Save the Dreamland

Arkansas Democrat Gazette
January 8, 2009

If Ninth Street could talk…..

Walk into the Dreamland ballroom, or what’s left of it, and you understand wny it’s called dreamland. Ther’s just enough left of the elegant ballroom to let your imagination fill in the blanks. The once vibrant night life of Little Rock’s Ninth Street lives again, if only in your thoughts.

Standing on the ballroom’s crumbling state, you catch a glimpse of another and now long-lost world. You see the dancers twirling on the ballroom floor, and can almost hear Duke Ellington’s orchestra swing through “take the A Train,” “Muy Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo”……

The Dreamland is on the top floor of a building that’s now home to Arkansas Flag and Banner. Not too long ago, the old brick structure was being auctioned off on the courthouse steps. Drivers on Interstate 630 surely know the building. They must have spotted it time and again, but that’s about as close as most of us get. It’s just an old building on an old street where the sidewalks end and driveways lead to building that disappeared long ago.

That’s how Ninth Street is these days- lopped off at Izard Street by the interstate. In plain view but overlooked all the same.

Yes, Little Rock’s lost far more than Ninth Street over the years. The city seems to shed its skin every generation or so, giving up some priceless bit of its past for a newer, brighter, shinier face.

Not e the ongoing debat/debacle over Ray Winder Field, the old ball park that was once a gem in the city’s crown and now is just a dust-covered bit of paste. The Travelers left years ago but, after mindless dithering by the city’s would-be-leaders, the old ball field’s future-if-any is still being debated. The options: Sell the park to the University of Arkansas’ medical center to be converted into a parking lot or a future expansion, or transfer it to the city zoo for an elephant grounds. Or just keep it the same, a ball park.

None of these alternatives are particularly appealing. The vision of War Memorial Park as a real showplace, Little Rock’s answer to New York’s Central park, complete with beautiful gardens, has never caught on, more’s the pity. Little Rock would rather dither.

But at least folks want to do something with Ray Winder. There’s concern for the ballpark, interest in the property, and, even better, real money on the table, to wit” a 1.1-million bid for it from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. As far as we know, the weedy lots on Ninth Street haven’t attracted any big-money offers from outside investors. Instead its fate being debated, the street seems to have been given up for lost.

Thank goodness not everybody’s hurrying to the old strip. Some folks still see something worth saving. According to a a story in last Tuesday’s paper, the people at Arkansas Flag and Banner art trying to save the old Dreamland ballroom.

They’re getting help from a few musicians who’d like to do a show someday where Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and so many others once played.

Who can blame them? It’d be like shooting hoops ona court where Wilt Chamberlain once dribbled, a chance to relive the glorious past. Think of Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Why can’t Little Rock do much the same? doesn’t Arkansas’ capital city have lot of superannuated musicians- and young ones, too- who’d love to dream a little dream? Oh, we’d want to be there when those saints go marching in.

Driving through the pre-fab expanse of the city’s newest neighborhoods, where real architecture sticks out among the boxes, and one giant parking lot blends into another, you can’t help but feel grateful for the dreams that remain. Oh, if only we were willing to stop for a moment and commune with the ghosts. They have a lot to say- if you’re listening. Ninth Street may be gone, but a priceless bit of it still remains, a dreamland waiting to be revived.

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