During our second full week in Little Rock there was time to visit some of its attractions, particularly in the Downtown area.
One attraction that is not there, and as is all too typical of big cities in the US, is the retail heart. It is no longer a place of grand shops and interesting boutiques. The stores have all moved out to suburban shopping malls or, in some cases, to shopping complexes outside the city altogether. This makes for a rather quiet city centre but a place that comes to life in the evening. There are a number of prestigious hotels, many eating places and bars. The riverside provides an outdoor space for music and other entertainment. And it is worth noting that the City Council has made sure that there are not acres of derelict land. New office blocks have risen from the retail ashes. Altogether the impression is of a vibrant city.
The name that everyone associates with Little Rock is Bill Clinton, or to give him his full name, William Jefferson Clinton. He was elected Governor of the State of Arkansas in 1978 at the age of 32, very young for such a heavy job. Although he was in part successful he made too many political mistakes and lost office in 1980 after only two years. But this was not the end of his career. In 1982 he regained the Governorship and stayed in office for 10 years passing important economic and education legislation that moved Arkansas high up the league in comparison with other States. He only resigned in 1992 to fight successfully the Presidential election.
The Clinton name appears everywhere around the city. Most impressive is the Clinton Presidential Center, a massive glass structure at the end of a long street from the city centre and also named after him. The center is divided into two main areas, the Presidential Library and the complete history of his life’s work as President. The history is presented in the form of a time line highlighting the issues of the day and the impact Clinton had. It is, of course, told in a positive light, but doesn’t shrink from presenting the awkward bits such as the impeachment trial. It provides an excellent history of his time in office and the way the United States and the rest of the world changed during those years. We spent about two hours there but there is so much detail that we didn’t have time to explore. We will go back.
On another day we visited the State Capitol building. From the outside it looks not unlike the Capitol in Washington DC. Later we discovered that it has been used in many films as a “double”. Getting into the building involved a security screening, as we had expected, but it was conducted by a friendly guard in a simple but effective way. Once inside there was no obvious security whatsoever. Of course, there were locked offices but you could walk into the entrances to the chambers of the Senate and the House without any hindrance. If only we could do that in the House of Commons and the House of Lords in London.
Decorating the walls throughout the building were group photographs of the Senate and the House year by year. It was most obvious that until very recently the people’s representatives and senators were nearly all white males. Only the more recent photographs showed some women and black members.
In the main gallery under the rotunda are the portraits of significant State Governors. Amongst them was, of course, the ever present Bill Clinton. The portrait was painted when he first took office and he looks no more than a college student. Very young looking, even for a man of 32 years. When he lost office in 1980 he described himself as the youngest American former Governor.
Again we could have stayed a lot longer but it was closing time and anyway the grandchildren had really seen enough.
Other places we visited included :-
- The Art Museum with its collection of French impressionist art by Paul Signac, a travelling exhibition of works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough from Kenwood House in London and a photographic exhibition by the American photographer Gordon Watkinson comparing Bauhaus architecture of the 1920’s and 30’s with modern examples from the early 21st century.
- The Museum of Discovery designed to introduce young people into science with lots of hands-on exhibits and a major section explaining how the human body works in language that a child could understand.
- The Street Car (tramcar) which is really run for tourists and takes a circular route around the city including a crossing over the river to North Little Rock.
And one final note, everything is done by car – the American Way – and parking meters in the city centre can be legally fed.
All in all a great few days. Little Rock, we will be back.