When I first moved to the Quapaw Quarter in 1997, the question asked by friends and acquaintances was "Is it safe down there?" Understandable just a few years after the height of the 23rd Street Crips, the question became more and more detached from reality years after the gang battles had receded.
Over time, that question was replaced by another one: "I love the architecture down there, but where do you shop for groceries?" For over a decade, there was no good answer "down there" to that, a pretty fundamental one for a livable neighborhood. The Harvest Foods store at 17th and Main was slow to be replaced after a deadly tornado destroyed it in 1999, and when it returned it was perhaps the grimiest grocery store in the first world. Long-time downtown residents all have a story about giving the store one more chance only to witness a food felony in the store's produce section.
A couple of years ago, downtown residents got a better answer to the grocery store question. The demise of the Harvest Foods chain presented an opportunity for the Edwards family to open a Food Giant in that space. "The Meat People" (as is their slogan) do a bit more for those with a penchant for pork parts than vegetarians like me. In dramatic contrast to Harvest Foods, however, the store is tidy and well stocked and the staff is incredibly friendly and responsive to requests. (After they began carrying hummus when I asked for it, I felt a need to buy the item every time I entered the store whether I needed it or not.) The arrival of Food Giant came at a time that the SoMa (South Main) neighborhood showed real promise of finally getting over the hump and becoming a stable living and retail area driven not by gentrification but instead by a racially and economically diverse population like that seen at Food Giant on any weeknight after work.
Over the 15 years I've lived downtown, the neighborhood has, again and again, seemingly been on the cusp of that status, exceptional for urban living in Central Arkansas. There were signs of real promise following the end of the gang wars when I arrived in 1997, but the January 1999 tornado ripped the neighborhood apart, destroying numerous homes and creating a wasteland east of Main Street. In the first decade of the 21st century, the post-9/11 recession and the attention focused on the River Market area delayed additional progress in the area. After the River Market had become vibrant, there were repeated rumors that the Stephens family or some other investor was about to make the move to bring housing and retail down Main Street north of I-630, creating an opportunity for the area south of I-630 to connect across the interstate that divides the capital city. Nothing has come of those big ideas — the street remains pretty desolate at night between the freeway and the marvelous island that is the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The SoMa neighborhood came to realize it couldn't rely upon financier Warren Stephens to stretch development down to it; it would have to generate development itself.
Although less marked than Argenta's recent progress, the last three years have shown steady progress for SoMa. First, Paul Page Dwellings began building contemporary structures on empty lots east of Main Street, providing an option for younger residents unable to afford the large old homes to the west and providing growth on both sides of the Main Street corridor. While originally annoying to Quapaw residents with a love for Victorians and Craftsmans, slowly the stylish modern homes have come to be seen as filling a crucial niche in the neighborhood.
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