Buildings are like people in some ways. From a distance, we have a tendency to ignore the distinguishing details that create individuality. However, when experienced in close proximity, we form a deeper understanding of the things that contribute to character and personality.
Often times, is is easier for us to perceive the character of historic buildings, such as those in Downtown Lonoke, perhaps because designs of this era tend to celebrate exterior ornamentation in one form or another and establish a visually distinguished texture. Like our town as a whole, each of these buildings has a story: the story of the designer, the story of the craftsman who built it, the story of the first building owner, shopkeeper, or patrons. Some buildings have stories of exclusion and barriers to access. And yet, many of us have memories of what these buildings were in a former life. Ask someone from a prior generation what they remember about a particular building in Downtown Lonoke, and you will get to hear some great stories about a bakery, a soda fountain, and a movie theater. Of course, what makes these spaces special and these memories meaningful is not what once functioned here - every town of Lonoke’s size and age had establishments such as these at one point in history. What makes these places matter is the people who lived the stories, celebrated moments, and created long-lasting memories.
As Lonoke’s historic buildings age, we can choose one of two approaches: simply ignore them and allow our passivity to defer their purpose to another person or another generation; or we can slow down, notice them, and allow these buildings to transform from a blur seen outside our car window, into the face of a place with a story. Time can cause things to fade into the background, and sometime we even forget that these places still exist. And yet, they do, and they have potential. We just have to slow down, look behind the facade, and take a step across the threshold into the overlooked places.
Like our buildings, people are capable of constructing a facade behind which our true motives or hurts from the past can be hidden and removed from sight. The further we distance ourselves from someone, the easier it is to ignore (or fail to understand) the depth of a person’s history or the factors that have contributed to their hurt. Often times, the key to knowing the story of a place or a person, is to ask. Another key is to listen. This can sometimes be uncomfortable or awkward. It takes time to build trust in such a way that a person can be open and transparent. Yet, that is the way that it should be—deep connections cannot be rushed or manufactured. Deep connections occur over years of fellowship, friendship, and stewardship. Therefore, we must make this investment of our time and hearts into the stories of others. Our town is too small to ignore the needs of our neighbors, and our hearts are too big to allow passivity to continue any longer.
This is a challenging and uncomfortable investment to make. Yet, leadership requires that this challenge be embraced. Leadership requires that I lay aside the privilege of ignoring the inconvenient hurts of my friends. If someone has taken the time to articulate the things that cause them pain, the wrong response is for me to question the validity of their hurt and experience. The right response is acknowledgement, and with the benefit of relationship, empathy.
Cherry Street in Downtown Helena is the scene of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival one weekend each October. Much of the rest of the year, Cherry Street returns to its quiet repose, with many of the storefronts that were temporarily awakened for the festival now dormant and darkened. Helena is not unlike numerous other communities here in the Delta working hard to recapture an energy that once flowed daily through the city streets. But rather than allow their windows to remain darkened, the Main Street Helena organization has developed a creative solution that utilizes the power of graphic design to move beyond simple window signage or painting and explore a narrative that recounts the human presence of decades ago. The ground floor windows of the historic Nicholas Hotel and adjacent buildings along the street have been thoughtfully decorated with duplications of advertisements and text from the 1909 Helena City Directory. The carefully curated presentation feels like an intentional component of the rhythm of the building’s facade. Experienced at a pedestrian level, the magnified stories of these listings are told in an episodic fashion that evoke mystery and provoke imagination. When I was in Helena a couple of weeks ago, I walked the sidewalks with my oldest son and we read through some of the advertisements: “Only European Hotel in City”; “Groceries Grain and Hay”; “Best Place to Buy Ice Cream and Soda Water”. They were messages from another time, that spoke to us today. As the community of Helena continues on their path of revitalization, these temporary graphics will be removed to reveal the hard work of a new owner and new idea that is ready to see the light of day. Until then, these tasteful and objectively clean graphics serve the purpose of beautifying an otherwise overlooked storefront.
Our history can either be a backdrop, or an experience. It can be millstone that holds us back, or a cornerstone that forms a firm foundation. The key is in our approach, and our ability to see our history in light of the pursuit of a greater vision. Window dressing has no value, and is potentially harmful if it allows wounds to be covered and ignored. In Lonoke, we are starting to understand that our past is a starting point, but it is not our destination. It informs our roots, but does not declare our destiny.
The way we approach history can make a difference whether we perpetuate stagnation or initiate healthy growth. In our recollection of history, we can easily craft a sentimental narrative that covers up that which we don’t want to acknowledge, or let others see. It is tempting to tell stories of the past without providing context or a connection to future growth and health.
It is more difficult to be transparent and to accept the transparency of others.
Our town has a story to tell. Many of those outside of Lonoke don’t know our story because of the “facade” of the interstate highway, and the disconnect between this generic point of arrival and the rich character in the heart of our community. But like any good narrative, we can lead others to that heart. We can weave a thread from the concrete ribbon of Interstate 40 to the brick facades of Front and Center Streets. Well-designed branding, graphics, and wayfinding signage have the ability to articulate that path. The people of Lonoke get the opportunity to define how we will celebrate that connection and share our story.
It takes courage, time, and discernment to discover those stories and tell them with boldness. Our story is not over, but it continues with each passing day, each season, and each graduating class from Lonoke High School. While it may be easy to simply and wistfully say “something once happened here,” the people of Lonoke have chosen the more difficult, but valuable and enduring approach of declaring “something new should and will happen here.”
Ryan Biles is an Architect who loves Lonoke, historic built fabric, and the stories that our overlooked places preserve. Archives and additional content are online at www.lookatlonoke.com .