A Place We Create

 

Publication Note: This column was first published in the April 13, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format.  It is the 8th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.

What do you see when you walk through Historic Downtown Lonoke?  Do you see the past, or do you see potential?  Do you see a place that is no longer relevant, or do you see fabric that must not be lost?

When we take a moment to slow down and experience our community as a pedestrian, we begin to notice details that get lost in the quick pace of life.  Do you, as I, find there to be value in those details?  The buildings and spaces that make up Historic Downtown Lonoke have a certain character to them – a character that is found in the composition of architectural details and adjacent elements that have, over time, become solidified in our memory.

As they exist in our mind, it is easy to overlook the individual elements that contribute to this composition.  Considered individually, however, we get a glimpse into history and the craftsmanship behind the individual storefronts, buildings, and masonry work that are found in many downtown structures.

Hardly any of these structures are still operating in their original capacity or house the operations for which they were constructed decades ago.  Over the course of time, economies, demands, and consumers change.  Through the change, downtown buildings have been adapted for re-use and continued occupancy.  Overall, Downtown Lonoke has remained a stable, reliable location for retail, restaurant, and office establishments, with a relatively low vacancy level.

The question we are faced with today, is whether there is potential for more?

I would suggest that, indeed, that potential exists.  I believe that we are only limited by our own creativity in how we imagine, establish, and perpetuate an environment for innovative small businesses and entertainment venues.

An organization called Project for Public Spaces produces resources related to the methodology of “Placemaking,” which is a thoughtful approach to the design and creation of shared spaces in communities.  In the opening paragraph of an article entitled, “What is Placemaking?” it is explained:

“Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

Particularly notable is the emphasis on public participation that a successful Placemaking process involves.  It is predicated on the concept that the community at large knows best how to prioritize quality of life improvements and enhancements and is, therefore, vital to the process of generating the ideas and experiences that will create those improvements.  The article further explains:

“With community-based participation at its center, an effective Placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.”

LAL_Placemaking01

So, where should we as neighbors here in Lonoke find our cues for creating places together?  

From an economic and geographic standpoint, Lonoke’s context is rural.  Placemaking in a rural context invokes particular considerations that we as a unique community may explore as we seek to activate and invigorate our public spaces.  From a design and planning perspective, I believe that the way we articulate our landscape and our built environment can either serve to detract from, or to enhance our public space resources.  Fortunately, we live in a largely rural state with fantastic examples of small communities who have valued their historic downtown fabric and transformed them into something visible, attractive, and connected to their region.  I hope to explore some of these examples together in the future as our community conversation continues.

Effective Placemaking exercises are tied to a clear understanding of identity and what makes a community unique.  What we do recognize and hope to more fully understand is that Lonoke possesses a “local distinctiveness,” with a richness that lies in our historic fabric.  So, will we embrace our historic locations and examine the layers that have been contributed throughout the years?  What do we do with our history?

Business leader Frank D. Scott, Jr., is a former Arkansas State Highway Commissioner, current Board Member of the Little Rock Port Authority, and regular contributor to local business publications.  He recently wrote, “Our past isn’t meant to be re-lived. It’s meant to be understood, appreciated and serve as a roadmap to chart our present and future.”

As a student of the history of our region, Frank Scott’s statement impacts my thinking on several levels which I am still exploring.  It prompts me to ask, how will we learn the history of the place we call home, if we do not spend time with the people who lived this history?  What was their struggle like?  Perhaps not all history is worth celebrating, but all history is worth remembering.

I believe there is a way in which the places we create, from reclaimed and revitalized fabric within the framework of our historic locations, have the potential to become a venue for telling and writing a redemptive story together.  That story will be one of a community which has chosen to unify and join together to weave a shared tapestry.  This is a process that involves many steps, and many voices.  As we have a respectful, transparent conversation about the possibility that lies before us, I believe a clear vision for the future will emerge.

Historic Downtown Lonoke is a fantastic blank canvas of opportunity.  The built fabric and the real estate associated within the district is compact, distinct, and accessible to every neighborhood in the community.  In a sense, we have all the material and tools we need to create something of lasting impact.

Ryan Biles is a local architect who specializes in historic preservation and a graduate of the University of Arkansas.  You are invited to share your memories of Historic Downtown Lonoke using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke and continue this conversation on social media.

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