Ft Smith: A foot in history, another in the future
"A foot in history, the other in the future"
For those of you moving to Fort Smith or considering visiting there, it is my pleasure to turn you on to some things about Fort Smith that you won't see in books or from a tour guide. Fort Smith is a city more like a town. It is divided into sleepy neighborhoods, historical vs. non-historical areas, and being on the edge of rural Oklahoma, you will be hard pressed to find anyone in a big hurry.
But if I gave you a little history of Ft. Smith's dark past, you will appreciate how progressive it is sharply becoming.
Problems started early--Right before the turn of the 20th century there was a hanging judge that came to keep criminals from riding over the border into Indian territory. Simultaneously the natives were fighting with each other, so a strict governance was needed. Judge Isaac Parker is credited with accomplishing this. In a span of just under 20 years, he hung over 100 men and arrested countless others. Ft. Smith was an awful place to live in those days. Because many people are ashamed of it, you won't hear how the majority of the commerce in early Ft. Smith was centered around prostitution. We were on the edge of the Trail of Tears' end, and for many people, the last chance to party before making the long haul to settle out West.
When my father was growing up, he remembered a lot of wilderness in the area where there are now miles of Wal-marts, Blockbusters and shopping malls. Interestingly he also remembers a small camp in the woods where he and his siblings claim to have ran into Romanian-American gypsies.
At that time the downtown, on the other hand, had everything--a Boston store, general store, newstand, restaurants, civic centers and banks. It still had the smaller Mayberry feel. Then in the 60's Arkansas became the first Southern state to desegregate the public schools. African Americans were removed from Lincoln high school and improvements were made to expand Ft. Smith high, which I attended years later. Some people weren't very happy about it, and either for lack of room or plentitude of prejudice, they decided to build another high school. Cleverly, they put in expensive housing in the rural Southwest suburbs where my dad grew up. The price of that property was too expensive for most minorities in those days to purchase, so the school served predominantly whites. The school and the new area become known as Southside and Ft. Smith high became Northside high. Northside and Southside were rivals for years. Southside's mascot--no joke--was a confederate general and even in the 90's when I was in high school, devoted fans waved the confederate flag. People didn't think much of it in the early days, however, and Southside later recognized its past apologetically. It is now one of the best high schools in my opinion, although I did grow up loathing it.
Now fast forward to what Ft. Smith has become: one of the first school districts to create elaborate multi-cultural understanding programs, one of the first in the whole state to have curbside recycling, reliable public transportation, and a public library with a whole floor devoted to geneological research and special activities for children. This is a great time to be in Ft. Smith, by the way, since they decided to make the already excellent community college into a 4-year branch of the University of Arkansas. Now many talented scholars are flocking to this very historical place to set up shop on the beautiful campus. It is really affecting the community in a positive way and increasing the opportunity it can enjoy right at home.
"Fort Smith: On crime and burgers"
Newcomers looking to bring their families will be happy to hear that Ft. Smith has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. When I was in college in another state, a friend of mine had heard on the national news that four guys had jumped on a man with a gun intending to rob a burger joint downtown Ft. Smith. I smugly thought to myself that it says it in a nutshell how we folks regard lawless activity.
There are, however, places that you shouldn't go at night. The lonely parks around the river are not a good choice unless they are hosting one of the many festivals held throughout the year. You are likely to get robbed or harrassed, maybe even in daylight, so just don't go wandering. There are also a lot of mangy stray dogs across that river into Oklahoma, so if you decide to take the long romantic stroll across the bridge, you might be see one.
Well, that is my local perspective on Ft. Smith. Oh, by the way, I do believe that the Old Fort Museum still serves Old Fashioned Ice Cream and sodas, and you know that burger joint I was talking about? It's owned by my dad's childhood friend Harry and the place, "Harry's Hamburger Barn" has the best beer, burgers, and atmosphere in town. If you're into something light and fancy, I recommend "El Chisme Cafe" or "Eduardo's Cafe", started by Eduardo, a chef from Ecuador, and his former wife Mary. You'll love the food and awesome South American decor
And that's my novel about Ft. Smith.