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SoMa peeks over the hump 

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.

The Pettaway Park neighborhood, an older African-American community east of Main and north of Roosevelt that had been a center of gang activity in the 1990s, has shown clear signs of stabilizing, aided by the building of new, affordable homes by the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corporation.

After years of design battles with the various regulatory bodies that oversee the area's architecture, a new pharmacy — almost as crucial as a grocery store to a healthy neighborhood — arrived when USA Drug built an excellent new store just to the north of Food Giant.

Just as importantly, Anita Davis began investing in the 1400 block of Main Street, creating the gorgeous and funky Bernice Garden on the corner of Main and Daisy Gatson Bates streets and the commercial spaces along the block, including the Green Store with its cool recycled gadgets and goods and the newest outpost of Boulevard Bread, whose arrival was a crucial psychological boost for the neighborhood. A Saturday morning at Boulevard is now a meeting space for neighbors to connect with each other about happenings in the Quapaw. Across the street, the innovative Root Cafe creates another stellar lunch option in the neighborhood and shows promise to become an outstanding dinner option in the coming months. All told, that block has some of the same feel as Austin's hippie chic South Congress area.

The inaugural November 2011 Cornbread Festival, sponsored by the Bernice Garden, exemplified the spirit of the neighborhood. The first annual event was a success in the traditional sense, outpacing expectations in terms of the sheer number of attendees. But, the event was more remarkable in its generational and racial diversity; indeed, it is perhaps the most diverse social event I've attended in Little Rock in recent years. In a racially divided city, such signs of line-crossing should be celebrated, and a neighborhood where that can happen represents the best hope for eroding the deep divisions that mark our community. As the Quapaw Quarter Association's recently completed community branding project states, "Named to honor those who once lived here, we celebrate a unique diversity that creates history every day."

The other public space in Little Rock in which such diversity shows itself regularly is Community Bakery, the combination of old-style bakery and cafe that has served as an anchor for the neighborhood in good times and bad. Long-time owner Joe Fox, who moved the bakery to the corner space in the mid-1990s and created the cafe, a daily gathering place for lawyers, politicians, retirees and students of all races, is dedicated to employing neighborhood residents who often find it difficult to locate jobs.

A block away sits the recently abandoned Juanita's restaurant and music space. The neighborhood worried as rumors spread of nightclubs and other less desirable tenants for the large building. Instead, news that Oxford American magazine would relocate its administrative offices (and, in the years ahead, possibly much more) to the space only accelerated energy in the neighborhood. More than just one of the nation's most extraordinary magazines, but also a brand dedicated to promoting Southern culture in all forms under the leadership of publisher Warwick Sabin, the Oxford American's move significantly enhances the neghborhood's building momentum.

At a time when more and more Americans are looking for urban spaces in which to create more sustainable lives, SoMa shows promise to become the magnet for urban living in Central Arkansas. Starting in the 1960s, a generation of folks came to the Quapaw to save the gorgeous variety of residential structures threatened by destruction through indifference. Their good works — in the form of renovated American Foursquares, Victorian cottages, and mansions with Italian Renaissance touches — remain as a testament to their care. But, the homes themselves are now populated by a combination of those urban pioneers of the past and a new generation (many with children in strollers) who have arrived to care for the homes. The attendees of the monthly Quapaw Quarter Home and Garden Club dinners (where gardening is never on the agenda) are now a mix of those who have lived in the area for decades and new arrivals with the same dedication to preserving the fabric of the neighborhood. New faces moving into old homes is a sign of success in Quapaw.

Despite this progress, obvious voids show themselves in the commercial life of the neighborhood. The departure of Juanita's leaves the neighborhood without a dinner option after Community Bakery closes at 8 p.m. Three or four dinner venues are crucial so that residents don't have to drive anytime they want to eat out. There's no bank (and, indeed, no ATM) available to residents. And, while the E-Z Mart and Food Giant have surprisingly good beer selections, there's not a place to buy a nice bottle of wine for miles.

For SoMa to finally get over the hump and become the vibrant space that many have long thought it could be, it will have to continue to grow itself (in dramatic contrast with Argenta, its closest parallel). There are no signs that major outside investments will swoop in to do wholesale renovations of blocks of South Main Street, city government is at best indifferent to the area's interests, and the perception that the area is "unsafe" remains the basis of realtors' avoidance of the area with prospective buyers. Despite these obstacles, SoMa may gradually — and finally — be creating the space from which a gritty, diverse version of Little Rock's urban core can be reborn.

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