I know very little of the South. Or, I was unaware until my venture into Arkansas – a deeply welcoming and passionate place I never thought would delight and fascinate me as a native northerner. Instead of being met with dusty streets and wary stares, my time spent there was totally opposite – everything is bright, cheerful, green; people love newcomers and I was never left wanting for great food and incredible art.
Right away I look a liking to North Little Rock. With a fierce pride and so many hidden corners to cozy up in along the main street, it’s worth a stroll through for the pleasant weather, cute shops and spots to imbibe. Make a beeline for the Crush Wine Bar- dimly lit on the inside for a hot date or a great area for a girl’s night out in the courtyard out back.
I went beyond North Little Rock and Little Rock (it’s separate!) to explore more of the state. Sure, there are now friendly, trendy cafes and tons of galleries, but underneath in the not-too-distant past is a discomfort or even pain I rarely experience from a tumultuous past of segregation in the 60s. Visiting several Africa-American cultural centers like Mosaic Templars and the famous high school where Little Rock Nine took place put much into perspective about how lucky people are that Arkansas turned out just fine in the end, overall, compared to what it could have been. There’s always issues, as there are everywhere, but I was impressed to see strides taken to honor the hardships those of the past had to endure.
Onward to Bentonville. Yes, this place swirls in a sort of controversy. Much was dreamed up by the Walmart corporation, as the original Waltons stores originated there and have deep roots in the community. No matter how it was funded, this is an incredible gift to locals and travelers alike – and something I’ve never seen before outside a major city.
Seemingly in the woods of Bentonville is Crystal Bridges. You pull up to this giant, spaceship-like venue that sit below in a sort of valley, surrounded by brackish water and tons of trees. The concrete formation looks odd juxtaposed against the natural environment – but once inside, all the bright light and wooden décor feels more complimentary to the greenery.
But the real draw is the artwork.
Leave the whalebone-shaped cafeteria and head left into the galleries. All of these masterpieces on display can be viewed free by the public. See works by Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe and plenty of Norman Rockwell – all of which look slightly out of place in such a modern building, but nevertheless entice everyone to come take a peek within 100 miles or more of this place. Outside, the ground are covered in statues and installations as well, so I quickly got lost and had to be directed back by a grounds-keeper after an hour of walking and admiring the art outdoors.
Being outdoors is a must in Arkansas. After a museum tour, I took a drive to Hot Springs where Garvan Gardens is located – a sanctuary in the wild woods botanically cultivated and protected for guests. Hiking through or taking a golf cart tour are the best ways to explore the park. Curators and a featured artist have transformed the woods into a living and breathing area, full of seasonal blooms and exotic flora. If with kids, pause to hunt for wildlife, like lizards and birds.
I might not be a kid anymore, but I lost my mind at the peacock farm inside the park too, where the giant, vibrant birds roam in cages and free about the grounds. Have you ever heard one up close though? They sound like a murder movie when they squawk, who knew.
Little Rock residents are proud of their heritage and traditions, which even resonates among the new generation of southerners taking root in the city. They want to share everything they know – from cooking incredible food, creating music and everything in between. To consolidate their efforts, trailblazers from Oxford American magazine have recently taken root downtown to open South on Main. This living and breathing art and creative space will act as a home-style restaurant as well as a venue for performers – which will often be aired live on the radio. When I was there it was merely a space, stripped bare of any sort of hint as to what was coming. But they let me know exactly where every seat, stage and detail would go, encompassing a light and spark that will take the area by storm.
To talk more about the plan, owners and chefs brought us to the original Oxford American headquarters to dig into some succulent fried chicken done right, okra, greens, potatoes and other dishes that are a staple in many southern homes. Artists, poets and musicians delighted us with things to come during dinner. You can’t help but drop your shoulders, fall into drawled conversation and make ‘mmm’ sounds between bites of strawberry pie as twangy guitar wafts through the air.
I hear now the space is doing famously and I’m honored to have seen it still in the brick and mortar stage. All the more reason to return real soon!