Twenty Years in River Market Keeps Rollin' on the River
Asked to describe downtown Little Rock's pre-River Market era, real estate developer Jimmy Moses paused. Given the runaway success and rampant development that has transpired there over the past 20 years -- inspiring projects from North Little Rock's Argenta District to South Main Street Little Rock along the way -- it's a tall order.
"Well, if you kind of go back to the first half of the 1990s," began the founder and chairman of Moses Tucker Real Estate, "before anything began, East Markham Street, now President Clinton Avenue, was mostly a boarded-up and largely deserted old commercial district. There was a casket company on the corner, LaHarpe Office Furnishings and further down the street, what was called the Terminal Building."
That two out of three businesses Moses mentioned evoke images of death is fitting. Photos from that era reveal a streetscape right out of a zombie movie: stark, crumbling brick buildings and weedy, empty sidewalks perched hard against the searing Arkansas sky, utterly devoid of life or promise. Little Rock's downtown had suffered the same fate as many cities during the 1970s and 1980s as economic meltdowns and the rise of ancillary neighborhoods drained the life from the city's core like topsoil ferried away by a hundred-year flood.
"Prior to 1995, I remember the east side of Main Street was pretty much a ghost town," said Mayor Mark Stodola. "I remember walking down there and there were these old warehouse buildings, mose of them boarded up or they were certainly underutilized, and there were a couple that were open where you could get some used furniture. That was it, basically."
Twenty years later, a stroll through the River Market on any given day is to see everything an urban neighborhood should be: a thriving corporate enclave, home to a growing horde of urban denizens and a showcase of activities for all ages. The sparkling new condominiums and apartments nestle against office space carved out of historic buildings or encased in steel and glass. The River Market is unquestionably a 24-hour operation; most evenings, music throbs out of local venues or wafts through the twilight from the First Security Amphitheater, tinged with hundreds of aromas from $50 ribeyes to food truck tacos al pastor.