There's one spot on the grounds of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock where visitors are surrounded by 19th-century buildings with actors explaining the local history of slavery in first person.
From that same point, towering over an ivy-covered fence is a gleaming, new condominium.
From the state Capitol east along the southern bank of the Arkansas River to the Clinton National Library, downtown Little Rock is framed by politics and history. In the last decade, however, things sped up, and locals are touting a renaissance in the core of their city.
“If people haven't been here in the past 10 years, they have no idea. They wouldn't recognize it anymore,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of Downtown Little Rock Partnership.
A streetcar runs down the middle of President Clinton Avenue, stopping just a few blocks from the Clinton Library before turning north to complete its route, circling part of the River Market district.
River Market was the first area to undergo a transformation, Priest said. Its centerpiece is Ottenheimer Market Hall, a bustling indoor collection of independent booths with different international foods and outdoor pavilions for a farmers' market.
The hall is surrounded by a host of bars and restaurants that go well with beer. A few specialty stores are mixed in, and most of the city's condos are within walking distance.
Out the back door of the hall is an urban park couched on the riverbank with an amphitheater and a collection of public art. A multiuse trail runs along both sides of the river, with two imposing rail bridges converted for pedestrians downtown and a two more crossings about seven miles upstream.
The convention center with an attached hotel sits on one end of the district — with the Clinton Library at the other. Priest said shortly after the market hall and a branch of the local library system had moved into the then-mostly vacant neighborhood, rumors began spreading about presidential plans.
“People started opening some restaurants and some retail. Things just started to take off,” she said.
James “Skip” Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, had a prime view of the changes when he coordinated the planning and construction of the presidential library. Between 1997 and 2001 he led a “public-private partnership” between the library and the city.
“It was a labor of love because it really set in motion the transformation of downtown Little Rock,” Rutherford said.
As plans for the library came together, he worked with developers to attract hotels with different pricing levels downtown, and he met with city planners as they designed the riverfront park. From the beginning, the library was part of a vision for a new and newly visited neighborhood.
“I just say Chicago has its magnificent mile, and we have our magnificent six blocks,” he said.
The library itself is a massive, aluminum-plated structure that juts toward the river like the end of a bridge. Inside, exhibits rotate, but there is a permanent, painstakingly detailed recreation of the Oval Office from Clinton's two terms.
Next door, the international headquarters for Heifer International features an exhibit about the nonprofit.
The Clinton School, which is located on the same grounds, hosts a lecture series that is always open to the public and any travelers who are looking for something to do, Rutherford said. The day before, he was interviewed the speaker was Sanjay Gupta.
Not everything along the river is new. The Old State House Museum offers a free trip through the history of Arkansas in, as the name suggests, the state's original legislative chambers. Bill Clinton's tennis shoes from 1992 and a collection of inaugural dresses from state first ladies are on display there. The current capitol is further up the street.
South from the convention center and bordering Little Rock's business district is one of the biggest redevelopment projects in town.
Although it only has about half the population of Oklahoma City, which still makes it the biggest city in the state, Little Rock went through the same suburbanization. As people moved out, Main Street's rows of old-style department stores were shuttered and nothing took their place.
“With some exceptions, it was one of the most underdeveloped, underused parts of the city,” Rutherford said.
Priest's organization, the Downtown Partnership, formed a committee of about 90 volunteers a few years ago to find uses for the neighborhood. Shortly after that, they held the first food truck festival.
The street was still pretty empty that first year, but on the second year there was construction fencing, Priest said. Now, every Friday for about six months in the year, food trucks line the street and a neighborhood that was once abandoned comes to life.
One half-block on Main Street will soon be home to the Arkansas symphony, ballet and repertory theater. All three organizations have signed letters of intent to move their rehearsal spaces to the “creative corridor,” she said. Residential lofts also have recently opened in the neighborhood.
Two key elements in rejuvenating Main Street are tax credits for historic buildings and a clear vision, she said. Each time a new developer bought property, it inspired another developer to jump in. Now there is only one large vacant building left.
“If you have a plan and people start seeing things happening, it makes all the difference in the world,” she said.
Across the interstate, Southside Main Street, or SoMa, is the neighborhood to visit for an organic blend of art, food and unique attractions.
The Community Bakery has been a local destination for years, but in the past it also was a boundary. From downtown people would go to the bakery, but there wasn't much reason to go further south than that, artist and developer Anita Davis said.
When Davis bought a mixed-use apartment building there in 2004, SoMa had almost no pedestrian traffic. She saw potential for a walkable, historic district, and she started going to conventions on development.
By 2007, she had purchased a couple more buildings, and she installed the Bernice Garden, an abandoned lot that now hosts landscaping and sculptures by local artists.
“It took all I could do to keep my mind on what I was trying to accomplish,” Davis said.
New businesses moved in. The Root Cafe is a popular destination for locally-farmed foods. The Boulevard Bakery across the street offers breads. In that same building, the Green Corner Store has a soda fountain and environmentally friendly products.
The neighborhood keeps a full slate of events, too. There's a farmers' market every Sunday, a vintage market every other Saturday and a food truck festival every other Friday. Events have been the key to keeping the sidewalks full, Davis said.
SoMa is still growing and two of the unique attractions in Little Rock are in soft openings there.
The Esse Purse Museum at 510 S Main, houses Davis's collection of more than 200 purses. It's a permanent version of an exhibit that's been on tour over the past few years. Davis said she knows of only two other museums exclusively about purses in the world.
Esse is focused on history, including displays of what women carried in their purses in different eras.
“We revamped the traveling exhibit to hold a lot more purses and to tell the story of 20th century women,” she said.
The other new attraction is the headquarters for “The Oxford American,” a southern general interest magazine. Recently the publication opened its new office in SoMa, but they have bigger plans than that. The space next door has been converted into a restaurant and performance space, and it is now open on a limited basis.
“The whole concept of this space is sort of the magazine coming from the page to the stage,” program director Ryan Harris said.
Chef Matthew Bell will serve Southern-inspired dishes in the restaurant, while local and regional acts perform for free almost every night. Harris said they are planning to host some major ticketed shows, the first of which will be Iris Dement on Aug. 24.
The stage will host musicians, authors, filmmakers and special events once it gets going, he said.
“We want to make the space an outlet for the creative community in Arkansas,” he said.
SoMa isn't far from Little Rock Central High School, now a National Historic Site that preserves the story of segregation. Davis said it also reminds her of the attitudes that drove people away from the city's historic districts years ago. Little Rock's old neighborhoods have struggled, but now she sees them building back up.
“It's nice to have revitalization, finally,” she said.