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Little Rock’s river heritage powers downtown renewal

By Margaret Dornaus
Published: Jul/Aug 2001

The River Market District is a new entertainment and shopping venue in Little Rock (left)./ Little Rock CVB photo
In 1722, French explorer Benard de La Harpe canoed up the mouth of the Arkansas River, according to legend. He reached a crossing marked by a small cliff outcropping and named it “the little rock.” In a moment of buoyant discovery, de La Harpe had spawned an identity. Little Rock was born.

The fortunes of Arkansas’s capital city have revolved around the river and the travelers it carried to Little Rock’s shores. But the riverfront had fallen on hard, inner-city times. Although the riverfront annually hosts Riverfest, the state’s largest spring festival, it usually was a place savvy tourists knew to avoid.
No more.

Thanks to the vision of city planners and a $300 million plan to revive that area of downtown, Little Rock’s riverfront is springing to life. The town that has always, at heart, been a river town has again taken its river to heart.

To market, to market

Central to the city’s reawakening is the River Market District (an area that flows east from Cumberland Street to Interstate 30 and south of the Arkansas River to Capitol Avenue). Boutiques, specialty shops, restaurants, and pubs line the district’s pedestrian-friendly streets. The Museum of Discovery, meanwhile, offers Little Rock’s modern-day explorers opportunities to conduct scientific experiments, walk through the “Worlds of the Forest” exhibit or create a robot.

The 11,550-square-foot Ottenheimer Market Hall, however, is the district’s masthead. Step inside this renovated warehouse to discover why. More than 16 gourmet food and specialty vendors share quarters here. Tangy barbecue spices, freshly baked breads and richly brewed cups of cappuccino fill the open, airy space with rivaling aromas guaranteed to stir even the most deadened senses into an epicurean frenzy.

Market Hall overflows with local produce–from tomatoes to butter beans–spring through fall.

Building bridges, from past to future

Across the river, Alltel Arena anchors the River Market development. This state-of-the-art, 11-story center for the performing arts also is home to Little Rock’s new East Coast Hockey League team, the Arkansas RiverBlades. Other newer attractions include the Aerospace Education Center’s six-story-high IMAX theater and the newly expanded Arkansas Arts Center that lie just south of the district.

Additional expansions include the Historic Arkansas Museum (formerly known as Arkansas Territorial Restoration), an assortment of early 19th-century buildings, where living history re-enactors bring frontier days on the river to life in an 1827 tavern, Little Rock’s oldest structure. Nearby, the Old State House Museum–site of President Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 election night victory speeches–recently has been restored to its original grandeur. Inside, new exhibits and rotating displays from the museum’s permanent collection of Arkansas artifacts share space with the old state capitol’s 1836 legislative chamber.

Next door to the Old State House is the convention center where trade shows and fairs are held throughout the year. Across the street is The Capital Hotel, which debuted in 1876, and is a AAA Four-Diamond property.

More historic sights and sounds

Little Rock’s riverfront has a renewed vibrancy and hosts several events (above)./ Little Rock CVB photos
Historic Union Station is home to the Children’s Museum of Arkansas, featuring 20 interactive displays. South of the station is Arkansas’s Capitol, which was built over a 16-year stretch from 1899-1915 on the site of the old state penitentiary. Three chandeliers–the largest of which is 12 feet by 14 feet–hang in the 160-foot-high rotunda.

Not far from the Capitol is Little Rock’s Central High School. Site of the infamous 1957 struggle over desegregation, the school is an enduring reminder of the civil rights battles fought there. It is a fully operational school and a national landmark.

Across the street, the Central High Museum and Visitor’s Center (housed in a former Mobil station) details the heroic story of the “Little Rock Nine,” who stood up for a nation when they became the first black students to cross Central High School’s threshold. Provocative news accounts, videos and photographs help relate the story of the crisis.

Walking tours

Circle southeast to the Governor’s Mansion, which was occupied by William Jefferson Clinton and his family (1979–1981 and 1983–1992), a fact commemorated with a bronze bust honoring the state’s most famous native son. Experience this neighborhood’s stately homes with the aid of a walking tour brochure highlighting its historic properties.

Similar brochures are available for the Riverfront district, as well as for the Quapaw Quarter, the oldest section of Little Rock. See examples of Victorian and antebellum architectural styles here, including Villa Marre, a restored Victorian home open for tours.

Complete the circle with a return to the River Market, where fine-dining establishments like Sonny Williams’ Steak Room augment a lively nightlife scene. Or head back west to Cajun’s Wharf for fresh seafood. Snag a table overlooking the river if you can. The night lights along the Arkansas will provide you with a deeper appreciation for why contemporary Little Rockers have–like de La Harpe–come to call the river their own.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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