Saturday, November 22, 2014

Four towns, four days

Last weekend I had the opportunity to drive south of chilly Iowa, as far as Arkansas, where the leaves were still colorful, but it was also chilly. The impetus was an event at the Clinton Presidential Museum and Library, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The museum is in a new building...

Clinton Museum and Library, Little Rock
...but the neighboring Clinton School of Public Service is in a repurposed building that has been a train depot, shop and a storage facility over the years. The makeover is lovely.
Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock
Here's an interior shot, of the library where they had a reception for us visiting academics Thursday night. There's just something about a historic building..
Library, Clinton School of Public Service
The Clinton campus is located east of downtown, and has spurred some commercial development in the area now known as River Market. An internal report out in advance of the anniversary celebration credited the museum with spurring $2.5 billion in development since its opening (cited in Leslie Newell Peacock, "Ten Years After," Arkansas Times, 13 November 2014, 16).. River Market covers only a few square blocks in a town of less than 200,000 population (metro area is 724,385). But it shows what can be accomplished by focusing attention on a specific area. As Jeff Speck argues in the last chapter of Walkable City, you can't solve every problem at once so you have to choose your projects.

Interstate 30 runs between the museum campus and River Market, leaving a vast empty space on the streets there, but once downtown there are some friendly walkable blocks with attractive museums, restaurants and shops.

Both nights I was there, people were walking around in the evenings despite the chilly air.

If I were reading this post, I would want to know about coffee. Sufficient Grounds Café claims to be the "best coffee house in Little Rock."

It is only open weekdays, but Andina Cafe and Boulevard Bread Company were doing a brisk business Saturday morning, so the area must have sufficient residential population...

...mostly condos, from what I saw.

Other urbanist features included street trees... lanes protected by the on-street parking...

...a riverwalk that included a variety of options (including a "Health Walk" with posters listing symptoms that I'm sure is a favorite among hypochondriacs)...

...streetcars instead of buses...

...and it's worth noting that none of the streets downtown were more than a couple lanes wide.

There were also banners, the inevitable sign of a conscious place branding strategy.

Although I could see from my hotel window where River Market stopped and the parking craters and brutalist architecture began...

...I was impressed with how Little Rock has worked within the specific River Market area. Success here certainly has the potential for success elsewhere in the area.

On my trip I spent time in three other towns. My former, superficial impression of Hannibal was mainly as a tourist trap capitalizing on native son Mark Twain. There was some of that...

OK, there was a lot of that...

...but my main impression this time was impressed at how well they were taking advantage of the Mississippi River.

There was a walk up the bluff to an overlook, and a butterfly garden along the way.

Downtown looked picturesque and inviting, albeit it was 7:00 in the morning in the off-season.

From there I drove to Columbia, site of the University of Missouri's main campus, where my former student Bimal is in a Ph.D. program. We met for coffee at funky Fretboard Coffee in Columbia's North Village area...

...but my general impression of greater campustown was not favorable. Walnut Street on the way to Fretboard was dominated by new, large, blocky apartment buildings that dominate the street. Iowa City, which seems to have caught the construction bug of late, should take note that not all new construction contributes positively to the life of a city.

On the way back to Iowa I stopped in Joplin, Misouri, to see two friends of long-standing, Jeff and Heather Grills. Heather is the owner of Phoenix Fired Art, a gallery with space for classes that is or could be the headquarters of a little arts district on South Main Street.

Much of Joplin is building its way back from a devastating tornado in 2011. It's too early to say if the rebuilding has a vision to it, or if it will be as car-centered as ever.

Interestingly, none of these towns has a high Walk Score. In Little Rock and Hannibal, though, I saw areas that could become the bases for more walkable cities.

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