Date: January 4, 2024 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
In the heart of the Capital City, tight-knit communities and an emphasis on walkable living create a slower pace that welcomes all
Long gone are the days of downtowns sitting dormant and forgotten, and Little Rock’s is no exception. One of the earliest efforts to revitalize the district began more than 25 years ago with the opening of the River Market. Since then, initiatives to bring people back downtown have extended slowly south and eastward, jumping what before seemed like the impassable borders of Interstates 30 and 630. People are visiting—and moving to—neighborhoods such as South Main Street and the Quapaw Quarter, Pettaway Park, and East Village in droves thanks to new opportunities and thoughtful planning in the city’s most historic communities.
However, ask anyone who has invested time or resources in redevelopment downtown, and they’ll say it’s not necessarily what’s new that makes the area special; it’s the mix that brings the area charm. “We view SoMa as a very inclusive and historical neighborhood,” says Elizabeth Michael, executive director of SoMa501, the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the South Main Street (SoMa) neighborhood. She points to Community Bakery and Midtown Billiards as examples of businesses that have operated in their current locations since the 1940s—and both are still going strong alongside newcomers to the strip.
For Elizabeth, after growing up in a small town and in a family running a small business, she says moving downtown—where everyone seems to know one another and supports each other’s passions—felt a little like coming home. Mike Orndorff, who has developed much of Pettaway, had similar motivations for moving downtown. Ten years ago, he and his wife were looking for a walkable community in Little Rock to make their home when they found an affordable lot in Pettaway. He built their house, then another, and another, and to date, he’s built more than 70 residential and commercial units in the neighborhood. “My goal is to build homes that naturally cultivate relationships and build community,” he says, describing residences with front porches and low fences. “We create barriers of comfortability and privacy, but generally you’re going to have a harder time hiding from your neighbors around homes I build,” he adds with a laugh. Mike makes a point to build only on empty lots, making his business model naturally more environmentally friendly while also preserving the character of the existing neighborhood.
This idea of honoring the area’s past while setting it up for future success is also prevalent in East Village, the industrial area east of Interstate 30 and south of the Clinton Presidential Center. Here, Cromwell Architects Engineers and Moses Tucker Partners teamed up to turn an old paint factory building into a mixed-use development that includes Cromwell’s headquarters as well as apartments and the recently opened Sterling Market. The Rail Yard is popular for outdoor happy hours, and Yellow Rocket’s well-established Lost Forty Brewing nearby is a staple of the neighborhood.
Currently, the City of Little Rock is in collaboration with the Downtown Little Rock Partnership in creating the area’s first master plan that will hopefully help further connect and improve these neighborhoods. Elizabeth, who lives in the Quapaw Quarter, believes a strong downtown benefits the city as a whole. “When you try to make downtown something that is out of sight and out of mind, you’re kind of turning your back on the heart of your town,” she says. “We’ve got so much history, so much beautiful architecture, and so many beautiful people downtown. The investments in downtown will only make Little Rock as a whole stronger.” Read on for more of our favorite ways to discover downtown Little Rock.
Bella Vita Jewelry (bellavitajewelry.net) specializes in handmade jewelry as well as artisan gifts and homewares. Check their calendar for upcoming workshops and events. One of the flagship tenants in Pettaway Square, Paper Hearts Bookstore (paperheartsbooks.com) is an independent bookshop with a surprisingly large collection despite its small footprint. For antiques lovers, Sweet Home Furnishings & clement (501.296.9198), South Main Creative (southmaincreative.com), and The Punch Bowl (501.412.4183) are each a paradise of imported heirlooms, vintage finds, and one-of-a-kind treasures, all within walking distance of one another in SoMa.
Ten years ago, Lost Forty Brewing (lost40brewing.com) planted its flag in what is now called East Village, offering their house-brewed beers on tap alongside a Southern beer hall menu. Sister restaurant Camp Taco (camptaco.com), two blocks west, serves tacos, beer, and cocktails in a retro-inspired setting. One of the newest additions to SoMa, Bread Cheese Wine—also known as BCW (bcwlittlerock.com)—has a menu focused on elevated grilled cheese sandwiches and a diverse wine list. Polish it all off with a scoop of locally made ice cream from Loblolly Creamery (loblollycreamery.com) across the street.
A longtime a fixture in the downtown scene, the reinvisioned Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (arkmfa.org) reopened in the spring of last year. Temporary exhibit “Whitfield Lovell: Passages” is on view through January 14. For a unique gallery experience, visit Anita Davis’s Esse Purse Museum (essepursemuseum.com) in SoMa and step back in time through stories the handbags, accessories, and essentials on display tell about women’s history in the United States.