Archive for May, 2014

The Fragile Five (and the shame of Hot Springs)

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Each year, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas releases its list of the most endangered places in the state.

The alliance began compiling the list in 1999. An announcement is made in May, which is Arkansas Heritage Month and National Preservation Month.

The 2014 list was released during a Thursday morning news conference at the historic White-Baucum House in downtown Little Rock, which is being renovated.

This year’s list is called the Fragile Five. And it probably will come as no surprise to you that the list is dominated by Hot Springs.

Since the massive fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic Hotel in late February, Hot Springs has been in the news. Finally, Arkansans are paying attention to the plight of that city’s downtown.

As I’ve written more than once on this blog in recent months, one of the most iconic stretches of street in the South is the portion of Central Avenue from Grand Avenue north to Park Avenue. For decades, that stretch of street has been in decline.

Because Hot Springs is the leading tourist destination in Arkansas, this is far more than a local issue. The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs must be among this state’s economic development priorities. Those property owners who have refused to develop the upper floors of historic buildings they own should begin to develop them now or put them on the market at a reasonable price to see if there are investors willing to take on the task.

Here are the three listings from Hot Springs and what the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas wrote about each one:

1. Downtown Hot Springs — The Central Avenue Historic District encompasses a wealth of historic buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until recently, city ordinances allowed and even provided incentive for upper stories above Central Avenue storefronts to be left undeveloped by exempting the upper floors from meeting building codes as long as they remain unoccupied.

The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in February dramatized the issues facing legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state. Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.

The recent designation of the Thermal Basin Fire District allows for installation of fire suppression systems per the International Existing Building Code to preserve historic features while meeting modern safety expectations. We hope that the loss of the Majestic Hotel will encourage property owners, developers, city officials, community and state leaders to work together to address the issues of large-scale vacancy and find solutions for reuse and rehabilitation of these important assets for the benefit of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.

2. The Thompson Building in Hot Springs — This building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Central Avenue Historic District. The building, which features an ornate glazed terra cotta façade, was designed in the neoclassical style by architect George R. Mann, the principal architect of the Arkansas Capitol. Like many other structures in the district, the first floor is occupied but the upper stories are vacant.

The Thompson Building is particularly vulnerable to fire due to a vertical shaft that runs through the top four floors, which would inevitably spread fire quickly through the building. Though it is eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, the Thompson Building’s owner has to date not invested in improving or updating the property beyond the first floor.

This architecturally and historically significant building needs to be retrofitted in order to meet recently adopted International Existing Building Codes to protect it from fire and further deterioration.

3. The John Lee Webb house in Hot Springs — The house is a centerpiece of the Pleasant Street Historic District. The house at 403 Pleasant St. was home for three decades to one of the most influential leaders of the African-American community in Hot Springs. Webb served as supreme custodian of the fraternal organization Woodmen of the Union and as president of the National Baptist Laymen’s Convention.

The house was a wood-clad structure, but the red-brick veneer and green tile roof were added in the 1920s by Webb. The dark red brick is characteristic of buildings Webb developed, including the Woodmen of the Union Building on Malvern Avenue, which also is known as the National Baptist Hotel.

The house has been vacant for many years. It’s vulnerable to vandalism and fire in its current state. Limited resources for rehabilitation and its deteriorated condition make the building’s future uncertain. We hope to bring attention to this little-known but important resource and to encourage efforts to preserve this place.

Here are the other two entries on this year’s list and what the alliance had to say about them:

1. The Central High School Neighborhood Historic District in Little Rock — The district is named for the Art Deco school that was called the “most beautiful high school in America” when it was built in 1927. Its historic buildings tell the story of Little Rock’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They bore witness to nationally significant events during the desegregation of Central High School.

While private investment has been made in pockets of the district, decades of disinvestment have led to vacancy, neglect, alterations of character-defining features and demolitions at the hands of the city of Little Rock and private owners. The alterations and demolitions particularly jeopardize the historic district’s designation and property owners’ access to state and federal historic tax credits. Residents hope to bring attention to the historically rich and important area, encourage sensitive rehabilitations and build support for protection of the historic structures and character of this neighborhood.

2. Arkansas mound sites — These sites serve as an important representation of the native people of Arkansas through many different cultures and time periods. They represent the largest material symbols of cultural heritage for native peoples who identify themselves as descendants of those ancient people.

Mounds in Arkansas have been destroyed by looters looking for items to sell, by erosion caused by digging and stream cutting, by the creation of lakes and reservoirs, by residential and industrial development and by people using the soil as a source of fill dirt. The greatest threats are the landscape modifications that go along with irrigation agriculture and associated land leveling. Large-scale industrial development poses another immediate threat in both the Delta and on the periphery of metropolitan areas.

Land owners, developers, native peoples, archaeologists and historic preservation professionals need to work together to preserve those sites that can be saved and to document those targeted for destruction.

___

There you have it. That’s the 2014 list of the most endangered places in Arkansas.

And I believe the most important sentence of all is this: “Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.”

The status quo no longer is acceptable in downtown Hot Springs.

Every tool available to government must now be used to force those property owners to act. What they’ve allowed to occur downtown borders on being a crime. All 3 million Arkansans should be insulted by their continued inaction.

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“Gay Panic in the Ozarks”

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

In 1968, as Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller stepped up his efforts to root out corruption in Arkansas politics, a 32-year-old former FBI agent named Ed Bethune was asked to help remove the symbol of the Old Guard — Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins — from office.

“The director of the Arkansas State Police warned me that we were walking into a hornet’s nest,” Bethune would write years later. “By the time we got to the courthouse, there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal their weapons.”

Bethune vividly remembers how a Morrilton city policeman “jumped out of the shadows and stuck his shotgun in my stomach, saying, ‘Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.’ As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Ed Bethune survived that day.

And Marlin Hawkins remained in office.

That incident from Arkansas’ colorful political past was one of many Bethune wrote about in his 2011 book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.” In it, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas’ 2nd District did more than tell political war stories. The heart of the book is a trip Bethune took with his wife, Lana, in 1990 aboard their 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal. In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

After writing the book, Bethune told me that the sailing trip fundamentally changed him and helped him better understand his life to that point: “I didn’t really set out to write a memoir. I had a number of friends through the years urge me to write a book about that sailing trip. But I wasn’t real eager at first to write about something I considered a failure. We didn’t make it. I later thought about trying to turn it into a novel. What was I doing out in the middle of the ocean in a 31-foot boat anyway? As I thought about my life and the things that motivate me, I suddenly found myself writing about my childhood. As we grow older, I think we all begin thinking more about who we are and how we got to this point in our lives. My hope was that by reading this story, others might be inspired to be more introspective.”

Soon after finishing the memoir, Bethune began outlining his first novel.

“I had no idea when I started writing this novel almost two years ago that its release would come in the midst of an Arkansas firestorm about gay marriage,” he said last week. “I created two mythical counties in north Arkansas as the setting for my story and then developed this fictional proposition: Wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression and other conflicts run deep in the Ozark hill country.”

The book — titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” — begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree.

“The papers, blogs and airwaves are full of hot arguments about gay marriage,” Bethune said. “The culture war is obsessing America, and the noise gets louder every day. My book is not about gay marriage, but it does consider the wide range of cultural changes that have occurred since the 1960s. It digs deep, going beyond superficial political issues to the root causes of prejudice, the ugly force that bedevils humankind.”

Bethune described the protagonist of his novel, Aubrey Hatfield, as a “shamed man who seeks redemption for himself and for his community. ‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ deals with homosexuality, but it also invites the reader to think. … Recently, prejudice caused many Americans to fuss about a dispute about A&E and the program ‘Duck Dynasty.’ A few weeks later, people were arguing about an upcoming Discovery Channel show called ‘Clash of the Ozarks.'”

For the record, Bethune said he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ goes to the heart of the matter, the age-old question of how to deal with the multifaceted problem of cultural adaption,” he said. “How do we find tolerance in the face of deep-seated religious beliefs? How do we conquer the curse of indifference, man’s impulse to maintain his neutrality in the face of great moral crisis? These are just a few of the reasons I believe there will be a good market for this story in 2014, a volatile election year that will produce endless talk about gay rights and the culture war.”

The book was edited by Gene Foreman, an Arkansas native who went on to serve for many years as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’ve always found Bethune to be an interesting man. His parents divorced when he was 8. By his early teenage years, he was a self-described “problem child” who was getting into trouble on a regular basis at Little Rock. Bethune went to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas, a move he says “saved my life.” After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served until 1957, including a stint in South Korea. He met Lana at what was then Little Rock Junior College — now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — after leaving the Marine Corps. He was 23 and she was 21 when they married.

Ed Bethune finished college and law school and then worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Randolph County in 1963-64. He was an FBI agent from 1964-68, serving in Newark, N.J., during the riots in the summer of 1967 that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. After leaving the FBI, Bethune returned to Arkansas and began practicing law at Searcy. He lost to Democratic nominee Jim Guy Tucker in the 1972 race for attorney general but shocked the Arkansas political establishment six years later when he was elected to Congress. Bethune served three terms in the U.S. House and then left Washington following an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor.

Bethune was the chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He and Lana returned to Washington following George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president. Lana became the social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle. Ed became a well-known Washington lawyer and lobbyist, the go-to man for Republicans who found themselves in hot water, men such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The Bethunes returned to Arknsas in 2009.

Bethune includes two quotes at the first of the novel.

One is from Canadian poet Bliss Carmen: “Indifference may not wreck a man’s life at any one turn, but it will destroy him with a kind of dry rot in the long run.”

The other is from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means ‘no difference.’ A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. … Indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive.”

Bethune is a heck of a writer. Just to give you a sample, here’s how the novel begins. The year is 1968: “Aubrey and Prissy finished their picnic and stretched out on a shady spot beside Sycamore Lake, wed to each other and to life in the hills of Arkansas. They listened to the mockingbirds singing their different songs, copycat chords in harmony with the whisper of pine needles and the rustling of leaves. A gentle breeze made a cat’s paw on the still water and then came ashore, a zephyr of cool air. The young couple snuggled and spoke warmly of living an unfussy life in the Ozarks. Their sweet talk added melody to the score. It was music, the music of the hills.

“Their dream, a bond made as childhood sweethearts, was coming true. Prissy would teach kindergarten; Aubrey would run the family hardware store and work part time as the deputy prosecuting attorney for their sleepy little county. Life in the Ozark Mountains, for those who love it, is a magnetic blend of simplicity and hardship, grounded in faith and in an unshakeable belief in the pioneering spirit. It had been good for their parents and grandparents. Surely, it would be good for them.

“Soon the afternoon shadows crept farther out onto the lake, darkening the water, warning of wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars and other human tragedies. Such frailties run deep, and like the scab of a putrid wound, they will from time to time reopen and ooze pus. When that happens, a discordant note seeps into the music. On this September afternoon in 1968, a day made for lovers, Aubrey and Prissy Hatfield heard only what they wanted to hear. This is our home. Life is good.”

The investigation of the gay man’s murder goes nowhere.

Aubrey Hatfield is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more.

Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

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A new owner for That Bookstore

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”

Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.

Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.

In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore. … TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers. As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”

That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.

Broun wrote: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.

That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.

AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.

How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?

She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”

In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.

Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.

“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.'”

Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”

On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.

We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”

It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.

I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.

Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.

“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.

“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”

Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.

“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.

Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.

“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”

Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”

It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.

“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.'”

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