is just as fun for kids as a smallish interactive science museum is, it’s an optimistic and hopeful place, and, well, yeah…that whole thing about kids being aware of the way others around the world live?
Isn’t that part of why we travel in the first place?