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High-water mark 

AETN's 'Dream Land' doc is a celebration and a lament.

click to enlarge WEST NINTH STREET'S HEYDAY: Vocalist Bijoux (Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe, The Rodney Block Collective) and other actors recreated scenes depicting the vibrancy of historic West Ninth Street for AETN's "Dream Land" documentary.
  • WEST NINTH STREET'S HEYDAY: Vocalist Bijoux (Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe, The Rodney Block Collective) and other actors recreated scenes depicting the vibrancy of historic West Ninth Street for AETN's "Dream Land" documentary.

It can be hard to talk about race in this country without committing the fallacy of assumptive progress. That is, we tend to view our present against a past that includes such horrors as slavery, Jim Crow and lynching, and thus assume vast improvements over the space of historical time. No matter the issues that remain (and there are plenty), the moral arc of the universe, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, may seem to bend toward justice. However, looking a little more closely reveals that this ostensible path upward and onward is the average of both setbacks and victories. If you could live another life earlier along that timeline, you might well see your days on this earth, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, as "the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

The new AETN documentary "Dream Land: Little Rock's West 9th Street" is a searing portrait of where that wave finally broke and rolled back here in Little Rock — namely, the once-thriving black business district along West Ninth. The story begins with the Civil War, when former slaves find safety in what was then the edge of Little Rock. From Reconstruction onward, Ninth Street became the heart of black life in the city — and a well-known scene in the country at large. At one end, there arose the Mosaic Templars of America, a black fraternal organization whose influence was international. At the other end, Taborian Hall, now the last remaining building from the original Ninth Street "line," whose third-floor Dreamland ballroom attracted such well-known acts as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

The filmmakers capture the life of the community through the use of photographs, interviews with such well-known scholars as Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University and Dr. John Graves of Henderson State University and stories told by former patrons and residents of the area, one who even gives a walking tour of the clubs that no longer exist. There is a palpable pride in what the African-American community of Little Rock once had, and sadness mixed with anger at the forces that worked slowly and deliberately to destroy it all.

What happened here is part of a long American tradition of removing successful black communities. In the 1850s, New York City appropriated the Seneca Village neighborhood — most of whose residents (two-thirds of them African American) owned the land on which they lived — to manufacture Central Park. In 1921, white mobs attacked the people and businesses in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, even reportedly dropping bombs from a plane. The forces that destroyed Little Rock's own answer to Harlem may not appear as violent, but they were similarly thorough and deliberate. Urban renewal programs carried out the destruction of "decrepit" buildings, such as those along Ninth Street, and concentrated African Americans away from the city center in places like Granite Mountain. The construction of Interstate 630 during the 1970s and 1980s cut right along West Ninth, erecting a barrier between what remained and other black institutions, like Philander Smith College. And here we see one story of progress destroying another group's memories of real progress, of real community — the high-water mark before the bulldozers came.

"Dream Land" both celebrates what was (especially through some beautiful reenactments of Dreamland ballroom nightlife) and laments its passing. This is not just a Little Rock story — this is an American story, and it's being told again and again in this city's rush toward greater school segregation, combined with an elite craving for more and wider freeways. That better life is not just a dream — it actually happened, once upon a time, and the waking remnants of that dream are still visible in the cracked sidewalks and empty lots along West Ninth Street.

"Dream Land" premiered on AETN on April 6 and will show again at 9 p.m. April 17.

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