Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
From the editor: It’s Christmastime, and we figured that after a whole year of swallowing spinach journalism (good for you, though not necessarily tasty) the faithful reader of the Arkansas Times deserved something a little sweeter. We called on one of Little Rock’s best and brightest, Like many of the stories Brockmeier has written in his short but illustrious career, it’s a rather curious thing -— a guide to the history and sights of a through-the-looking-glass Little Rock — full of magic and darkness. It’s fiction, remember.
We always did like the odd ones.
Happy Holidays, and enjoy.
Recently a number of myths have arisen regarding the origin of our community. We believe it is important in these swiftly moving times that we distinguish fact from fiction, and it is the purpose of this handbook to trace the clear line of our history before it vanishes into the heedlessness of the past.
Our city was founded between the hills on the southern bank of a great river. The shores of the river were thickly wooded, and it was said that the trees grew so close together, with their canopies so tightly intertwined, that when they died they would rot upright without ever shifting so much as a branch, melting to dust finally in the lightest of showers. The trees disappeared so suddenly that the forest developed a reputation as a place of ghosts and wonders, and the natives of the area were reluctant to settle there. Often, when they paddled upriver, they would stop for the night without ever stepping ashore, mooring their boats to the first visible outcropping of stone along the water, a landmark known to them as the “Green Rock.”
It was at this Green Rock where our community would eventually be established. Authorities from one of the Eastern Nations, hearing tales of the rock, sent an explorer upriver to determine whether it might be a giant emerald. With disgust, the explorer reported back that the green rock was no emerald, simply a little rock. “Il n’est pas un emeraude, mais seulement une petite roche,” he said, and this was the name the authorities assigned to the location: “La Petite Roche,” or “The Little Rock.”
It would be another century before the first documented settler arrived at the Little Rock, a trapper of beavers and squirrels who built a summer cabin there. There are stories of earlier settlers who attempted to construct homes on the shore only to discover that entire walls and whole sections of timber would vanish around them overnight, the wood they were using a relic of the old forest, but since no trace of these dwellings has ever been found, we are forced to regard these stories as apocryphal. The trapper, however, is documented fact, and he was soon joined at the site by a ferry operator and his wife, and later by a collection of bachelor land speculators. It was not long before the Little Rock Post Office was established, and the community began to grow in earnest. Within 10 years, it would boast a population of more than 500, within a century of more than 70,000, and within a millennium of more than half a million — and this after the depredations of the Sleeping Plague and the endless wavelike expulsions of the Great Migration.
But it was back in the days when the city had a population of exactly nine that the postmaster persuaded a group of colonial legislators to designate it as the Territorial Capital. He offered the legislators a gift of three large parcels of land, whereupon they voted to make the city their new seat of government, renaming it “Arkopolis.” The community did not retain this name for long, but our documents do not indicate what its citizens chose to call it instead. We do know that it was around this time that the residents, for unknown reasons, moved all of the town’s buildings several blocks to the east. They decorated themselves with face paint and feathers one night and hauled the buildings over the ground using logs, ropes, and chains — except for the trading post, which proved immovable, and on which they used a mixture of whiskey and gunpowder. By the time the morning rose, the only trace of the city left at the original site was a pile of cinders luminescing in the half-light like a swarm of lightning bugs.
Over the next few years, there followed a period of great activity in the community. Houses were raised, schools were founded, and hotels were erected. A park was laid out between the creek and the tavern, with a gazebo where men could gather to smoke tobacco and a fountain where children could watch frogs sprawling across the water. This was the age of shore parties and riverboats, when on peaceful summer afternoons the sound of paddle wheels clicking could be heard as far as the stables behind the inn, and it was with the brief disappearance of one of these boats that people first began to notice the city’s problem with time, a problem that has continued to shape our community to the present day.
What happened was this: The wife of the town’s greengrocer was hosting a roulette party aboard a boat called “The Wedding Cake” when the boat drifted around a bend in the river and failed to reappear. A search group, organized by the sheriff, was unable to track it down. Two days later, the boat returned, black with mud and missing its promenade deck, filled with strange-looking people who would eat only fish and turtles and who wobbled like drunkards when they stepped ashore. It was soon determined that in the course of the last two days 79 years had passed aboard “The Wedding Cake.” During that time, most of the original invitees from the roulette party had turned gray and died, leaving behind them their families, many of whom had never so much as set foot off the boat. The city’s oldest native resident was now the greengrocer’s son, a man who had first opened his eyes to the world only two weeks before. He wore a tangled yellow beard, and his skin had the dusty, pitted texture of a peanut shell. As a result of this incident, the local population grew by nearly 100 and the town’s youngest minister married his own great-grand-niece.
An army post was established at the south end of town, and sometimes, when the weather was dry, clusters of civilians would stand at the perimeter of black oaks and watch the troops marching in formation through the hard dirt clearing. The soldiers chanted and shouldered their rifles, their voices echoing off the broad wall of the arsenal. A single fragment of marching rhyme survives from this period, beginning with the phrase, “Tell your mama, tell your pa / I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas.” The first telegraph line was completed in the middle years of the century, stretching all the way through the 32 colonies, and with the erection of this line came rumors of war.
Little is known of the circumstances surrounding the struggle that followed. Only two stories have been passed down to us from this era, one a tale of cowardice and the other a tale of heroism. In the first of the stories, the two generals commanding the local defensive forces are said to have quarreled over a matter of strategy shortly before the city was attacked, whereupon one of them shot and killed the other and was then himself imprisoned, leaving the troops without a leader. In the second, a boy of 17 is said to have been arrested while visiting the city for Christmas, then placed on trial and sentenced to be hanged as a spy. The story continues that when the hangman could not locate a blindfold, the boy offered him his assistance, saying, “Sir, you will find a handkerchief in my coat, and also an apple turnover.” This child became known as the Boy Martyr of the Confectionary. The war lasted four years, ending finally when the opposing forces, who were massed on the opposite bank of the river, stormed the city across a bridge of boats, defeating the soldiers in a single afternoon.
The years following the war were a time of great turmoil in the city. More than 4,000 stones had been added to the local cemetery, and it seemed that nearly every family in town had lost either a son or a father in the fighting. Taxes were increased by a factor of 10. Many of the community’s proudest residents sank into poverty. When the first few butterflies appeared on the lawn of the Old Statehouse, they were greeted as a harmless distraction from the woes of reconstruction. They wafted from flower to flower, their palm-sized blue wings printed with circular markings that looked like a pair of watching eyes. It was a lovely exhibition, like nothing anyone had ever seen before, but over the next few weeks, as the butterflies came in their thousands and then their tens of thousands, the full magnitude of the infestation became clear. Suddenly the creatures were everywhere, perching on hairdos, drinking from dinner glasses, and basking on the flat gray rocks that lined the roads. The horses were frightened of them and would not ride. The mills were clogged with them and would not run. It was during this time that two men, both from the Northern Colonies, began to fight over the governorship of the city. Each claimed that the other was a shameless reconciliationist who had tried to rig the election, and both sent appeals to the sovereign of the nation. The two men established separate offices on the same block, from which bands of armed supporters exchanged gunfire. Clouds of butterflies took to the air with the crack of every bullet. The dispute lasted six months. The trees were already shedding their leaves by the time a new Constitution was ratified and the city’s legal governor was named. The last few blue-winged butterflies disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived.
As the century wore on, the people of the city embraced the new technologies of the era. The roads were cobbled with stones dredged from the bed of the river, and a line of streetcars began to operate, driven by mules over shining steel tracks. Every year on Independence Day, teams of men would harness themselves to one of the street cars and participate in hauling contests against the sturdiest of the mules, a vigorous young Appaloosa named Whipple. A telephone service was opened, with a catalog of 10 subscribers, and a railroad bridge was constructed to span the river, with the upper deck planked over for wagon and foot traffic. The steam whistle of the passenger train was loud enough to be heard across the entire community, and every morning at 11 o’clock, when the train came racketing into the station, hundreds of local dogs would raise their snouts to the air and begin howling. Electricity was soon introduced to the area. The municipal planners had four 125-foot-tall lighting towers constructed at different corners of the map. The arc lamps atop the towers were said to be brighter than the harvest sky, and for a short time, until the towers were torn down and pole lights driven into the ground, the capital was known as the “city of the four moons.”
A neighborhood of wooden homes and railway businesses had grown up on the north side of the river, and by the time the new century dawned, it boasted a population of several thousand. The residents, however, knew few of the amenities enjoyed by their neighbors to the south. They had no street lights, no telephone service, and no paved roads, and it was not long before they voted to sever their civic ties and begin the hard work of building a community. The task was not simple: The town had no schools and no churches, but some 450 saloons, one for every six of its citizens. To make matters worse, an animosity quickly developed between the residents on the two sides of the river, leading to what became known in the papers as “the Decade of Pranks.” It began when the south-siders initiated the practice of releasing their stray puppies in the north. Soon packs of wild dogs could be seen roaming the streets, where they humped and scuffled with each other, growling at children and pawing through the garbage. These dogs earned the community the nickname “Dogtown.” In retaliation, the north-siders gathered all the feral cats from their alleys and carried them in canvas sacks over the river, dumping the animals out in the public square. The cats pissed in the flower beds and stalked the ducks who lived in the park, yowling like a chorus of angry ghosts. The people of the north side began to refer to the south side mockingly as “Cattown.” A dozen such episodes were to follow — among them the “Rattown,” “Fishtown,” “Bandagetown,” and “Livertown” incidents — before the two towns finally settled their quarrel. The river no longer exists, of course, and the northern and southern communities have long since merged, but the historic residue of their dispute can still be seen today in the distinct populations of wild dogs and cats that survive in the city.
In the early years of the century, masses of granite and marble were hauled into the city by barge and train, and work began on the Capitol Building. The structure was erected on the bluff housing the State Penitentiary, whose convicts provided a capable labor force. As their cells were torn down to make way for the honeycomb of government offices, many of the prisoners were granted an early parole and allowed to continue their work on the building. The spire atop the rotunda was completed some 14 years after the cornerstone was laid, by which time almost a quarter of the prison’s inmates had been rehabilitated and permitted to return to society. The penitentiary itself was removed to the outskirts of the city. With the war a fading memory and the population growing, the community seemed poised to enter a new golden age. Soon, though, it would encounter another problem with time.
The riverport had been declining in importance for years. A silence had fallen over the water with the arrival of the electric streetcar and the gasoline engine, and it might have been foreseen that a natural deterioration would take place there over the course of the next few decades. No one could have expected, though, that that deterioration would be compressed into a single week at the beginning of an otherwise balmy and uneventful May. In a matter of days, the docks collapsed, the channel tightened, and the shallows of the river became stagnant with a glue-like layer of floating algae. The fields on the bank grew over with waist-high grass. The dozens of businesses that had developed along the shore quickly weathered away, until there was nothing left of them but a few flat gray squares of concrete where the foundations had not yet broken apart. Newspaper accounts of the period referred to this event as a “time bubble,” though today we recognize it as a classic example of the Mogwe-Kaplan Phenomenon. By the time the week was over and the bubble had popped, the riverfront as it used to be was no more. The boats were gone for good. The community had lost its center.
The city began to spread toward the west, drawing the population along with it in a narrow string. In short order, a law school, a medical center, and a college were founded. The first downtown skyscraper was constructed to a height of 14 floors. The first suicide was recorded leaping from its roof a week later. An airport was built on the outskirts of the city. Suddenly the burning silver specks of airplanes could be seen laying their smoke trails across the sky, a sight which, for the first month or so, caused the people who saw it to stop and stare with their mouths wide open, until all the marvel seemed to seep out of it and, like everything else, it became ordinary. Two bridges were erected to carry the city’s growing automobile traffic across the river. Not long after they were raised, though, a drought struck the region. The water level gradually fell, and eventually, after more than a year, the river bottomed out, leaving behind a thick bed of muck from which an antique maple wardrobe, several blackened skeletons, and a gold-and-sapphire ring inscribed “To my cutie on the birth of our child” were recovered. The dogs whose parents and grandparents had been abandoned years before on the north side of the river came down to the shore and gingerly picked their way across the dry spots, climbing onto the opposite bank and sprinting into the warren of office buildings. By the time the rains finally came and replenished the current, the city had entered a financial depression that would last the better part of a decade.
The most spectacular of the entertainments available during this depression was the Great Fair, which came to the meadows of Fair Park during the first two weeks of every October, offering exhibits, rides, and contests of strength to the city’s residents. Whether out of haste or negligence no one has ever been able to say, but one year, after the proprietors of the fair packed their red-striped tents away, it was found that they had left behind a number of wild animals. The fire department, the police, and dozens of local officials were called to the scene. Everyone was baffled by the dilemma. They knew that they could not have a camel, a giraffe, two capuchin monkeys, and a hippopotamus who liked to roll chocolate drops around on her tongue roaming freely through the park, but what were they to do? As a temporary measure, while they were deciding what steps to take next, they had a row of wooden pens built to hold the animals. The next day, an article about the city’s predicament appeared in the morning paper. Crowds of people came to the park to see the animals. The display proved so popular that it was made permanent, and a zoo was founded on the spot. Though Fair Park would soon become War Memorial Park, which would later become One Tree Park, which would later become an open-air shopping complex and then a cluster of office supply warehouses, the zoo has remained in operation to this day, housing birds, reptiles, elephants, prairie dogs, plasma worms, lions, and primates.
The war for which the park was later to be memorialized brought the depression to a sudden halt. An old military campground was brought back into service at the northernmost corner of the community. Off-duty GI’s (an abbreviation believed to have been derived from the Latin phrase “genus impressare,” or “those who have been forced in”) could be seen shooting pool and downing glasses of beer at the bars around town. The war lasted approximately four years. On the day the peace treaty was signed, the people of the city broke into a prolonged and spontaneous celebration. They took to the streets in their automobiles, honking their horns and tossing scraps of paper from their windows. A traffic jam consisting of thousands of cars packed the avenues of downtown until the roads were a continuous frozen river of polished metal. When the sun fell and the stars began to punch through the sky, many people abandoned their vehicles right where they stood, walking giddily off into the crowds. The great majority of these cars were retrieved the next day. A few, however, simply sat there fading on the side of the road and eventually had to be impounded by the city.
It was well known in those days that the atoms of which the world was composed were in constant vibration, that the Earth was rotating on its axis as it revolved around the Sun, and that the Sun was voyaging through the galaxy, and that the galaxy was spiraling around its center as it moved through the cluster of local galaxies, and that these local galaxies were traveling through the entire network of galaxies that lay scattered across the universe, but it was not yet known that the marvelous and elaborate motion of the whole immense system was orchestrated around a single still point. For a while that point was located in the left pupil of a bricklayer who built and repaired bridges for the city. The stars, the universe, and even the bricklayer himself were continually swirling, rising, and dipping around this point, though neither he nor anyone else realized that this was the case. The bricklayer was killed in the spring of his 38th year when a panel truck ran up onto the curb outside his favorite sandwich shop. By then, though, the still point had migrated to a stray hydrogen atom at the edge of the Vela supernova, and the universe went on spinning.
The old downtown area was still the cultural and commercial center of the community, the shops along its avenues the last shadow of the vibrant social activity that had once characterized the riverfront. But all this was soon to change. In response to the district’s worsening automobile congestion, the city traffic board imposed a system of one-way streets there. They installed rows of parking meters on certain roads and prohibited parking altogether on others. Shortly after these changes were made, the stores and restaurants of downtown began to lose their customers. The community’s residents found it easier to visit the shopping areas that had spread out from around the old streetcar stations, where the pavement was open and the parking was free. Within a decade, the streets of downtown were checkered with vacant storefronts. The district had become a place of warehouses and office buildings, jammed with workers during the business day but otherwise virtually empty. For the next 50 years, all of the city’s major new developments would take place to the west, where everything from banks and media outlets to hospitals and schools appeared.
One of those schools was the City Central School, which for a short time in the middle years of the century became the emblem by which our community was known around the world. It happened during the city’s desegregation crisis, when the board of education decided to integrate the public schools. This was centuries before the ineradicable blending of the races took place, at a time when the people of the world came in many different colors, predominant among them an array of shades ranging from a pale wheaty gold to a coffee-like brown that were known collectively as “black,” and a blanched-out pink, like the pulp at the center of a strawberry, that was known as “white.” The issue of black and white desegregation made for one of the most socially corrosive controversies of the day. On the day that nine blacks were scheduled to begin attending the Central School, the governor sent out troops of soldiers to turn them away. The sovereign of the nation demanded that the troops withdraw, and the governor replaced them with members of the local police force. The sovereign responded by ordering troops of his own to the school, and the nine black students walked to the door of the building protected by a ring of soldiers with fixed bayonets. Crowds of anti-integrationists jeered and spit at them. One of the black girls later said that her dress was so wet she had to wring it out when she got inside. The next summer, in a fit of pique, the governor ordered that the schools be shut down entirely. Though they would re-open after a year had passed, the incident would nevertheless remain a blemish on the reputation of the city for a long time to come.
In the years that followed, the community continued to grow. A pair of highways went up over the river. A luxury hotel was constructed, and a water park, and a brick-surfaced pedestrian mall. A number of local television stations began to broadcast, sending out their signals from dawn until midnight. An art museum was founded, as well as a new library, and a pair of competing indoor shopping malls were opened across the street from each other. Several high-rise office buildings were erected downtown, their clean rectangular shapes lending a distinction and a vitality to the skyline.
Shortly after the 50 Colonies celebrated their bicentennial, a new leader came to power in the city, a young man known as the “Boy Governor” because of his shaggy hair and his air of inexperience. The Boy Governor took office, as all new leaders do, in an atmosphere of delicate hopefulness. Two years later, though, as the result of an unpopular motor vehicle tax, he lost his bid for re-election and returned to private life. It was in the days immediately following the inauguration of the new governor that the city’s problem with time reoccurred. The people of the community went to sleep one night believing that they held the world firmly in their grip and woke the next morning to find that the entire mechanism of history had sprung forward and 20 years had passed. They had opened their eyes to an age in which pay-phones and typeSome of the community’s residents found it impossible to adjust to the new era, and they faded into an early senescence. Others, however, were invigorated by the changes they saw. An effort began among them to rejuvenate the city, starting with the riverfront district. A market area was established along the shoreside. Shops and clubs and restaurants began to operate there. The former Boy Governor opened a library in the district commemorating the years of his sovereignty. The streets were busy, the bars were crowded, and there were signs of progress everywhere you looked. The community’s direction would shift dramatically, though, with the construction of the enormous new church on the wooded bluff in the western reaches of the city.
The Church of the Denuded Hillside (or “CDH,” as it was known) boasted a large congregation of wealthy and politically active members. Its message was traditionalistic — though not at first puritanical — and its architecture was lush. Some 10 years after the church was founded, one of its leaders, Pastor Joseph Common, decided to run for office. With the overwhelming support of his congregation, he was elected first to the city’s board of development and a few years later to the governorship. His first act as governor was to repeal a law allowing minors to seek emancipation from their parents. Next he signed a bill outlawing elective cosmetic surgery. He convinced the city board to enact legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, the exhibition of movies containing violent, irreverent, or sexually explicit material, and the wearing of low-cut jeans or shirts that bared the navel. He removed the operations of government to the rear wing of the CDH complex and had the Capitol Building restored to its former use as a prison. The public libraries were shut down and their books dispersed to the vaults of various church members, an act whose continuing repercussions have influenced everything from the passage of the Material Preservation Decree to the production of this very handbook, since none of those books were ever recovered and we have had to piece this history of our community together using the few available records from the era.
Ever since its riverboat days, the city had been the commercial and cultural engine of the region, but all such activity stagnated during the tenure of Governor Common. It is one of the laws of life, though, that nothing lasts forever. The Church of the Denuded Hillside lost influence as its more moderate members began to leave the congregation. At the end of his second term, Pastor Common was removed from office, and the civic authorities were returned to power.
The next few decades brought many changes to the city. As the final residue of the world’s oil reserves was consumed, the age of cheap automotive fuel came to an end, and, like many communities, ours was faced with a transportation crisis. The traffic board responded by installing a comprehensive system of moving sidewalks, like a great silver lattice branching from one end of the city to the other. There were single-lane sidewalks flowing along every major street. There were six-lane express walks where the highways and important thoroughfares used to be. The expensive new houses to the west boasted mini-walks running from their front doors directly to the curb. The old asphalt roads that ran between the sidewalks soon fell into disuse, and many of them were broken up and sodded over, planted with zoysia grass and dogwood trees. Strips of parkland criss-crossed the city, and children invented new games such as longball and string-away to take advantage of the space. Every so often, one of the sidewalks would jerk to a halt, and the maintenance technicians would report that the machinery had become clotted with chewing gum. Nevertheless, the sidewalks remained the city’s primary system of transportation for nearly 20 years, until the introduction of the magnet engine led to the revitalization of the automobile industry, and, not long after, to the invention of the single-passenger railcar.
It was true then, as it is true now, that innovation follows innovation and discovery follows discovery, and the magnetics revolution was rapidly succeeded by advances in wireless communication and microchip implantation. Together, and for the first time, these advances enabled people to communicate their thoughts directly to one another without speaking. Anyone whose chip had been properly engineered could receive information from the mind of anyone else — and, with the appropriate digital interface and the right access code, experience that mind for himself, an ability that had never before been claimed by anyone other than mystics and schizophrenics. The cell phones and computers of the era became little more than curiosity objects, relics of a time when we could only truly be known by ourselves. Examples of these devices can still be seen today in the Paleotechnology wing of the Museum of Local History.
Some say it was 40 years later, and some say it was merely 20, but this much we can state for certain: Soon after the events we have described, history began to accelerate. A wire snapped or a spring fell loose and the operations of time were broken for good. The decades dropped into place like beads slipping down a string.
A thousand years have passed since then, and the city shows no sign of slowing down. The river has long since shifted its course, and the hills have all been cleared away. The landscape has suffered a million small changes. We have witnessed the cure of the last great organic diseases, and the vast armada unfurling its solar sails, and the first few fluttering traces of transhumanism. We have seen so much, and we have traveled so far, and yet still we long for another time, an earlier one, when the trees grew so close together that their branches touched and a sweet-smelling rain fell from the sky. Whenever we feel the pulse of history racing, we find ourselves looking back to an age when cities were named not for powerful men or the angels of Heaven, for kings or for military installations, but for the little green rock at the bend of a twisting river.
How small the world must have seemed in those days.
How beautiful it must have been to be alive.
Kevin Brockmeier, a Little Rock native, is the author of six books. His new novel, "The Brief History of the Dead," about the inhabitants of a city that exists in the afterlife, will be published in February.