It's cool to be Clinton's home town

American Times LITTLE ROCK
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time, only five years ago, when no one would have dreamt of combining "cool" and Little Rock in the same sentence, except to describe the weather. Now Little Rock, the capital of Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas, is at risk of becoming of decidedly "cool" - that blanket term of approval over-used by young Americans - even in the sultry warmth of a southern autumn.

It is, as Max Brantley, editor at the slightly "alternative" Arkansas Times, admits, "a city without extremes", maybe a touch bland. It combines a bit of everything, the North, the South, and the Mid-West, and a classlessness that brings snappily dressed politicos and their girlfriends to the same self-service cafes and the same barbecue stands as the bricklayers restoring the Old State House. The Old State House, lauded as one of the most beautiful antebellum buildings of the South, was the landmark chosen for the announcement of Mr Clinton's two runs for the presidency.

And therein lies one secret of Little Rock's revival. Mr Clinton, who served three terms as governor of Arkansas, has brought outside interest, tourists and a flourishing industry in memorabilia.

The planned Clinton memorial library is hailed as the most lasting attraction. The site, beside three dual carriageways, two bridges, and a redevelopment area, coupled with the library's likely modernistic design, has surprised some in Little Rock who would have preferred a conservative and peaceful campus setting. But it was the Clintons' choice, and reflects a New Democrats-New Arkansas boldness that may be a factor in the city's upturn.

"Sure," says John Gill, a lawyer, when asked whether the city is really looking up. "There's been a revival since Clinton became President. And the President beginning from here is part of it, but it's not all."

But can Little Rock, a backwater named after the first rocky outcrop in the Arkansas river encountered by northbound travellers, really be looking up? "Little Rock is a coming place in an area that has developed in pace with the country, but not with the excessive bursts of activity elsewhere," says Mr Gill.

"Times are good in Little Rock," exudes the daily Arkansas Democrat Gazette, advocating the re-election of the current mayor. "Arkansas is experiencing a poetic awakening, a virtual renaissance," says the culture supplement.

Little Rock has a growing market for the finer things of life, starting with food with a Southern flair to wine that is not just home-grown. That trend will strengthen next month, when the city is linked by motorway with the resorts of the Ozark mountains.

When its time comes, Little Rock will be ready. The older residential parts of town have a new lease of life. There is scarcely a street you drive down without seeing piles of bricks and planks being moved and hearing saws and hammers at work.

The city centre is also livening up. For years, the very idea of "downtown" Little Rock was a contradiction in terms. Sixties "urban renewal" has left pockets of turn-of-the-century buildings marooned in acres of car parks, where promised construction failed to materialise. You can drive around town at 9pm on a Saturday night through what appears to be an urban desert. Two hours later, though, the cars are bumper to bumper; people are pouring out of the Robinson Center and grand hotel restaurants, and they are not going home just yet.

Mr Brantley has doubts. Of the River Market project, a restored trading hall surrounded by warehouses converted into shops, cafes and flats, he says: "So far, it's still just public money. The real test is if private investors start coming in. So far, nothing's worked."

But then he muses: "I went down there last Sunday night. They had a `bierfest', and there were so many people down there having a good time, I couldn't believe it. Where had all these young people come from? I didn't know there were any in Little Rock. That was when I thought: `Well, maybe'."

Mary Dejevsky