With ROSE BUNCH
Your name: Rose Bunch
Current city or town: Fayetteville, Arkansas
How long have you lived here: Most of my life, give or take a decade or so.
Three words to describe the climate: Pleasant, Apocalyptic, Hell
Best time of year to visit? Fall. The hardwoods and rolling hills here are brilliant with color, and the temperatures drop enough to reduce the chiggers and slow the poisonous snakes.
1. The most striking physical features of this city are. . .
The historic downtown rises to a hill occupied by the University of Arkansas. On that hill is a red brick building called Old Main that appears in most calendars and photos of Fayetteville. This was the central structure of campus begun in 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War. Legend has it that one tower, the Northern one, was built higher to symbolize the Union’s victory. The truth is less interesting and concerns a clock that never was. It looks most beautiful in the fall and is visible from many vantage points around town center.
The hills dominate central Fayetteville, and Mt. Sequoyah gives you an excellent view of Old Main and the downtown as well. In high school we used to drive up to The Cross on that mountain, a glowing blue monument atop a rock base with a small parking area that overlooks the city square and university. They set nails in the concrete around the base to discourage the drunks from scaling it, and we parked there, drank our whiskey and stared at the lights of the town smoking cheap cigarettes and wallowing in our teenage angst. Now the nails are gone, but the cross is still there emitting an eerily blue, but comforting glow. The kids continue to drink crap beer and pee in the bushes below the symbol of Christ’s suffering, an occasional cop cruising by shining a spotlight. When you sit there in a parked car now, as many restless adults still do, you see the faces of others lit by the soft, blue light of the cross, staring out at the lights of our town.
2. The stereotype of the people who live here and what this stereotype misses. . .
We are not all ignorant hillbillies, toothlessly suckling jugs of moonshine and gnawing on critters. You can safely visit no matter what color, creed, or sexual orientation you display. I don’t know why anyone assumes they know anything about a place they have never been.
A stereotype I have encountered more than once, and almost always on the East Coast, is that there is something inherently wrong with me because I am from Arkansas. Maybe this is because I am often around privileged whites looking for a safe, self-serving, public moment to advocate for social justice. You meet someone. They hear your accent and ask where you are from. You tell them and they say something snide like, “I’m sorry,” and turn their back or view you with sudden suspicion as if you are racism and ignorance personified. Questions and conversation can become stilted, a moment for someone to insert something horrible going on in South Carolina, or Mississippi, while watching for a reaction. A chance for them to pointedly ask about your family history and then nod in satisfaction when you tell them that, yes, your ancestors were Confederates. I share those ancestors with President Obama who I am also distantly related to. Any display of personal taste is also oddly scrutinized for signs of racism. My admiration for the music of Johnny Cash was once scolded by a young woman from The Hamptons.
The unpleasant truth about racism is something more fluid, something that oozes well past the Mason-Dixon line and heads all the way up to Nova Scotia, and that is that people are segregated and racist all over this country and not simply in the South. If only we had real geographical boundaries for systemic racism and injustices in this country, then we could localize and contain it.
If you choose not to visit Fayetteville because of something Hollywood told you about Arkansas, then you miss experiencing a beautiful region with generous people and an established culture, music, and crafts. You miss seeing the growth we have in the form of concert halls, museums, film and music festivals. The cost of living is affordable, three- hour lunches are not looked down upon and you can still get pretty good sushi. I feel lucky to live here.
3. Historical context in broad strokes and the moments in which you feel this history. . .
My personal family history goes back to before this was a state, and we have numerous stories of generations of people trying to make it in these hills. It colors my perception of the Ozarks, and extends beyond the groomed yards of established neighborhoods in town, radiating out into the wilderness areas and semi-abandoned places too far beyond the city limits to benefit from the economy to change. These small towns tend to lose their children quickly to the industry in surrounding cities, leaving them with dilapidated buildings filled with flea markets misrepresented as antique shops, and a smattering of gas stations that also serve food. In Fayetteville, overgrown graves whose names were long lost still may be found in a pocket of someone’s yard. Civil War re-enactors occasionally crouch in the shrubbery of historic district homes, gnawing on candy bars during breaks from killing each other.
But it is the hills outside of town where our history seems most apparent in the smallest details. Sometimes hiking through the dense, unmarked woods you come across a few flowers planted by an early settler. The site may be so old there is little left but a pile of fallen stones where the fireplace once stood, but a few lines of jonquils let you know that a woman once looked out from her front porch and thought this patch of hilltop needed some extra color. Every time I see those blooms I can’t get that woman out of my mind, the water she must have hauled from a well or spring, bearing children with little assistance, cooking over a wood fire, going hungry as many did, rough clothes and rough work. Her man probably built the cabin, the fireplace, no doubt with her assistance, but the only thing left there is something placed for the sake of beauty, rather than function, by her hands. She is still there, and the woods feel more alive with ghosts to me than anywhere else when I see those flowers.
4. Common jobs and industries and the effect on the city’s personality. . .
The University of Arkansas has always made Fayetteville more funky than other towns in the state. It had that college town feel when I was growing up, bars and smoky pool halls, with a heavy dose of hippified influences from when farms were so cheap that you could start a back-to-land commune in the 70s if you could get enough people and goats together near a water source. The only one still operating outside of town is run by lesbians and originally founded on feminist principals. The co-ed ones died out, perhaps because the labor of farming fell more heavily on women while their men, transplanted with their ideals from Northern cities, seemed to pontificate more than farm. Even as a kid I remember some of those guys with their ponytails, languidly mouthing off about capitalism while their women hefted things into a truck or busied their hands with making bread or tending children. Eventually I heard the men came back to the shack to find the corn unground and the woodstove cold, their women moved on to their own land or back to Chicago.
With Walmart, JB Hunt Trucking, and Tyson Foods International all headquartered here, the combination of liberal-principled college town and international corporate expansion creates a truly unique culture. Those original back-to-landers who moved to town have prospered in this environment and found a market for their hand-carved spoons, their dried lavender and artisanal honey. They turned their original dope profits into thriving businesses to serve the construction boom. The multi-generational locals also benefited if they had any land or property still in their possession. Dairy farmers knocked the shit from their boots forever and became land developers.
Whatever your feelings about the business practices of Walmart, you cannot live here and not benefit from the investment the company has put into this community. Our arts center, museums, and support services are either created or heavily funded by Walmart, and the resulting money this has attracted has changed everything. The value of my house is perpetually climbing, and we wouldn’t be getting a Whole Foods in two months without Walmart and the vendors who must maintain a fulltime office here for each company that sells products. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Tom Cruise wouldn’t be showing up for shareholder events without Walmart here. I know people who refuse to shop there but still love to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, an outstanding art collection and facility built by the Walton Foundation. Beyond the obvious changes to our landscape from the boom, the rise of McMansions blooming like mushrooms in cow pastures that radiate out from the city limits, the benefits to our infrastructure, schools, and arts facilities, almost anyone who is from here has benefited from these companies and their investment into our town.
This isn’t the Arkansas people who haven’t been here hear about. I once had a literary agent ask me, “Who gives a fuck about Arkansas?” when he wanted to know where my current work was set. “Who gives a fuck about Brooklyn?” I said, then trying to find a way for me to make it relevant to any asshat with a business card, I mentioned Walmart.
5. Local/regional vocabulary or food?
I still have a Southern accent, though not nearly as strong as it once was. A defining moment for me here was the first time someone asked me where I was from because of that accent. It saddened me to think the place has changed that much, been so diffused by the influx of people that my voice is an anomaly. You can drive a few minutes outside of town and still pick it right back up though, and the arguments that this really isn’t the South seem ludicrous and out of touch.
When I think of local food, I always go straight to brown beans and cornbread, chicken and dumplings, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and walnut pies with crusts crafted from a lard base. There are few restaurants remaining, if any, that pull these off better than you can make at home. We have restaurants that make a strong attempt using only freshly grown produce from small, locally owned farms. I raise chickens and ducks for eggs in my backyard thanks to our generous urban farming ordinance. My personal favorite is my own brunch consisting of fresh buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy and a side of bacon and cheese grits that provides enough calories for an entire week on one plate.
6. Local politics and debates frequently seem to center on. . .
Where there is money, you can also find religion attempting to acquire power and convert basic laws into bizarre interpretation of Biblical rule. This is a problem in the Bible Belt, but it is unfortunately not limited to the South as national politics reveal. A few minutes north of here is a church headed by the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, marked by massive crosses rising up to 175-feet high along interstate 49, and a rumored helicopter to zip the star preacher to multiple sermons on Sunday. Up that way, we also have the cultish and disturbing dynasty of the Duggars of the now defunct, 19 Kids and Counting. The concentration of media-savvy Christian right-wingers with seemingly endless coffers so near us leads to some heated debates locally, and the attempt to intervene in elections in which they are not even eligible to vote.
Last year, the Duggars became involved in opposing legislation that sought to ensure our community was a safe, welcoming place for LGBT citizens. I personally received robo-calls from Michele Duggar, as did many Fayetteville citizens, warning me of the dangers this would introduce to women and children in public restrooms. The Duggars do not live in Fayetteville, but they invested heavily in an advertising campaign against the ordinance and bussed people in to vote who normally would have ignored it. The ordinance was narrowly defeated, but thanks to the outrage of Fayetteville citizens, it was reintroduced to the ballot on September 8th and passed, despite the second attempt to heavily influence the election.
I’m proud of Fayetteville standing up to this kind of organized intolerance, and it is through the tireless campaign efforts of locals that this massive effort to promote discrimination was defeated. Rather than focus upon the existence of the religious right and their entrenched values in some of our surrounding communities, I think it is important to recognize the sheer will of the people here to defeat the voices that demand we discriminate. Whenever I think of Fayetteville, those are the kind of people who deserve the most commendation, and the ones who compose the majority of our voting public.
Photo by author.