Tuesday, May 15, 2018
EL DORADO--I tend to be privately pessimistic about most civic projects designed to revitalize and renew our towns and cities. I always hope they work, but the smart play is always to short the aspirations of boosters and visionaries. For nature tends toward entropy, into perfect internal disorder. Whatever we stack up will eventually fall down. It takes a lot of energy to maintain our illusions.
In the longest run, it's a futile enterprise, like trying to redirect the Mississippi River. You can do a little, maybe more than a little, with some paint and bond money, but eventually gravity overcomes human ingenuity and endeavor. Our engineering is crude compared to cosmic design, our lives are brief: "Look on my Works, ye mighty, and despair."
But in the long run, we're all dead anyway. And while there seems to be a natural life span for everything humans invent, sometimes things work out for a time. I was skeptical about Little Rock's River Market District ever becoming much more than a milling ground for a few determined hipsters. I thought Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art might end up a despository for patriotic kitsch, that at best it would be a nice addition to our array of cultural amenities. I never credited its chances of becoming one of the world's best testaments to the final worthiness of our kind.
I was skeptical about what's happening here too until I saw it. But this is good. In this moment there's an energy crackling through what's called the Murphy Arts District, which consists of few square blocks in El Dorado's old downtown.
There's an outdoor amphitheater where 8,000 people turned out to see Brad Paisley last September and where Hank Williams Jr. may draw an even bigger crowd June 1. There's a renovated municipal auditorium, home to the newly installed Boomtown Opry, a monthly Branson-style variety show that harks back to Shreveport's old Louisiana Hayride (where Elvis Presley and Hank Williams honed their craft) as well as Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry.
There's a fine little dive bar called the Mink Eye, that comes with a legend that sinks deep into Arkansas mythology, involving politics, feuding families and a shootout on the town square.
There's Griffin Music Hall, where along with 2,000 others we saw Richard Thompson open for Jason Isbell and his band. It's attached to Griffin Restaurant and Cabaret (which would seem to be an excellent venue for the same sort of acts who play Little Rock's South on Main or White Water Tavern).
The Griffin complex is housed in a remarkable building that served as an automobile dealership and service facility from the time it was built in 1928 until Griffin Auto Company moved out in 1960. It's built of reinforced concrete, with a barrel vault roof covering what used to be the service department and is now the performance hall. The front of the building, originally a filling station and showroom, includes a glazed terra cotta arcade that wraps around two sides with white terra cotta corniches interrupting bands of brick Corinthian columns now fitted with smoked glass. Originally a utilitarian structure, it now presents as a handsome and modern multi-use performance space. Somehow--perhaps in part due to the gently curved roof--they're able to get immaculate sound.
We had dinner there during the show, thanks to our hosts Richard and Vertis Mason, who are central figures in the ongoing renovation of their city (Richard is also a columnist for the Democrat-Gazette), and based on our small sample we can concur with the general opinion that Griffin is among the best restaurants in the state.
While there's been a lot of talk--and more than a few published words--about Murphy Arts District over the past couple of years, it's difficult to envision exactly how thoroughly the project seems to have invigorated downtown El Dorado without seeing it for yourself. While the city has its problems and its poverty--and there may well be intramural tensions that derive from erecting an entertainment district for tourists in southern Arkansas--as Phase One of the Murphy Arts District master plan draws to a close it seems the only appropriate response for a visitor is "whoa."
(Phase Two will involve a $30 million renovation of the 1920s-era 850-seat Rialto movie theater and the opening of a 10,000-square-foot art gallery that may enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Crystal Bridges.)
In retrospect, the hiring of Terry Stewart, the former CEO and president of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and former House of Blues executive Dan Smith to head El Dorado's efforts to re-invent itself as an entertainment destination doesn't seem like folly. It seems intelligent.
There's a certain logic to the pitch. El Dorado's location makes it reasonably accessible to a lot of people. It can draw from Memphis, New Orleans, Shreveport, Little Rock and all the smaller cities and towns in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee. People drive to Branson. El Dorado is a surprisingly easy drive from Little Rock now.
We plan on going back often. We make several trips to Bentonville each year. El Dorado is closer.
If we lived in a different sort of political environment, we'd be having a serious conversation about a proposal Mason made in one of his columns last month: round-trip rail service from Little Rock to El Dorado with stops in Sheridan, Fordyce, and Hampton. What he called the Boogie Train.
I'd like to go further and see an intrastate rail line running from Bentonville to El Dorado, a high-speed express, more a utilitarian people mover than Mason's whimsical party line. But based on how much of Mason's dream has already been actualized, his plan is more likely to find some sort of real world purchase.
And I'll have to find something else to be cynical about.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 05/15/2018
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