Living in the core of downtown Little Rock is the ultimate reverse commute. I’m here when few others are. And while thousands are spending their 8-to-5 Mondays through Fridays downtown, I’m gone. The masses and I pass on our ways in and out, but as they head to Chenal or Bryant or Cabot or Maumelle or wherever, I feel a little sorry for them. I’ve lived in Bryant. I’ve lived in Maumelle. But I much prefer living in downtown Little Rock.
Kidless, petless, with no longing for planting daffodils, mulching shrubs or stringing Christmas lights on eaves, my wife and I live in a thoroughly modern, affordable 1,660-square-foot condo on the seventh floor of Lafayette Square, the refurbished Lafayette Hotel at Sixth and Louisiana streets. Our living room, dining room and master bathroom windows overlook the Cathedral of St. Andrew, the oldest place of continuing worship in Little Rock. It is a beautiful church; we gaze at the glow of its stained glass windows; we hear its bells; we see its parishioners come and go.
Our bedroom and office overlook the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. We can also see Acxiom’s headquarters and three much-higher-dollar mixed-use condo towers: River Market Tower, 300 Third and the Capital Commerce Center. Ours is one of the few “urban” views available in Arkansas.
And we love “urban.” I am fortunate to have a sister and brother-in-law with homes in Paris and New York, two of the world’s greatest cities — and even more fortunate that they open their doors for us when we find the time and money to visit. It’s exhilarating to walk out the doors of their buildings and immediately be caught up in the vibrant hustle/bustle of Parisians and New Yorkers going about their business. And it’s liberating to spend time in cities where feet are one of the primary modes of transportation.
Little Rock doesn’t feel much like New York or Paris when we pass through the restored, ornate, circa 1925 Lafayette lobby and out the door for our 6 a.m. weekday walks. But we’ve come to know and appreciate the city-waking-up activities along Capitol Avenue. As we head west along Arkansas’s grandest avenue we see the state van zip by on its way to pick up commuters; CAT buses full of workers headed to jobs performing the various services a white-collar downtown work force requires; and the food service truck driver unloading cases of goods at Rx Catering, whose employees we see preparing their customers’ meals. We climb the steps to the state Capitol, touch the shiny brass doorknobs and pause briefly, gazing east at the sunrise’s warm glow. It is often a magnificent view.
On weekend mornings, we often walk down Louisiana Street, hang a right on East Markham, greet the Capital Hotel doorman, look in longingly on the fabulous fare Ashley’s breakfasters are enjoying and watch the crew clean the River Market sidewalks littered with evidence of last night’s crowds. We head over the new Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, pause long enough to enjoy Little Rock’s only bridge-free view downriver, often with the sun’s shimmery reflection in the Arkansas River, walk on into North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park and head west along the North Shore river walk. Other times we’ll walk to MacArthur Park and stroll along its trails or throw a baseball back and forth in the grand lawn along Ninth Street. We try not to miss an exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center.
We walk and we walk: to the River Market area for food, drinks, concerts and general revelry; out the Lafayette’s side door and a half-block to the Rep, happy first-time season ticket holders; half a block for the cheap Wednesday wine tastings at Lulav; half a block further for sandwiches and a cold draft beer at EJ’s; three blocks to Ciao, one of the city’s friendliest, best, least heralded restaurants; today we’ll walk a block and a half to catch the final show in the Community Theater of Little Rock’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Public Theatre.
There are some places we can’t walk — like the grocery store. But how many Little Rockers can do that? Thanks to the Edwards Food Giant people, there’s now a decent grocery store at 17th and Main streets, but for specialty items perpetually on our grocery list, we head to Kroger a few miles away.
The No. 1 question we get about living downtown makes us laugh: “Do you feel safe?” Well, we don’t lock our door very often if that tells you anything. That’s because the Lafayette requires a code to enter the building after work hours, and the only people who can get to our floor are those who know our floor-specific elevator code.
As for the great dark outdoors, Sixth and Louisiana is actually a peaceful place at night. About once or twice a month we’re approached by a person asking for money — some homeless, some not, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. And there are often throngs of young people on the lot across from the Lafayette awaiting a show at Downtown Music around the corner.
But usually there aren’t many people moving around; therefore, a bad guy out to rob or assault someone would have to hang around a pretty long time hoping for someone to happen past. Most crimes happen where there are more potential victims to choose from. Crime can and does happen everywhere — as other neighborhoods are well aware — and I hope I haven’t just jinxed us. But no, we are not afraid.
I’m proud of what downtown Little Rock has become, and I’ve got perspective. Almost 50 years ago my father used to bring me to work with him on Saturday mornings during a CPA’s “busy season” — January through mid-April. I realize now it was because my mom needed a break from a rambunctious young boy she’d been riding herd over all week, but back then it just seemed like an adventure. I’d tear all over the Pyramid Building looking in office after unlocked office for the red air conditioner that didn’t exist, a crafty ploy by my dad, who had plenty of adding machine keys to push.
By the time I was 12, my parents were willing to let my friends and me roam all downtown on summer days. My dad’s friends at Spaulding Sporting Goods would let us in their upstairs warehouse to pore through football helmets, jerseys, baseball gloves and cleats for hours. Then we’d stroll over to Minute Man for a No. 2 and fries before scalding our mouths on a “radar range” pie. The afternoon matinee at one of the three — THREE! — downtown movie theaters let out just in time to ride home to Bryant with Dad.
My first apartment after college was at the corner of Eighth and Rock streets, across from what then was called the Terry Mansion and one short block from a liquor store. The apartment building’s owner had fallen ill in the middle of his renovation work, so the exterior was just plywood, giving the “Plywood Party Pad” its nickname my friends always used. My Tri-P one-bedroom unit was $165, all utilities paid — I tacked on an extra $20 during summertime months since the owner let me put in a window unit AC. It was an easy morning walk to my desk at the Arkansas Gazette.
Later I teamed with a college buddy to rent a much nicer unit above a six-car garage on Seventh Street between Rock and Cumberland. After our door was kicked in and several of our more portable possessions were stolen, a friend’s mother rented us a house in Park Hill. The Tri-P had been burglarized twice as well, so we thought it was time to flee downtown Little Rock. The irony is that a loser kleptomaniac friend from high school had been the burglar all three times.
Several years after the Gazette closed, I worked downtown again — at this very newspaper just as the River Market was being birthed, and later in the stunning 12-story Acxiom building, the largest new development downtown since the TCBY Tower in 1986. I was proud my company started a trend that continues, as our bedroom/office window view clearly attests.
Now downtown rejuvenation is getting closer to us. Porter’s Jazz Cafe has breathed some new life into Main Street, and the apartments above it are in mid-construction flight.
Just a few floors below us in the Lafayette are the offices of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, a sort of mini chamber of commerce for downtown merchants and residents, and an organization on whose board of directors I served while working at Acxiom.
Sharon Priest and her team at the Partnership spend their work weeks doing on a broad scale what I do in one-off conversations with friends and colleagues: evangelizing about the enriching, fulfilling experience of living in the core of Arkansas’s most vibrant, eclectic city.