It’s only natural that we become so accustomed to our surrounding context that we eventually fail to notice details and instead take for granted the existence of our defining elements. In a previous edition of this column entitled “A Place to Meet,” we discussed the five key elements described by Kevin Lynch which serve as a framework for evaluating relationships within our built environment: landmarks, paths, nodes, districts, and edges. It is interesting to me that even landmarks can be overlooked with the passage of time.
The highest points in Lonoke are the Riceland dryers and our water towers. There is a sense in which Lonoke’s downtown water tower is ubiquitous. When we gather at Front and Center, we are unavoidably in the shadow of the tower - it draws the eye upward and serves as a fitting backdrop to the activity in the streets below. It is also a constant orienting element, acting in absence of any wayfinding or directional signage. Directions to practically anywhere in Lonoke could be provided with navigational assistance from our water tower and Riceland. Yet, aren’t there some days when we hardly notice they are there?
Driving east on Highway 70 from downtown Lonoke, we encounter a string of towns much like ours. Whereas the highway is named Front Street in Lonoke, a little more than one hundred miles from us, it becomes Broadway in West Memphis. Alongside Broadway in Downtown West Memphis is an historic water tower on the site of the Federal Compress cotton warehouse dating back to 1923. West Memphis has recently experienced the benefits of connection, with the opening of Big River Crossing. The historic Harahan Bridge is now a brightly lit, inviting path for pedestrians, spanning alongside the Frisco Bridge and the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge which carries the concurrent right-of-ways for Highway 70 and Interstate 55 across the Mississippi River. Big River Crossing is a dream realized in 2016, but was long in the making. As the three historic bridges at the crossing have now become an active, human-scale conduit for physical recreation along with vehicular and rail traffic, they have also brought new numbers of people to the Arkansas side that had not previously explored their neighboring community across the River. In recognizing these new crowds, West Memphis determined to leverage their downtown landmark, the Federal Compress water tower, to become an icon corresponding with the LED-lit bridges. With installation beginning this month, an artist-designed configuration of cascading lights and sculptural elements will adorn the tower and give it new life and purpose as an attractive, orienting element. In a redemptive investment, the City, in partnership with the Main Street West Memphis organization will create a highly visible, wordless billboard beckoning pedestrian visitors to enjoy their downtown.
I believe Lonoke has the opportunity take a cue from this kindred Delta town not too far from us and consider our own vertical landmarks to also be a blank canvas for the expression of our unique identity. Marion Boyd, interim director of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program noted in a recent newspaper article that, “Using a water tower to highlight a town’s characteristics isn’t a new idea.” Given that precedence, what if our own water tower bore a newly painted symbol of Lonoke’s fresh direction? What if, as a good friend of mine suggested, the Riceland dryers were lit with dynamic LED light patterns reflecting from the white the vertical surfaces and drawing the attention of travelers and homeseekers from miles away?
Several years ago, the American Institute of Architects began a campaign and film competition titled “I Look Up,” centered on the architect’s responsibility to walk circumspectly, with raised eyes and engaged attention. In looking up, we are inspired, aware, and hopeful. In looking up, we notice and appreciate the concerns of others. Those of us in the fields of design play a role in enhancing the built environment of our communities in such a way that our neighbors for generations to come are well-served, safe, and healthy. We must look up.
The citizens of Lonoke have articulated a new vision for a visible, attractive, and connected Lonoke. Historic Downtown Lonoke is the heart of our community, and in the coming years and months, that heart will grow healthier as existing businesses grow and entrepreneurs are attracted to available storefronts and affordable housing opportunities. But what truly makes a community attractive? In truth, it is more than painting or illuminating our tallest structures that makes us attractive, though those are highly visible and creative ideas worth pursuing. In Lonoke, we must continue to pursue our vision with the defiant optimism and professionalism that has characterized our citizens in recent work together. Unity is attractive. Young families and retiring grandparents alike desire a peaceful community free from dysfunction. Alton Garrison once noted, “It’s hard to be persuasive when you are abrasive.” I believe that healthy relationships and respectful interactions will be the hallmark of Lonoke as we steward the momentum of our current conversation. Our town can be a peaceful, attractive refuge. We can create a physical environment with an inviting atmosphere that conveys a warm welcome and says, “We were expecting you!”
You can tell a lot about a community by what is elevated and projected from the highest places. I believe our community is ready to look up and raise both our expectations and our standards. The most meaningful way that we can elevate the ideals of unity and kindness is to simply set ourselves a high standard of trustworthy leadership that our neighbors and children deserve. Before long, it will become an expectation. When that happens, we are well on our way to cultivating a community that those around us will look up to.
Ryan Biles is an architect who loves Lonoke, where his family has called home for 13 years. All of the #LookAtLonoke columns are now archived at www.LookAtLonoke.com !