REX NELSON: Little Rock could learn lessons from city in Oklahoma

Posted: October 7, 2018 at 4:21 a.m.

It's a Thursday night in downtown Little Rock, and the Ron Robinson Theater is almost full. Well-known writer James Fallows is delivering the annual John Netherland Heiskell Distinguished Lecture for the Central Arkansas Library System.

Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for many years, isn't a stranger to Arkansas' capital city. His longtime editor at The Atlantic, Bill Whitworth, is a Hot Springs native and former Arkansas Gazette reporter. After 20 years of editing The Atlantic, Whitworth moved to Little Rock and now edits books. Griffin Smith, the former executive editor of this newspaper, was a speechwriter at the White House with Fallows during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

For five years, Fallows and his wife Deborah traveled the country in a single-engine prop airplane. They visited dozens of towns and talked to hundreds of people. Those travels led to a book titled Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.

James Fallows writes in the introduction to the book: "We began this project with one purpose in mind: We wanted to take a fresh look at the country, its disappointments and its possibilities. We ended up wondering about questions and trends that were different from what we'd expected, and with a story to tell that we could barely have imagined when we were starting out. By the end of the journey, we felt sure of something we had suspected at the beginning: An important part of the face of modern America has slipped from people's view, in a way that makes a big and destructive difference in the country's public and economic life. Despite the economic crises of the preceding decade and the social tensions of which every American is aware, most parts of the United States that we visited have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans realize."

The couple didn't visit Little Rock as part of the research for the book, but there are plenty of lessons from other cities. Our Towns should be required reading for all five candidates for mayor, every member of the Little Rock Board of Directors and business and civic leaders. As I've noted in a series of columns about Little Rock, the entire state should be rooting for Arkansas' largest city to do well. At a time when almost two-thirds of Arkansas is losing population, it's imperative that Little Rock thrive. The booming northwest Arkansas economy can't carry the rest of the state.

Fallows told those attending the lecture that he noticed several common traits in cities that are successful. They included:

• Talented people who have abandoned large cities to come to mid-size cities because of lower expenses and what they perceive to be a better quality of life. He said these people are dedicated to solving problems and making good things happen.

• A brand of politics that works better at the local level than at the national level.

• Strong library systems.

• Creative schools.

Fallows discussed the distorted perspective caused by national media coverage of Washington, where nothing seems to work these days. His comments came on the day that Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford had appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Fallows and his wife found plenty that's working well across America. I couldn't help but look around the beautiful theater as he spoke and think about all that Little Rock has going for it. CALS is one of the finest library systems in the country. Just outside the building is a thriving district of museums, restaurants and parks. It was announced earlier that day that a group of physicians has purchased the former Kmart shopping center on Rodney Parham Road for $12 million and plans to spend another $23 million to develop the 16-acre site. That plan promises to further revitalize a neighborhood that already is home to some of the city's best restaurants.

Though Little Rock has been stagnant in recent years from a population standpoint, there are plenty of positive things upon which a new mayor can build.

Another piece of required reading should be a recent article from City-Lab headlined "The Comeback of the Mid-Sized American City." It was written by former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett with help from Jayson White. The article was adapted from their book The Next American City.

"A major urban migration is under way," Cornett writes. "Since 2000, more than 5.5 million Americans have left just our three largest cities for smaller cities like my own Oklahoma City. Many metros like mine have grown significantly faster than our nation's top 10 metros. Even smaller cities like Boise, Fort Collins, Madison and Fayetteville have grown over 10 percent in a half-decade. Think of it: One in 10 citizens of many cities like these have moved there in just the last few years. How, why and where this is happening are crucial things to understand, especially in these trying political times. When little seems to be going smoothly on the national political stage, it is more pressing than ever to look to the people and places that are getting things done."

Like Arkansas, Oklahoma once had to deal with population decline. Cornett notes that the state was known for "its perpetual loss of so many of its hard-working people and families to the verdant vineyards, vibrant economy and the promise of a better life in California. This is the story John Steinbeck told in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. But in the years since the Great Recession, thousands more people moved from California to Oklahoma City than vice versa. The trend continues year after year, and the new residents are more than welcome. With apologies to Steinbeck, I call it The Wrath of Grapes.

Cornett says Americans are "voting with their feet" as they move to cities that are affordable and allow them to have more balance in their lives. He says: "In an increasingly digital and global economy, talented and ambitious people have a choice. They no longer need to move to one of a few centers of power to pursue their life's work."

Perhaps Little Rock leaders can make the five-hour drive west on Interstate 40 to Oklahoma City to take a tour with Cornett. Just as is the case with Fallows, there are valuable lessons to be learned if we read and listen carefully.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/07/2018