Nearly 15 years after what we know today as the River Market district was born, it's still a neighborhood without a clear identity. Is it where Central Arkansas goes to drink? The cultural capital of the state? An actual neighborhood where people live and work and buy things? It depends on when and where you look.
I look on it from the perspective of someone who spends most of his time there. I don't live in the River Market district, but I may as well. Five days a week, I park my car with other cars owned by people who don't care about them under an I-30 exit ramp in a parking lot covered in pigeon scat and broken glass. From there, it's a three-block walk to Arkansas Times HQ: Across the trolley tracks and by a passing trolley, pretty to look at but always empty. Past the five-story main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, with the names of canonical writers etched in the top of the building — Dickinson, Faulkner, Thucydides — that always reminds me that I should be reading better books. Across what may be Little Rock's most complicated traffic arrangement, which in a short span brings together four on/off ramp lanes into a three-way intersection governed by rules that are broken nearly every time the light turns green. Down a pea gravel path through the latest territory the Historic Arkansas Museum has claimed for its fort of historic preservation and resurrection, where even in triple-digit heat this summer the resident blacksmith stoked the fire inside in his dark forge.
My second-floor office looks out onto the intersection of Markham and Scott and the Main Street Bridge. Almost 200 years ago in the same spot, Chester Ashley, then probably the richest man in Arkansas, looked out onto the Arkansas River idling by from his front porch. At some point, the Arkansas Gazette spent 50 years in the same intersection, the mid-point of a Newspaper Row that stretched from the Old State House down through what's now President Clinton Avenue. My great-great grandfather Alexander Millar, who edited and published the Arkansas Methodist, might've once penned Anti-Saloon League editorials mere blocks from where I now put out at least a couple of issues a year celebrating Little Rock bars.
In 1985, when the Times moved into the newly renovated Heritage West Building, the River Market didn't exist and wouldn't for more than a decade. Locals called the area Old Town or the East Markham Warehouse District. One of the few businesses in the district served as a ready metaphor for how dead Old Town was — a casket store.
The redevelopment boom that finally came in the mid-'90s was a product of the vision of people like Jimmy Moses, who sketched out an early version of the River Market building after visiting the Pike Place Market in Seattle; Bobby Roberts, who plotted the Main Library's move into the old Fones Brothers Warehouse before any plan for the River Market existed, and master politicians like Dean Kumpuris and Buddy Villines. But the key spark was public money. All the early major development that kick-started the River Market district was primarily funded from an assortment of city, county, state and federal funds.
In the early days of the development, itself only a piece of a sweeping project that led to the construction of what's now called the Verizon Arena, the renovation of the Statehouse Convention Center and the relocation and expansion of the Museum of Discovery, there were complaints — in this paper, believe it or not — about the lack of private support. Today, with much of the institutional groundwork laid and fresh off a successful public-private partnership that led to the reclamation of the old Rock Island Railroad Bridge as a pedestrian crossing, the tension is over what the neighborhood is, rather than what it's going to be.
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