I HAVE TO SAY, I consider myself a fairly cosmopolitan person. After all, I grew up in the second-largest city in Arkansas. I graduated from university (a few times). I’ve lived in Italy and seen the Whirling Dervish dancers of Turkey and walked through the cerulean doors of Tunisia in Africa. So when I returned to my home state after all my world travels, I had to wonder: How much more was there for me to see? But writing a number of these Hometown features has caused me to humble myself and confess I haven’t seen nearly enough of my beautiful native land as I should have.
Today, though, will be an interesting exercise, because my assignment is to explore my own newly adopted hometown: Conway. How on earth will anyone be able to show me the sights of a city I’ve already lived in for over a year and a half? A place where I buy groceries and pay bills and take my kids to school every day of the week? Can anyone possibly show me my own town in a way that makes it new in my eyes?
When Beth Wilson Norwood, art history professor at Hendrix College and my guide for the day, suggested a few days ago that we meet at Zaza Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co. in Hendrix Village for lunch, I wasn’t mad at her. It’s one of my favorites. But this time, I’m determined: I’m going to look at the restaurant through fresh eyes. So I examine the exterior of the restaurant instead of just walking in quickly to grab a seat. The stacks of wood out front foretell the smoky scents inside. And what is this taped to the glass on the door? A flier proclaiming that Zaza participates in The Locals Food Hub, an effort to support local businesses. “Ask about local dishes,” it instructs me. I’ve never noticed this before. I snap a photo with my iPhone, and that’s when my guide sneaks up on me.
“Heather?” she questions, and I turn around.
Beth’s outfit is simple—black combatlike boots, black leggings, a gray sweater tunic and a black shrug. Her brown hair is shaped into a pixie cut, her earrings are delicate dangles of silver, and her glasses are some exotic pattern—I can’t decide if they’re a tame leopard or a daring tortoise shell.
“Beth,” I say with a smile, putting my cellphone away. “I’m going to pretend to be new today, OK? Like I’ve never been here before. So what would you recommend for lunch?”
“I usually just get a salad,” she shrugs. “What’s the local ingredient today?” she asks the girl behind the salad bar without missing a beat. I notice a piece of paper announcing today’s special, The Lemmy, which I’m sure is a tribute to the Motörhead frontman who recently died: a pizza with housemade sausage, San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, goat-horn peppers, fontina, crushed red pepper, a drizzle of Arkansas honey, fresh basil and Parmesan. My mouth is watering. I don’t even pay attention to what Beth orders.
Between bites of delicious Asian ginger chicken salad—next time, pizza, next time—I learn that Beth grew up just 20 minutes up the road in Greenbrier, but she’s lived in Conway—except for three years of grad school—since 2002. Inhabiting my nonresident role for the day, I ask her my standard nonresident question: “So what is it, exactly, that makes Conway Conway?”
“The people,” she says instantly, her infectious smile brightening her face. “And I like that it’s growing and edging toward becoming a more urban environment, but you still bump into people you know at the grocery store.”
“What’s making it more urban?” I ask, thinking about the chain stores and restaurants out on U.S. 64 (the humongous T.J. Maxx/HomeGoods being my favorite in the entire state).
“Our effort to make downtown more vibrant and interesting,” she replies, taking me off guard. “Making the places spreading out from downtown more walkable. More things to do. More entertainment. Also, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved. For example, I’m chair of Conway ArtsFest. Our organization is one of those pretty open organizations that if you want to help, we greet you open with arms. There aren’t a lot of barriers to getting involved.”
Turns out that this year marks the 10th anniversary of ArtsFest, a week-long celebration of the arts. Put on by the Conway Alliance for the Arts, ArtsFest is held every autumn and features programs ranging from Tales from the South to the family-centered activities of the final Saturday’s Art in the Park.
I furrow my brow. I’m a writer. I’m even getting my MFA in creative writing at University of Central Arkansas. I totally fit into the category of “Conway artist.” Why haven’t I—who’ve lived in town for two different cycles of ArtsFest now—been to it yet? I think to myself.
“In fact, we have art everywhere in Conway,” she says. “Do you feel up for a walk? I’d like to take you to see some.”
“It’s blue skies and 60 degrees in January!” I exclaim. “Let’s walk.”
We pass the center green—just an open lawn—in Hendrix Village, and I have some vague recollection of a play being produced there. “Yeah,” she confirms. “It was during Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre’s festival.” Outdoor theater? In Conway? Sure enough. And in June of this year—the 10th season—it’ll be producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and Twelfth Night (with the majority of the shows being at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall on UCA’s campus). Shakespeare in Conway. Who’d’ve thunk it?
And then, just two short blocks later, we arrive at our destination. In our previous conversations, Beth had called it the “Hendrix tunnel.” I’ve seen this tunnel before in the course of my everyday life; I’d always assumed it was there simply to usher students from the Hendrix College Wellness and Athletics Center to the main campus. And when Beth mentioned art, I just figured I’d find a mural slapped on one of the walls. But this art installation is no mural.
Called Harmonic Fugue and designed by artist-composer-architect Christopher Janney, this interactive sound-and-light environment uses touch sensors, audio speakers and colored LED lights to create an immersive art experience unlike anything I’ve seen before. When I first stand at the end of the tunnel, I simply enjoy the musical score of enchanting sounds that Janney’s website describes as being “composed of a palette of melodic instruments and environmental sounds indigenous to Arkansas including the song of a Mockingbird and the Honeybee.” When I walk through the tunnel and the lights change and the pitches undulate, I can’t help but break out into a smile. This is just too delightful. And totally unexpected.
“I love this,” I tell Beth.
“I’m glad,” she responds, her smile matching mine.
We head back to her car. On the way, we run into someone she knows. Fitting. That is what she likes about Conway, after all.
It’s Jim Wiltgen, executive vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Hendrix College and fellow Conway Alliance for the Arts board member. When I ask him what makes Conway Conway, he says, “It’s big enough of a town to have the resources of a bigger city, but it’s small enough to be personal. A good example of that is the roundabouts. I’m not sure other cities would have made such a commitment, but they make moving around town much easier.”
When I first moved here summer before last from Europe, I was actually really glad to see those roundabouts. They made my transition from overseas so much easier.
A year and a half later, I’d totally forgotten about them.
Beth drives me through one of my favorite areas of Conway—what she calls “Old Town” (and what the city calls the Old Conway Design Overlay District). It’s a large section of this “City of Colleges,” stretching from north of Hendrix College to south of Central Baptist College and even occupying some of UCA’s campus.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted an old home here,” Beth tells me as she drives me past her “new” home, a quaint Craftsman cottage that’s almost a hundred years old now. We idle on the corner of Donaghey Avenue and Simms Street, where Gene Hatfield, a former UCA art professor, has transformed his yard into an outdoor art exhibition, featuring repurposed junk and recycled objects. Then we talk about the mixed masonry houses that Silas Owens Sr. built during the Depression. Since Owens was born in Faulkner County, Conway is lucky enough to have several of these beautiful homes that, as the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program describes, incorporate Craftsman, English Revival, Mediterranean and ranch architectural elements, and are easily recognizable by their intricate and locally sourced stonework. If you like to look at interesting homes, it would seem Conway’s your town.
But interesting homes aren’t the only thing going on in the district. Downtown Conway is located smack dab in the middle of it all. Beth shows me City Hall there on the corner of Oak and Front streets, with Morton Brown’s beautiful Aurora Rising—the city’s first community mural—painted on the Simon Park side of the building. We walk south down Front Street past the New Orleans-inspired Mike’s Place (where I’ve grabbed the tastiest zucchini fries) before turning at the post office on Main Street, where some local citizen has thoughtfully clothed the bronze sculpture of a little girl for the winter with a knit hat. When we get to Main and Chestnut streets, Beth shows me a sculpture by Alice Guffey Miller in the fountain in Metro Square that used to be on display in Laurel Park during EcoFest. EcoFest? Just how many festivals does Conway host? Is there ever not something going on here?
Finally, Beth and I complete the walking loop by heading north on Chestnut back to Oak Street, where we spy another mural whose lead artist was UCA graduate Jordan Karpe. It features things that make Conway, well, Conway: students studying, a Silas Owens Sr. house, a leaping toad (for Toad Suck Daze in May, yet another festival), a roundabout road sign, local high school mascots, the dogtrot cabin at the Faulkner County Museum and more. And, I think, this pretty much sums it all up. My re-visioning is complete. My work here is done.
I could not be more wrong.
Beth and I stop in Kings Live Music on Front Street to get a quick drink. It’s happy hour, and I’m told this is the Cheers of Conway. Inside, there’s a raised stage with professional lighting and extra seating in a second-story balcony. I could totally see myself coming here both after work for a quick drink at the bar or on a Friday night to hear some local bands. But before I can get too comfortable, a friend of Beth’s comes along: Sandra Leyva. Sandra is the little bit country to Beth’s little bit rock ‘n’ roll: her short-cropped hair is wavy, her black sweater has a brightly colored cross-stitched neckline, and her quilted cross-body bag hangs over khaki pants and Converse.
“Are you ready to go?” she asks almost immediately. “We don’t want to lose the light.” I don’t know where we’re headed or why we need the light, but, much like Beth’s, Sandra’s smile is compelling. How can I resist?
Beth, however, does resist, deciding instead to finish her drink and continue her conversation with the three or four friends she’s discovered who also chose to stumble into Kings today. I thank Beth profusely for her time and promise her we’ll meet again. How can we not, living in this town?
Sandra and I hoof it a block farther down Front Street to a tiny turquoise shed. “Here it is!” Sandra says, her hands flourishing like a The Price Is Right model’s. Admittedly, I am underwhelmed, but it’s only because I don’t understand what is standing before me. This little building—the sign identifies it as The Locals Food Hub, and I realize that this is what the flier at Zaza was talking about—is actually a giant refrigerator, where, after restaurants place orders for local products, farmers drop off and store their goods. Then representatives of The Locals (like Sandra) organize and deliver to the restaurants on—wait for it—their turquoise modified street trike, which can also serve as a pop-up market.
It is about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s also genius. Both the Food Hub and the trike are a USDA grant-funded project through the Local Food Promotion Program.
But wait, there’s more. Next, Sandra takes me to see the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project, just behind the Faulkner County Public Library on Tyler Street. It’s not even a mile and a half from my house, and I didn’t realize it was here. I mean, sure, I’d seen signs about the gardening club, or something like that, but I’d never taken the time to really read them. But sure enough, just behind the library, there are gardening sheds filled with shovels and soil and little hoop houses with plastic protecting crops from colder days and plots of garden a good city-block wide. This garden has two annual festivals, a children’s garden club, a seed library and an annual seed swap (on Valentine’s Day this year). It donates the food it produces to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s food pantry and, with the Arkansas GardenCorps, it’s been able to host a full-time service member to care for the garden, do both adult and children’s programming in the library, and provide outreach in the community. Sandra explains how the hoop houses have quintupled the output of the garden, how the elevated beds are accessible to folks who can’t reach the ground and how the 5,000-gallon rainwater barrel was crowdfunded a few years ago.
It’s a pretty cool place in the winter, but I bet it’s dazzling in the spring.
Our last stop is at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. I’ve admired the brick building with its stained-glass windows and ivory clapboard steeple for a while, but I’ve not yet been inside. Sandra and I enter an open room with a Gothically arched ceiling—I’m guessing what used to be a sanctuary but is now a fellowship hall—that is lined with folding tables stacked with fresh vegetables, egg cartons, newly baked bread. The man at the first table has a shaved head and a close-cropped beard. Glasses frame his mischievous eyes, and his well-worn red shirt has the outline of Arkansas framing the phrase “Buy Local.” It’s Steve Lunk, director of Conway Locally Grown, and Sandra has brought me to what Steve tells me is “Conway’s only year-round online farmers’ market,” which enables Conwegians to order food products grown within 150 miles online from Sunday to Tuesday. Then, on Friday evenings, they come out to St. Peter’s from 4 – 6 p.m. to pick up their goods. Besides superior products and supporting local businesses, are there any other benefits to this system? I wonder.
“I read somewhere that 17 times more conversations take place at a farmers’ market than at a grocery store,” Steve tells me. And believe me, with Steve, that’s a bonus. Go ahead, ask him what makes Conway Conway.
“Have you been to the Kum & Go?” he jokes. “The hot dogs have their own fixin’s section!” But he soon sings a familiar tune. “It’s big enough to have everything you need but small enough to be comfortable. And it’s growing. Not too quickly, I think.”
I ask him what one place he would have me see before I left Conway (if I didn’t live here, of course). He doesn’t hesitate: “Beaver Fork Lake. It’s got a beach, a park, a playground … the Conway Symphony plays out there sometimes. And guess what’s right there on your way home? A Kum & Go.”
Sandra laughs. “Conway is its people and the community. We see Conway as a place with the potential to be vibrant and unique, and we hope to make it so special that people from other places will want to come here and stay here.”
Sandra bids me adieu, and I promise to be in touch with her, as well. It’s been such a good day, and she and Beth have really lit such a fire in me to join my community that I decide that tonight, I will do something different. Tonight, I will venture out into my hometown on my own.
I am sitting in my car in front of The Lantern Theatre. It’s a converted storefront on Van Ronkle Street near downtown, its façade covered in stone, not unlike the Silas Owens Sr. houses. For a year and a half, a colleague of mine has been involved in plays down here. In a former life, I acted in a community theater and even directed a children’s theater of my own, but not once have I shown support for my friend here.
This year alone, The Lantern Theatre is putting on 10 shows. Ten shows in 12 months! And I know they’re excellent shows: Last year, The Lantern was one of 12 finalists—out of 1,200 member theaters—that made it to the National Festival of the American Association of Community Theatre. They won both the state festival in Pine Bluff and the regional festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to get there—the only theater in Arkansas to ever do this.
Tonight, my friend is starring as C.S. Lewis in a play titled Freud’s Last Session, an imagined meeting of two polar opposites at the onslaught of World War II.
After having neglected too many opportunities to cheer on my friend, to contribute to the local economy, to join my own community, I’m almost too ashamed to go in. I think about going back to my house. And then I think about the difference between the meanings of “house” (where you live) and “home” (where you belong). I remember part of what Sandra told me earlier: “The way you keep people is to have a community. It has to feel like a place you’re a part of. We want to see Conway be more of a place you can be involved in. It’s all about bringing people together.”
I take my key out of the ignition. Walking across the side street just off downtown Conway, hearing laughter coming from the lobby of the theatre, I can’t wait to join the crowd, and I know I’m home.