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JOHN BRUMMETT: Changing attitudes, culture

USA Today published a ranking the other day that called Little Rock the 19th-worst city in the country.

Little Rock responded by saying USA Today was the first-worst newspaper in the country.

Not really. I just thought it would be funny to say that.

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Actually, the rankings were compiled by an outfit called 24/7 Wall Street. USA Today was but a messenger, not of fake news, but marginal news.

Mayor Mark Stodola did respond, predictably, to defend our honor. He pointed out that Forbes recently ranked Little Rock one of the best places to live in the country.

Little Rock will usually rank poorly if considered only by itself, absent its surrounding metropolitan statistical area, and if crime is a big part of the criteria. Little Rock will do better if--as with some of Forbes' rankings--Conway is thrown into the Greater Little Rock mix and quality of life, time of transportation to work and cost of living are emphasized in the ranking formula.

Little Rock tends to live better, for a lot of us, than its data indicates. It will land higher when the ranking body sends someone to look around. That's provided the city gets hold of that person for co-opting before he wanders into the dangerous neighborhoods south and east, ushering him instead him to the River Market and Hillcrest and the Heights and maybe the Capital Hotel for a cocktail and then Brave New Restaurant for fresh scallops sautéed ever-so-delicately.

It all depends on what you mean by Little Rock and what factors you punch into your formula. Is it a data test or an eye test? We can be a great place or a terrible place--whether in these highly subjective rankings or by plain truth.

Little Rock will deserve to rank poorly if crime statistics are at the top of considerations, as with USA Today. It will rank poorly if a median income brought down by areas of deep poverty is a factor, as with USA Today. It will rank poorly if school stability is a factor, as with USA Today.

But many Little Rockians are not beset by much crime or threat of it. Many Little Rockians have excellent economic situations. And many Little Rockians place their kids happily in schools they wouldn't trade, be they private, charter or occasionally public like Roberts Elementary, Pulaski Heights Middle or Little Rock Central.

That's hardly unique to Little Rock. The city and others like it--where significant minority populations have been abandoned, isolated and neglected--deserve to be judged with appropriate harshness.

Answers rest not with city government policies or chamber of commerce slogans. They rest with changing attitudes creating new cultures.

The issue comes down to race and the solution comes down to generation.

I sat the other day on downtown Little Rock's east side of Interstate 30 having an enjoyable lunch at a local craft brewery. And I was given to thinking about where I was.

A block away, on East Shall Street, my dad supported me as a kid in the '50s and early '60s from his meager but sufficient wages as a union-member warehouseman on the night shift loading trucks at the Nabisco cookie warehouse. We lived an easy walk away in an apartment house on East Capitol Avenue about where the Interstate 30 service road runs now.

Then, with my baby boom generation in its prime, and in control, there was more money about. And there came an exodus in good cars on good freeways to new houses in new suburbs or exurbs away from ... well, the urban life, for some, and black people, for others. Baby boomers came along just in time for early infection with racism's cues.

This light-industrial section of east Little Rock that had afforded my dad a means of providing for his young family became, for me, an abandoned area to drive thoughtlessly past every morning on the way to Central Flying Service to hop on a little plane with Bill Clinton to cover his gubernatorial re-election campaigns.

Now a new generation of smart young people makes tasty beer in this very section of the city and turns it into a dining destination.

Today's emerging generation didn't grow up quite so intimately with racism's cues. Its relationships, interests, values and politics are different--evolved, mostly.

Maybe it will continue to move back to the city center to work and live in a retro-'50s kind of economy and culture, but racially reformed.

Maybe it will begin--if only begin--to break down the divisions by which Little Rock isn't one place suitable for ranking, but two planets.

Then someday some ranking agency's representative would come to Little Rock and say, you know, there's something positive bubbling up all over this place that always had a good side to go with its bad side.

Meanwhile, we persevere. We wait to evolve. We don't read USA Today.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 07/12/2018

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