Saturday, December 8, 2007

Our Town

Last Thursday Naomi and I took a 24 hour vacation to Hot Springs National Park. Our motel was near Lake Hamilton, so the drive into downtown was beautiful. It's a pretty area, offering a fix for those of us from the northwest who go through occasional mountain withdrawals. What was really a blessing though was time spent walking along Central ave along bathhouse row. We wandered into various shops and talked with shop owners. We browsed the knickknacks that celebrated local culture, and even enjoyed ice cream in a small candy store. The highlight was setting inside a warm locally owned coffee shop, sipping our mochas, watching the Christmas parade go by. The bands were from local schools, the floats were decorated with Christmas lights and the whole community was out to enjoy it. It was refreshing. I was truly able to relax.

Nevertheless, there was a tragic component to it as well. I noticed that the economy down there was definitely not what it once was. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, the wealthy were attracted to this place for the luxurious spas wherein one was pampered with opulent service. Surrounding that attraction where nightclubs, theaters and fine dining that all benefited together. Now it struggles to draw tourist dollars. The small town remains, but the celebration of it appears relegated to those hardy souls that already live there. The Arlington Hotel still operates, but several other hotels along the main strip have closed down. It's still quaint and pleasing to walk around, but nothing compared to what it must have been in its heyday. Oh I realize that the attraction to the bath houses is not now what it used to be, but people still visit luxurious resorts. It's a shame that Hot Springs was not able to adapt well to the changing times. I can't help but wonder if the fact that Interstate 30 is 20+ miles away contributed at all. Certainly Hot Springs still gets recreational and tourist revenue, but something was lost whereby it's not the exciting place that its many remaining buildings make it seem like it ought to be. You walk around celebrating was remains, realizing what was lost.

My own hometown of Redding, CA experienced something of this. When I was very little I remember going to the with downtown Redding mall my mother for her shopping. I can still hear the Christmas music and decorations that filled it in times of crowded commerce. The stores surrounding the Downtown Mall were frequented as well, cashing in on its draw. The Cascade theater was where I first saw "The Jungle Book." It was a symbol of downtown activity. Long ago, the main highway running north and south through Redding ran also through downtown, drawing attention to its businesses and shops. After I-5 went in it probably was inevitable that the Mt. Shasta Mall would be built (which is much closer to I-5 and on the other side of it), nailing the lid on downtown's coffin. As time went on I observed my mother's shopping habits change from browsing through Dicker's in the downtown mall to JC Penney's in the Mt. Shasta mall. Downtown wasn't a place to go. It was a place to go through on the way to someplace else.

This appears to have happened hear in Rockwall as well. The old downtown Rockwall plaza appears to have been a neat place to walk around and shop, seeing local people at one point. Now, however, I-30 has created a string of chain store commercial centers that all but supplies the tumbleweeds that blow through old downtown Rockwall. It's a tragedy that is captured well in the above segment from "Cars." When and where I can, I'll try to celebrate the old downtown places. I hope they don't become completely extinct. We sure were blessed by Hot Springs. I hope Fate can keep the old alive as new attractions inevitably grow up.


Wayne's Mom said...

Hi, Aaron,
Glad you're able to get your "mountain fix" here in Hot Springs! We were also downtown Thursday night, watching the Christmas parade from the second floor windows of a friend's downtown loft.

I'm sorry you got the impression Hot Springs is not thriving as it once was. In fact, things are quite the opposite. Along Bathhouse Row, renovations are underway at the Ozark to house the new Museum of Contemporary Art; and at the Maurice, to house an a luxury spa.

Recently geographer Warren Bland named Hot Springs, Ark. the No. 1 place in America to retire.

I gotta admit, Hot Springs is a pretty cool place to live, even for those of us who aren't yet retired.

To see short documentary-style video clips from Hot Springs, check out SpaVlogger.

Rebecca McCormick,
Travel Journalist, Hot Springs Village Voice

Monk321 said...

I certainly didn't want to give the impression it was a ghost town. However, Hot Springs did seem to share common traits with other town's I've seen struggling to revitalize their downtown areas.

Some of my impressions came from talking to shop owners. I hope it succeeds in being not only the #1 AR place to retire, but to vacation and build industry as well.

CMWoodall said...


We were there in 1998, I think. Hotter than ... that summer. We really liked it too.

My denomination has a parish there too. They are looking for a rector...

Too bad I'm not quite ready yet.