Soul of the city

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Steve Straessle Steve Straessle, whose col­umn ap­pears every other Satur­day, is the prin­ci­pal of Lit­tle Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at

It’s the river. In time-honored tra­di­tion, lo­cals eas­ily find ways to tease it, to make fun of its color or the ugly tug­boats dot­ting every other mile or even its fickle flood­ing. They some­times speak of it as an af­ter­thought be­cause it’s a con­stant; there’s no need to no­tice it. But, lo­cals also know that any river is life and the one bound­ing Lit­tle Rock is sym­bolic of the rush of his­tory and pros­per­ity of the city.

Last month, USA To­day pub­lished an ar­ti­cle nam­ing Lit­tle Rock one of the worst places to live in Amer­ica. No think­ing man or woman gives much cre­dence to such lists be­cause the rubric is dumbed down to one di­men­sion.

Rank­ing any hu­man com­mu­nity based solely on data rel­e­gates that com­mu­nity to sci­ence when we un­der­stand that a large por­tion of any place is more art than statis­tic. Cer­tainly, data is im­por­tant: crime rates, un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures, strength of schools and more. But all of these fac­tors can be whit­tled down to a sim­ple lyric ex­plain­ing the feel of a com­mu­nity.


Yes, Lit­tle Rock has chal­lenges that seem far too com­mon for mid­size cities in Amer­ica. It has crime, it has stag­nant cor­ners that need fix­ing, it has ten­sion that bub­bles un­der­neath the sur­face. Lo­cals read about abuses to the hu­man spirit within its borders and in­sist some­thing must be done.

If you live in Lit­tle Rock, you have a lit­tle river wa­ter in your veins and the city’s chal­lenges course through each of us, touch­ing each like cap­il­lar­ies. That’s why the city pulls to­gether to grow, to thrive. Our hu­man­ity pre­vents per­fec­tion. Our bet­ter an­gels keep us mov­ing for­ward nonethe­less.

In some phases of my life, I walked sleep­ily through my re­la­tion­ship with Lit­tle Rock, never look­ing up to no­tice the beauty and grandeur of liv­ing in a mid­size South­ern city. Other times, I em­braced Lit­tle Rock fully and yearned for it to reach its un­der­stated po­ten­tial.

Lit­tle Rock is home to grow­ing busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties, with some com­pa­nies act­ing as decades-old an­chors dredg­ing deep in its past and oth­ers as star­tups high­light­ing the city’s fu­ture. Lit­tle Rock main­tains a highly ac­tive out­door life with the River Trail, thou­sands of acres of green space, and ac­cess to every ac­tiv­ity imag­in­able. Each neigh­bor­hood within its bound­aries rev­els in iden­tity, and flour­ishes when its strength of char­ac­ter is heard.

The feel of Lit­tle Rock is ev­i­denced here. It’s South­ern. It’s West­ern. It’s the mid­dle child of Amer­ica.

But, at its core, Lit­tle Rock is a river town that vi­brates with the pulse of wa­ter rush­ing through it. It’s a city of life and pros­per­ity. It’s a city that beats it­self up when crime sta­tis­tics go too high or when schools are val­ued too low or when self-seg­re­ga­tion hap­pens and we won­der why. It’s a city that tries again, that digs deep and taps into that won­der­ful vol­ume of tal­ent and good­ness and brings forth suc­cess like gold from a stream.

It’s a city where fam­i­lies flour­ish, and the fu­ture holds a so­lar bright­ness.

Lit­tle Rock is home to brew­eries and base­ball. It re­ver­ber­ates with train horns and pri­mates call­ing from the zoo. It’s a uni­ver­sity town, a farm­ers mar­ket, the seat of gov­ern­ment. Lit­tle Rock is big enough for op­por­tu­nity and small enough for lazy con­ver­sa­tions on front porches. USA To­day, fo­cus­ing on data, missed the en­vi­ron­ment, missed the feel.

Lit­tle Rock is much more than just the right size or the right dose of coun­try ver­sus city. It’s more than just a cli­mate vis­ited by all four sea­sons or the easy ac­cess to every point on its small map. In­stead, it’s the river.

It’s the close­ness of a small South­ern town blended with the op­por­tu­nity of a big city all bounded by wa­ter. The river—teem­ing with mud-cats the size of kayaks, scream­ing river gulls, and thou­sands of tur­tles bob­bing in the sun­light—is sym­bolic of life to Lit­tle Rock.

The river is a wa­tery monastery, a hum of med­i­ta­tion and fresh­ness. Lo­cals are trans­fixed by the un­seen life be­neath the wa­ters and ap­pre­ci­ate the quiet force that comes from wa­ter mov­ing so ef­fort­lessly down­stream. At its essence, the city vi­brates with the en­ergy of the puls­ing wa­ter that pushes through it.

This is the quiet en­ergy that Lit­tle Rock pos­sesses. It is the pull to some­thing greater.

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