Imagine living in a place where you live within easy walking or bicycling distance to a university where you can take in first rate plays and musical performances; or a place you can walk to a vibrant downtown with numerous places serving good food and live music.
Or you can walk to a range of international restaurants including, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, German, Italian, Indian, Mexican, as well as Cajun and classic American diners.
You can also easily walk to local art and history museums. You are within a very short distance to an active Farmer’s Market, to Latin American and Asian American groceries, and, on top of all that you can live in a 100 year old home with all of the charm that entails for well under $100,000.
Where is this fantasy land I am describing? Certainly not in Fayetteville, not in Little Rock, not in Bentonville, not in Tulsa, not in Oklahoma City. No, in none of those places could you do all of those things with such ease and for the same reasonable prices.
But you can in Fort Smith. I am describing my life. This is where I live every day.
Listening in on the discourse Fort Smith has about itself it is hard not to come away with the impression that there is a great deal of angst, if not self-loathing, tinged with a bit of inferiority complex regarding the city and living in it. Why? Because it’s not Fayetteville? Because it’s not Portland? Because we are waiting for someone else to do something to make it better?
I can feel like I live in a very cosmopolitan city that is affordable and easy to get around in. These amenities I describe above are ones that many “young professionals” intentionally move to larger cities in order to access. So, I wonder why more people in Fort Smith do not live this way, why I hear so many people saying there is nothing to do in Fort Smith. I suggest there are many very interesting things to do here, but individuals simply elect not to do them.
A case in point. I bicycle around town a lot. Personally, I was disappointed that the city tax deferral for trails did not pass. Will this stop me from riding my bicycle wherever I want to go? No, it will not. We are free to ride our bicycles in this city wherever we want to. So, if you voted for the trail tax I assume you are out riding your bike, too. If we wait for other people to ride bikes, for other people to eat downtown, for other people to frequent interesting restaurants and groceries, and if our political projects are full of things for “other people” to do, then they will all fail.
I used to think, “If you build it they will come.” If Fort Smith just built a trail system then people would use it. While I do think more people would become more physically active, by and large I doubt it would engage a significantly new number of people. Until a new ideology of openness, inclusion, and engagement emerges in Fort Smith, the city is as good as it is going to get. Fort Smith will not develop in any substantially new way until it embraces newness, diversity, and a new generation of ideas.
What it comes down to is that we live here. Instead of striving to live in some romanticized past or in some hypothetical future, Fort Smith would be better served if its residents would embrace the facts of the matter and live in the city that exists now, live in the here, be present here, engage here. The present contains so many wonderful, new, and exciting opportunities that are available every day in Fort Smith. The only obstacles to accessing them are preconceived notions, fear of the unknown, and entrenched power structures.
A dynamic variety exists in Fort Smith, but for some reason many individuals eschew it and the establishment cannot manage to tap into it. As long as the very small number of what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “power elite” continue to control what happens in Fort Smith, not much new, structurally speaking, will happen here and the current Fort Smith will be as good as it gets, not better.
You may have noticed, Fort Smith has a lot of poor people. The median household income is less than $37,000, and the average annual income is less than $23,000. The low cost of living that so many people brag about as a positive is simply the other side of the coin of poverty. In real terms it means that a small number of people benefit economically while the vast majority do not.
How and where people spend their money is an important and individual decision. In a document prepared by Wallace Roberts & Todd for the Fort Smith Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, it was detailed that the local economy has an economic “leakage” of $812.8 million, with $272 million leaving for “General Merchandise,” and about $200 million each leaving for “Foodservice & Drinking Places” and “Food & Beverage (Grocery).”
Many observations can be made from this bit of data, I will make two. First, it is not the poor people trickling their dollars out of this town, it is the wealthy. Secondly, figures such as this make the much touted economic benefits of the tourism industry bringing in $6 million to $10 million a year seem like a little drop in the bucket.
The much discussed homeless campus is another manifestation of Fort Smith’s exclusionary and stratified mindset. According to a Times Record commentary written by Fort Smith Housing Authority Director Ken Pyle, “Economic common sense should tell us that downtown and riverfront development will not happen unless and until existing homeless services are consolidated to a ‘social service campus’ in the chosen area south of Garrison Avenue.”
Anyone who has traveled to any major city, to any major tourist attraction, knows there are homeless individuals there, too, and that those homeless individuals do not seem to prevent tourists from visiting those places. One has to question the logic, let alone the morality, of sequestering a relatively small number of homeless individuals, people who are living on the edge of economic and psychological survival, into a very expensive campus located in an abandoned, inhospitable industrial park in order to have an otherwise non-existent thriving tourist economy and downtown business district. More to my point, Fort Smith is acting like the “New South” more than a progressively minded city.
If we drive our cars to strip malls and eat in restaurants that cater to the lowest common denominator of taste, retreat to subdivisions or gated communities that sell to narrow ranges of economic class and race, we will only experience a bland, stark, landscape with “nothing to do.”
So, here we are. What should we do? Move to Portland? Move to Seattle? Sour grapes. Move to the heart of Fort Smith and embrace the diversity it has, and practice inclusion of place and experience a wide variety of tastes in life.
The choice is yours. Fort Smith will be as good as you want it to be. As for now, it is as good as it gets.