Thursday, December 27, 2007

VMU in Rogers, Arkansas??

I got into a conversation recently with my ex-boyfriend, whom I went to high school with, but who now also lives in Austin, about all the growth occurring in our hometown of Rogers, Arkansas. When he and I were both born, it was a tiny little empty town of less than 4,000 people, but is now the fastest-growing region of the country, and the town itself has now capped 50,000 official residents. It's only one in a series of what used to be small, distinct towns that have all grown together into one, sprawling suburb of more than 200,000 people. It starts with Bentonville, Wal-Mart headquarters, then turns into Rogers (where Wal-Mart was actually founded, but lays claim to little else), then becomes Springdale, a mostly poor, and fairly trashy farming and agricultural community that is now pretty much exclusively Mexican, which in turn segues into Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, and the place most people would probably consider the cultural and liberal seat of not just Northwest Arkansas, but probably all of Arkansas. (It's actually very much like Austin, with a similar feel and geography, but with only about 80,000 people.) All these little towns are connected by HWY 540 (aka, the "bypass" to those in the know).

But I digress. In the last few years Rogers has exploded really more than any of these other towns for reasons I have yet to figure out (especially considering it's a dry county, which yes, means you can't buy alcohol anywhere in Benton County). Every chain store and restaurant you can possibly imagine (and some you can't....) have moved in, with shopping centers, gated communities, and suburb upon suburb upon suburb sprouting up in every direction, with names like Camelot Estates, except they all look the same, all the houses are fucking ginormous, and at last inspection, most of them remain largely empty. Town has really started moving south, out by my parents' house, which used to be in the fucking country, and last time I was here I rode my bike through a large, turny, sprawling neighborhood out behind my parents' property (5 acres that they're holding onto for dear life!) that was complete, but every single house was empty. It was really eerie, and felt weirdly post-apocalyptic or something.

Anyway, I was talking to my ex about all of this, and I was arguing that though it was all very nice and good for the people living here and the economy and all that, I just really despised all of it. I remember once upon a time not so long ago, that with the exception of Wal-Mart, almost every business in Rogers was locally owned and unique. Getting a Burger King was a novelty when I was about 6, and for the most part, it was all neatly contained. You had the historic downtown area, with lots of neat little shops, a few apartments, the library, and lots of tiny old houses with big porches and bigger character. A couple of streets branched off from downtown, both north and south and east and west, but that was about it. As of today, with the exception of a smattering of authentic Mexican restaurants, downtown is the only part of town that has retained any character, walkability, or local flavor (there's even a really hip coffee shop with Morrissey posters and hipsters and shit).

The old Peachtree Hotel downtown, now a retirement community.

It's hard to make people like my family understand why despite "having everything you could ever want" this place feels more like hell to me than ever (so I don't try, I just let it go, because why bother). My ex was arguing that despite the plasticity, sameness and sprawl of it all, the growth meant that attitudes were changing. When we were in high school, if you went to the movies with blue hair, or were 2 guys walking around downtown together after dark, you were taking your lives in your hands. Not so anymore, and I see his point. If you go to the movies now, you see all kinds of people, from frat boys, to soccer moms, to young, punk rock kids, to even (gasp!) black people! (I kid you not, you wouldn't have seen a black person in Rogers more than 5 years ago.)

While I agree with him, I find it frustrating that you have to trade one for the other. Or do you? Austin is a town that has proved you can grow but still retain local flavor and character. Maybe I'm romanticizing Rogers' past after all.

There are signs of good things, though. The new centerpiece of the city, the Pinnacle Promenade, an outdoor, pedestrian mall filled with stores like Banana Republic and Sephora, is creating a density all its own. It's right next to the highway (and about 2 seconds from my parents), has an interesting, playful design (it's all very art deco and actually sort of attractive), and is driving up real estate. They're building a huge, new state of the art hospital (and turning the old one near downtown into a solely mental health facility), a Westin hotel, and among other! (Granted, the ones going in right now are above a bank and a gas station, but the impetus is there.) Signs are sprouting up in large pastures near my parents' house advertising space for vertical mixed use, and apparently, some people are even starting to pressure city council to start looking into public transportation! That'll never, ever happen, but at least people are thinking about these things.

An outdoor scene from the Pinnacle Promenade.

Being at home sometimes is exhausting and enfuriating as I watch all of this happen. If I have my way about it, I'll never live here ever again, so I have no emotional attachment to it, and the people here seem to like it, so I guess I should just stop worrying. But when they put in a new Wal-Mart and shopping center about a 5-minute walk from my parents' house and call it Tuscany Square, and make it look like what I can only presume is some stupid developer's version of Venetian, except it's hideously ugly and stupid, and isn't even the correct region of Italy to call Tuscan, it makes me so depressed I can't stand it. Maybe not because I see every ounce of character this city ever had being sucked away, but maybe because I know that this happens everywhere. And people like it. And they think it's cosmopolitan and urban, and hating it makes me feel like such a self-righteous schmuck, but I do hate it. And it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere, even though the town is about 7 miles wide. I mean, is there no foresight? I guess the land is limitless, but don't they realize the resources aren't? The whole area is one giant, faceless suburb not even in search of a city and it all makes me feel so disconnected from everything (including my past) that it actually creates anxiety for me when I'm here.

I guess that's why for the most part, I try not to leave my parents' house when I visit. Which suits me just fine.


Anonymous said...

I moved to Rogers, Arkansas last year from Los Angeles, where I grew up (after being born in New York City), to take a job with a Wal-mart vendor. I thought I’d share a letter I wrote to my brother that sums up my experience living in Rogers:


All I can say is Northwest Arkansas sucks if you're looking for anything other than mediocre architecture, last year’s fashion, over-rated college sports, and retailing that is finally coming to Arkansas a decade (or more) after it was cool on either coast. Top it off with the bigoted social values veiled in a my-Christian-faith-is better-than-your-Christian-faith-and-everyone-else-is-going-to-hell attitude covered in a smirk that reminds me of the wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.

Toss in the near-paranoia sub-culture of Wal-Mart (the non-locals call them Wal-Martians) and you have the makings of the most boorish-place I’ve ever spent any time experiencing. I was made to feel embarrassed every time I pulled my new German sports car into the Wal-Mart parking lot so many times that I finally parked it in the garage at home and bought a second-hand four wheel drive Jeep for work.

Maybe I’m spoiled because our parents took us to dozens of first-run Broadway plays, went to P.F.Chang’s a decade before it came to Rogers, lived in San Francisco where we enjoyed live music, theater, and art that will never find its way to NWA. Maybe I’m cursed because we graduated from a well-known private college on the west coast, lived in Chicago, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder, Colorado in the 1980s and New York City in the 1990s, where we hung-out with celebrities, artists, entrepreneurs, and just plain cool people. Mom and Dad dragged us to the local museums and live entertainment at the legendary places in those cities and towns so many times I could have been a docent.

Sure, Wal-Mart, Tyson, and Hunt Trucking has made many local-breds multi-millionaires, and I’ve even met a few billionaires. But the Nouveau riche locals dress like Minnie Pearl, lack the worldly-culture and refined good taste to such a degree I laugh to myself when they crowd in line to experience fine Italian food at the new Olive Garden or chatter about Target opening a store down the street from Wal-Mart headquarters.

Wal-Mart rewards its executives and middle managers with offices that look like third-world countries with broken desks, wobbly-chairs, and dirty floors. I wonder if I should wear one of those masks surgeons wear just to keep from getting some weird disease or inhaling the mold growing on the walls. I’m shocked anyone would want to work there, but don’t say anything bad, because the Wal-Mart Gestapo have ears and are paranoid about strangers and anything that isn’t blindly loyal to Sam Walton and his fleet of private jets that travel the globe looking for ways to make and sell things cheaper and cheaper and crappie and creepier.

New is always nice. The locals are so excited about the new Pinnacle Hills Promenade, but it looks like one of dozens of identical shopping centers operated by the center’s owners, a Chicago-based shopping mall developer called GGP. Ask the merchants at the any of the Pinnacle Hills stores and they’ll tell you they are doing just O.K. The new shops are cool by Rogers-standards but oh-so boring compared to the cool stores you’ll find packed in towns from Austin to New York. The locals are proud of the new stores, but unless the goods are offered at Wal-Mart low prices, the only ones spending are the Wal-Mart vendor-employees who are trapped living here by their own career aspirations and promises of combat-pay from their bosses.

Forget Northwest Arkansas if you're gay, black, Jewish, like cutting edge theater, something other than cover bands at the local clubs, are creative, or have a taste for originality and leading-edge thinking.

The area lacks public art entirely, unless you consider the old Civil War cannon in front of the Rogers Library as such. The city is spending millions on new roads, and banking on sales-tax revenues to pay for it all. Yet not one dime was spent on anything related to art and being first at anything global except how to package lead-paint-tainted toys from China as a legitimate after-school distraction for children from culturally-isolated homes.

Racism is rampant, especially if you’re non-English speaking. The illegals are easy prey, making them fodder for the more outspoken bigots and local cops who forget who’s washing the dishes at the all-you-can-eat buffet, cleaning the rooms at the local motels, and mowing the lawns because no one else will do it.

Even the Wal-Mart vendors from out of town are subject to a contemptuous attitude from the locals. We come from out of town trying to do good things for the community, but we’re treated like ignorant tourists that are fair game for locals and their swindles, cons, and over-charging. It took me about a year to figure that one out!

I’m looking forward to 2008 when my stint in Northwest Arkansas is over and I can move back to civilization. I can’t help but thinking I’m in an episode of the old TV Show, Green Acres.

With Love,

Your Brother

The Fire Next Time said...

Huh. That's an interesting letter there, but being a local, and putting in my time (19 years, thank you very much), and having most of my family still left in Rogers, I feel the need to defend it, at least a little bit.

I don't know what it's like now, but when I lived there, there was a very vibrant and interesting youth culture. It wasn't created for us, so we created it ourselves. We formed bands, opened our own clubs, booked our own gigs, created our very own rave culture, hosted our own parties. Boys kissed each other in the cafeteria in the high school just to piss off the jocks (who half the time came to our parties anyway), and overall we had a great time. We created our own culture, but the school also offered us a pretty fair share.

The drama department put on huge, lavish productions that all the kids were really proud of. The orchestra departments grew by leaps and bounds in the 80's and 90's, and the band took trips to DC and New York. All of my teachers in junior high and high school (okay, well, most of them) were supportive, intelligent, open-minded, and kind.

Fayetteville is also a whole other story. It's quite gay for one thing. At one point in the 90's, there were something like 6 or 7 exclusively gay bars in Fayetteville. The university provides a progressive and vibrant culture of its own (and has an excellent theater department if you ever care to look into it and go see some shows). The Walton Arts Center hosts national touring companies of Broadway and musical acts, and the whole city is fairly progressive for small-town midwestern standards (at least it used to be).

For the most part, I enjoyed growing up there. My parents exposed me to a lot of different things, took me traveling to lots of different places, and fostered a true appreciation and respect for nature and outdoor activity (which you'll also find a plethora of in NW Ark). Parts of growing up there were extremely difficult (like being gay, for instance) but we made do, I found my accepting crowd, and when I could, yes, I got the hell out.

I guess what I'm saying is don't write the place off completely. I wouldn't move back there for anything, personally, and I don't know what your story is, but there are pockets of progress, liberalism, culture, and really wonderful, open-minded and interesting people. I will say, it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be (at least it seems that way to me, despite the sprawl and grossness of the way it's growing).

So I guess within that post and this comment I've completely contradicted myself a million times. But that's my right, I suppose, seeing as how I have true Arkansas blood in me, and even though I hate it, I'm proud to have come from there. I still have really incredible and close friends from there, and I don't think it's all bad.

But I can absolutely see how someone not from there, with no roots and no history, would find it an insufferable nightmare.

I hope you get out of there okay and in the meantime find something there that makes you happy.

Thanks for reading. Whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

i can tell you why im considering movimg there.

1. proximity to wonderful parks, rivers

2. high medium income

3. not too big

4. few minorities

Daniel said...

Hello Ryan. I grew up in Rogers and feel much the same way you do. You and I actually had some mutual friends in high school. My younger brothers are itching to leave asap and I can't blame them. I do get tired of the people moving here and deriding the lack of culture and the backwards mentality of the area. I'd like to see some of the new folks getting involved and helping to bring about changes like public art and independent theater to the area instead of counting the days until they leave.
Then again, that's pretty much what i'm doing, so...

Anonymous said...

wow. that anonymous letter pretty much sums up everything I feel about this cultural vaccuum I live in while my husband works at WM. we like to say all there is to do up here is do drugs & go to church. Of course you can mix it all up & go to church & do drugs..thank God the morality police make sure I can't buy alcohol, but every gas station I see sells pipes & salvia.

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