A not so little Little Rock, Arkansas

Sequester madness is abating a little bit. There will be no furloughs in my agency, at least through the end of the fiscal year. I am not sure exactly how we are really saving any money. At least here within the water community, a lot of it is probably coming from funding fewer stream gauges. This is not a good thing from a science perspective. The fewer bodies of water that you monitor, the less rich your data set is and the chancier it becomes to draw inferences based on the data, like whether flash floods will occur. Doubtless contracts are being canceled or suspended as well, and maintenance is being deferred. Almost all of this is a false saving. If you don’t pay for maintenance, the cost of future maintenance becomes more expensive. But Congress seems to be saying “meh”. They are happy to leave it to some future Congress to act as genuine stewards. As for us employees, who haven’t seen a cost of living increase in three years, no furlough is welcome news. We’ve been pinching our pennies for years while the cost of living has steadily gone up. This direct attack on standard of living was scary, unnerving and pointlessly cruel.

Small cracks are emerging in the general travel prohibition. All it takes is a waiver from senior management. In general they are niggardly in handing them out. For someone like me used to traveling on someone else’s dime, it’s been a surreal six months close to home. Eventually we were granted a travel waiver, so here I am on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas in hundred degree heat which is surprisingly bearable.

We are definitely not living it up. We spend nights at an upscale Holiday Inn. Getting to work means just walking across the grass to our building next door. There we are holed up in a conference room while the heat and humidity steadily builds outside. Lunch is usually at a Jason’s Deli down the road. Dinner of course varies from a nearby steakhouse to a restaurant in downtown Little Rock, where I found myself tonight. It’s a short ride. The heat may be high but after a day in a typically overly air conditioned conference room the heat feels kind of nice.

Little Rock has not lived up to my preconceptions. In a state where the governor gets only $30,000 a year (at least when Bill Clinton was governor) I expected Little Rock to be small, sleepy and prototypically southern. It’s not that way at all. It’s not a huge city but no one would call it small. And it is hardly sleepy. The traffic may not resemble Boston’s traffic but it is brisk during rush hour. In fact, Little Rock is imitating its northern cousin cities. A streetcar goes through the downtown. There is a long river walk along both sides of the Arkansas River. On this summer evening a band was playing in a small amphitheater along the south side of the river. Fans spraying mists of water tried to keep the audience cool. Further down the sidewalk were fountains that children were happily jumping through.

The population seems more than a bit metrosexual, much more trim in general than most cities in the South, with a preponderance of younger and athletic people. The bums smell as bad as bums anywhere, but panhandle more politely and seem oddly disproportionately white. The Arkansas River impresses, not so much for girth but for its swiftly flowing waters, at least today, coursing so quickly it is as if they could not wait to end up in the Gulf of Mexico. In general, despite the June heat Little Rock seems happy and reasonably healthy.

There is no question that it is the center of culture in Arkansas, such as it has. Arkansas is largely a rural state so Little Rock has become its cosmopolitan center. It sports the status symbols of a big city: a reasonably impressive convention center, a four-star Marriott where the porters are lined up in the driveway awaiting guests, a capitol dome (of modest size), restaurants where you can get craft beers and a general dearth of billboards, something rather exceptional for the south which generally turns its nose up at zoning laws.

Little Rock is also greener than I expected. The Ozarks are a short drive to the northwest. There are plentiful and lush trees and no sign of Spanish moss that I could see. The Arkansas River and its many tributaries provide plenty of fresh water. Consequently it feels more like North Carolina than Louisiana. At least in Little Rock the metrosexuals are moving in and everyone seems reasonably productive but chilled.

The Clintons have left a large imprint on the city. Its national airport is named for Bill and Hillary and of course President Clinton chose to leave his presidential library in the city. It’s a good tourist destination and quite impressive, or so I’ve heard. Since it closes at five p.m., I simply have had no time to visit it.

And Little Rock is growing. Out here in its western suburbs a huge new highway interchange is being built. And yet it is small enough where rush hour is bearable and getting to the airport is not a huge hassle. Coffee shops and Barnes & Nobles are easy to find. More upscale restaurant chains there are aplenty, but there are also quality local establishment.

Finding food I am supposed to eat on my crazy diet is a challenge. This is in part because when you are only eating certain vegetables and grilled proteins and you don’t have your own transportation you depend on the charity of others or you walk to dine. The hotel breakfast won’t do, so it is more packaged protein for breakfast instead. My powdered scrambled egg package won’t work as I don’t have a stove, so it is “Crispy Cereal” which is sort of like Rice Krispies, but not. Salads for lunch, another salad or grilled vegetables with dinner, and something grilled and about eight ounces for dinner without much in the way of garnishment. It will be good to be off this diet at some point, so eating off the land becomes less of a hassle and adventure.

Overall Little Rock is probably one of the jewels of the south, worthy of consideration if you like the climate. It was definitely worth the visit. I won’t be living here, but I can see where a true southerner could easily be captured by its modesty and charm.

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