Publication Note: This column was first published in the March 16, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format. It is the 7th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.
Places have value because they are the venue–the backdrop–for our human story. Long after we are gone, our buildings and cities remain, however changed by time, as monuments to memory and shared experience. The National Trust for Historic Preservation raises awareness about endangered places and spaces with the phrase “This Place Matters” in a campaign on social media which features photography of vulnerable sites and buildings and the people who care to save them.
Were you aware that sixteen sites in Lonoke are listed on the Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places? Sixteen places within walking distance of your home have met the criteria upheld by the foremost authority on historic significance as worthy of recognition and attention. Four of those sites are among the 23 contributing structures listed within what is recognized as the “Lonoke Downtown Historic District” on the National Register.
That gives me pause to again consider that there is something special about this place we call home. In particular, there is something special about Historic Downtown Lonoke. There is a very real sense in which it is the heart of our community geographically, logistically, and metaphorically.
In his work Image of the City, urban planner Kevin Lynch describes five key elements that serve as a framework for evaluating relationships within our built environment: landmarks, paths, nodes, districts, and edges. Landmarks are connected via paths, paths intersect at nodes, districts are a collection of these landmarks, paths and nodes, and edges mark the the transition from district to district. As we subjectively evaluate our environment, we will recognize these elements in our everyday interactions here in Lonoke. For example, the Lonoke County Courthouse is a key landmark, as is the Lonoke Depot, Lonoke High School, and the baseball fields. We can think of the neighborhoods within which each of these landmarks are located as districts. Center Street is a path that connects the Depot to the Courthouse and the interstate; Front Street is a path that connects the Depot to the ballpark, 100 miles further east to Broadway in West Memphis, or 25 miles west to Broadway in North Little Rock, and all points beyond. Front Street and Center Street are key paths on which our daily narratives take place, and the stories of our region have traveled for decades past. The node of the Front & Center Street intersection is a key nexus for our community.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that the one stop light in Lonoke was right downtown at Front Street and Center Street. “Front and Center” – what a fitting address for the intersection of our story. This is where our paths cross, where we are visible to one another, where we come together. And, while Front and Center Street are essentially where all of our neighborhood edges meet geographically, most importantly, practically every resident of Lonoke crosses paths at this intersection. It is a rare day to spend time at the light without seeing someone you recognize walking or driving through town.
Downtown Lonoke is build around this node, and historically, since the location of the railroad in 1869, Front and Center Streets have been the center of commerce. With changing development patterns of the latter half of the twentieth century, our center of commerce has evolved following a predictably generic format oriented toward the interstate highway interchanges.
Yet, as we move further out from the center of town, our paths disperse, and our interactions become more anonymous. This is why I believe there is a special relevance for Downtown Lonoke in our future. What if this intersection was transformed from the place that we drive through on our way to a destination, and instead became the destination itself? As we begin to recognize its value, we may be compelled to seek avenues for enhancing this location as a resource to be leveraged.
Lonoke has a fantastic opportunity to create a new experience downtown – it starts with small steps! Last spring, Lonoke Lions Club held an outdoor movie night, projecting the show on the exterior of a downtown building with seating in an empty grassy lot. Beginning this spring, Lonoke will finally have a farmers market to call our own, anticipated to take place downtown near the train cars, right at Front & Center. Dubbed “Fishtown Farmers Market,” the event will be held on the first and third Saturdays from May to September and will be a place that neighbors can gather and celebrate locally produced products. I recently learned from a resource produced by Mississippi State University that a survey of Georgia farmers markets found for every dollar spent in a farmers market, an additional $1.66 was spent in the adjacent local economy. A farmers market in Lonoke has the potential to be a catalyst for greater activity both economically, and experientially. It very well may raise our expectation of what is possible when we meet in the middle and create a new shared experience together.
Downtown Lonoke is accessible by a short walk from any neighborhood in town. It is our “common ground,” in a manner of speaking. Quite simply, it matters as a place where we all, by default or intention, can come together.
Ryan Biles is a local architect and a former member of the Planning & Zoning Commission. What do you want to see in Downtown Lonoke? Share your ideas using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke on social media!