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Jewish World Review Aug. 2, 1999 /20 Av, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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With rue our hearts are laden -- AS I WRITE, Little Rock may finally have concluded its mildly hilarious civil war. This long-simmering civic skirmish began when the city fathers and mothers decided to rename historic old Markham Street downtown in honor of our native and prodigal son. It was supposed to have been born again as -- ta-da! -- President Clinton Avenue. But that was pre-Lewinsky, and folks here been having second, third and fourth thoughts ever since. So the city's board of directors was summoned to reconsider the whole, hasty decision.

In the first round of balloting, the directors stuck to their original decision to honor our president -- by a vote of 7 to 4. It brought to mind the board of directors that passed a resolution wishing its chairman a swift and full recovery from his heart attack -- by a vote of 8 to 5.

It's not the outcome outcome of such votes that is striking but the divisiveness that Bill Clinton always inspires. The city directors doubtless wanted to put this fuss behind them. Instead, by rejecting a compromise proposal to rename just the part of the street leading to the projected presidential library, they wound up putting the whole controversy back out front again.

The idea was to trade up: an old Little Rock name for a little of that presidential prestige. Who could object? Apparently, about half of Little Rock. It seems we do not take our names lightly around here. Folks get attached to what is theirs -- indeed, what has been theirs almost since there's been a Little Rock. We grow comfortable with names that have been around for a while; they come to stand for something.

Markham isn't a particularly imposing street, but it's an old one, and there are those who love it. And you can't expect to go around changing the names of things people love without a fight. Even if you win, you've planted resentment -- another grievance to collect. Rename in haste, repent at leisure.

But the city's leaders, or at least seven of them, at least at first, seemed deaf to all that. What's in a name, after all? Only a little memory, a little pride, a little history. Surely all that could be replaced by that latest wonder of modern packaging: instant tradition.

Besides, it was supposed to be good for the tourist trade, and isn't that what counts? So they decided to go ahead and ram this bitter little pill down Little Rock's throat. And they were surprised again again when Little Rock refused to swallow.

We are a peculiar people in these latitudes, the most sweetly reasonable when approached respectfully and in a spirit of conciliation, but let politicians try to put words in our mouths -- even just a few words like President Clinton Avenue -- and we grow stone stubborn. Nicknames began to form instantly in the mind, like Impeachment Avenue.

No public hearing was held before the board decided on this little change; businesses along old Markham Street were simply to be informed by mail that they now had a new address. How efficient. Who says Little Rock is not a modern city? Someone noted that the manners and general consideration shown the public in this instance had been positively Yankee.

But an informal public hearing erupted in Little Rock -- over the dinner table, at the farmers market, in restaurants and beauty shops. Rebellion surged. There was is talk of gathering petitions and putting this name change on the ballot. The natives grew restless, and their insurgency took to the air via talk radio.

In the end, it wasn't all the talk that mattered -- democracy can and should be a great show -- but the embarrassed silence among respectable folk, the raised eyebrows, the little sighs, the slow, sad shakes of the head. The inescapable feeling grew that we'd sold off another little part of our birthright for a mess of pottage, and not a very savory mess, either.

Four of the city directors tried to set up a happy ending to the bad feelings: They suggested renaming just part of the old street, the stretch that starts at the River Market , our own French Quarter, and leads to the Clinton Library. And then Clinton Avenue could begin where the coffee shops and bars, the antique shops and art galleries, start. Perfect. Lively. Contemporary. Slightly risque. Tourists, young folks, walk-in trade. Yes, a happy ending.

The owner of a design shop called Soho liked the sound of it: "Soho, at the corner of Clinton and Commerce.'' Just add a decent Chinese restaurant ("Our Specialty: Egg Rolls and Nuclear Secrets''), and Clinton Avenue would be full of lighthearted resonances.

Why have Clinton Avenue extend all the way past the Excelsior and the Doubletree hotels -- with their unavoidable memories of Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick? With that extension, the whole flavor of a President Clinton Avenue would change -- from the flirtatious, even romantic, air of a few colorful blocks down by the river to a pretty rough trade. The innocent tourist, complete with shorts and camera, would find himself on another Clinton scandal tour.

But that kind of concern with the historical environment, with the atmospherics of local history, was wasted on our our more upwardly mobile leaders, who couldn't seem to understand what all the fuss is about. Until all those cards and letters and editorials and phone calls started came rolling in.

That's when even the clintonoids grew aware, however dimly, that there's no such thing as instant tradition, that History can't be ordered up the way you would takeout. And that no number of monuments and memorials, no grand libraries or new street names, can substitute for the character of what is being honored. For it's not the Lincoln Memorial that makes Abraham Lincoln great. Quite the contrary; it only reflects his greatness. What will President Clinton Avenue reflect?

The decision to honor our president 7-to-4 was in a way appropriate, and wholly in the spirit of the honoree. Because it was another great political success, but only a political -- not a moral success. And it brought no finality, no closure, no satisfaction. It assured only that the divisiveness would continue. How clintonesque. Fitting in its own way. The decision would have been the very epitome of the clintonesque if, before the name of Markham was officially erased, Our Leaders could have figured out a way to put a few slick curves in the street, leading nowhere in particular.

Instead, third and better thoughts intruded. The mayor reversed himself again, and in still another vote, this time 8 to 3, the city directors decided to compromise and rename only the few blocks of the street leading to the Clinton Library our own Rue de la Bill. Give 'em a happy ending every time.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate