From humblest beginnings as a dirt road for carriages and horseback riders in the earliest days of Little Rock, to the “modern-day” convenience of a red-brick road for horseless carriages to get to some of the finest homes in growing Little Rock at the turn of the 20th century, to the hot spot it is today, South Main Street and its surroundings has been through many incarnations – some grand and some, let’s just say difficult.
The area was still in its first heyday when historic Central High School (then called “Little Rock Senior High”) was built in 1927 for the princely sum of $1.5 million a few blocks over on Park Street. In 1947, when construction began on the Governor’s Mansion two blocks over on Center Street – and when it was finished and occupied in early 1950 – the neighborhood was still stately and Main Street flourished.
As people began moving to the suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some beautiful mansions became rooming houses or apartments, but businesses on the south end of Main still hopped, especially Sweden Creme at 15th and Main (home of The Root Cafe today), where some claimed one could get the best soft-serve ice cream in town.
Then came the would-be kiss of death in the form of Interstate 630, a 20-years-in-the-making divider that split Main Street into “downtown,” north of the freeway, and “South Main,” which became a bit of a no-man’s land. If people didn’t have specific business across the freeway, they rarely ventured over.
A couple of stalwart businesses withstood the trying times. Community Bakery continued to thrive at 14th and Main, then expanded and relocated to 12th and Main in the early 1990s. Midtown Billiards, which a fixture since the 1940s, moved to its South Main spot in the 1970s, despite the divisive freeway.
But things weren’t so great on South Main until The Bernice Garden began sprouting in 2006, the brainchild of owner Anita Davis. Almost like in a fairy tale, the addition of a little beauty began the 10-year-or-so transformation of a beast of a street into one of the most popular spots in town. Now a thriving, walkable, family friendly fun spot for food, shopping, and a highly unusual museum, SoMa attracts new residents and visitors from all over the world.
Part historic, part hipster-heaven, South Main – SoMa – began as an accidental neighborhood, a now-happy bi-product of an unhappy division of Main Street by a major freeway through the middle of Little Rock. Though the area took years to rebound, the only real problem SoMa has now is its boundless attractiveness; people and businesses want in, but real estate is hard to come by.
But the eclectic businesses, historic homes, revitalized apartments, and bits of top-notch new construction blend together in a deliciously distinctive urban pie that everyone should taste at least once. From shops to restaurants to music venues to unusual spaces to create art (or new bodies), SoMa has something to suit every taste.
And SoMa is conveniently close to Central High (the only high school in the U.S. that’s also a national park), Mt. Holly Cemetery, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Clinton Presidential Library, and many more important Little Rock sites.