Urban oasis: Bernice Garden

9 Sep

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, some forward-thinking person scratched the word “hope” into cement poured for the foundation of the Bernice Garden in downtown Little Rock. Today, it seems only fitting that such a sentiment is the sole defacement in the tiny, blooming oasis in an area of town long considered unsafe, even seedy.

When assemblage artist and collector Anita Davis bought the vacant lot at the corner of Daisy Bates and Main streets in 2005, it was a blank canvas waiting for a person with vision and imagination to bring it to life. Now it’s a vibrant cultural and artistic hub as well as a serene place for reflection or simply taking a break during a hectic workday.

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy)

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy The Bernice Garden)

On Sundays from April through November, visitors flock to the Farmers Market devoted to local and organic products, then linger at the garden to enjoy the native plants and sculptures by Arkansas artists. Many stroll on over to the neighboring Bernice and Lincoln buildings, also owned by Davis, for a bite to eat at Boulevard Bread Co. or to savor a scoop of handmade Loblolly ice cream at the Green Corner Store.

The garden also hosts the Arkansas Cornbread Festival each November, which last year attracted more than 3,000 cornbread lovers. In May, the farmer’s market shared space with the first Arkansas Strawberry Festival as a celebration of Mother’s Day. In April, poultry and plant enthusiasts were invited to gather and swap chicks and seedlings.

Even when there are no events, you’ll see people sitting under the wooden shelter eating lunch, dog owners letting their pooches sniff the greenery or neighborhood children romping among the sculptures. Everything in the garden was created for and by Arkansans, with the focus on valuing and using native resources.

Bringing sculpture and art to the South Main area was one of Davis’s goals, but she also wanted to encourage and nurture Arkansas artists. So each year, she invites Arkansas artists to submit sculpture designs, then a committee selects six for installation in the garden for one year. 

“Nurture” is a word Davis uses often when describing her projects along the two-block stretch of Main between Daisy Bates and 16th streets where she also owns the building housing The Root Cafe and one she’s renovated or the Esse Purse Museum, a celebration of women and handbags througout the 20th century. Davis says she sees her enterprises not just as businesses, but as ways of nurturing the area by attracting entrepeneurs, artists and others interested in developing and recycling natural assets. And she wanted those already living in the neighborhood to benefit from her efforts.

“The garden has definitely made the neighborhood more family friendly,” says Dana Landrum, who lives within walking distance and frequently visits the garden with her three children. “It’s a gathering place for us as a community and it also attracts people who don’t live in the neighborhood. It’s a great way to introduce them to our community.”

When Davis bought the vacant lot in 2005, she had no grand plans. She had purchased the Bernice Building next door in 2004 as a business investment and as a storage space for furniture and other items she had inherited from her parents. When the lot became available, she decided to acquire it too. After that, everything “grew organically,” Davis says.

Looking back, the timing seems serendipitous because it was a period during which Davis was educating herself about the green movement. Keenly interested in recycling and reducing waste as well as repurposing old things for new uses, Davis went to Seattle, Wash., to attend a National Main Street organization conference. There, she learned about “placemaking,” the concept of designing or creating public spaces that honor the qualities, values and assets of a community or neighborhood. She realized her empty lot could become a community hub, a nurturing center for the South Main area and its residents. While a privately owned space, it would be open for public enjoyment.

As much as possible, Davis wanted the garden to reflect the nature of Arkansans. As the Bernice Garden website says, “Arkansans tend to be of hearty stock, people who can stand up to every extreme while retaining a sense of whimsy. The artwork and structures of The Bernice Garden reflect these qualities, adding unique and understated beauty to the mix.”

She also pursued a “sustainability” aspect, using recycled or repurposed materials for the structure, artwork and other features. A walkway of crushed glass — tumbled so that it has no sharp edges — winds throughout the 100-by-150-foot space. The resurfaced concrete patio was once the foundation for a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant that occupied the lot until it burned to the ground. A 50-gallon cistern for gathering rainwater is covered with reclaimed wood from slave quarters at the Alexander Plantation in Scott. The patio’s wood canopy funnels rainwater into the cistern; the collected water sustains the native plants with which garden is landscaped.

Laverne Davis, master gardener

Laverne Davis, master gardener (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy of The Bernice Garden

Davis entrusted master gardener LaVerne Davis (who isn’t related to Anita) to keep the garden growing and blooming: “When LaVerne is working out in the garden, she’s so joyous. People just come up to her and they have this joyous exchange.”

“I feel like I’m an artist and this is my canvas,” LaVerne Davis says. “I absolutely love this garden. This feeds my spirit. It’s a peaceful place to work.”

A couple of times a week, LaVerne and assistant Willie Allen trundle in with seedlings in styrofoam cups, along with pruning shears, shovels and other tools. They weed and plant, rotating plants in and out according to season.
“Color, color, color, color,” LaVerne Davis crows when asked what she’s got planned for the garden this summer. “Lots of pink and bright, bright colors. Myself, I like color.”

The garden not only benefits the neighborhood, but also attracts people who don’t live in the immediate area to get out of their comfort zone to check out Main Street south of Interstate 430, says Liz Sanders, Bernice Garden coordinator. “I’ve had many people tell me they’d never been south of Community Bakery” at 12th and Main streets, Sanders says, explaining that the perception formerly was that the south Main Street area wasn’t safe and that people wouldn’t go there to shop or attend events. That’s changed, largely because of Davis’s efforts.

“It’s been amazing. What’s going on down here deserves attention,” Sanders says. “It’s something to say that Anita is a private citizen spending her money in this part of town and putting her heart into it.”

LaVerne Davis says visitors to the park are always curious about the garden, its dual public/private nature, and how it was developed. Many have an emotional reaction when visiting, especially when talking with her about the plants.

“We have a lot of folks come in and they are not familiar with a lot of plants but when they see ones like marigolds and coxcomb, they’re reminded of their grandmothers’ yards,” she says. “I remember one morning, a guy came by looking very, very sad. I smiled and said good morning. I asked him if he recognized any of these plants. He said he did — zinnia. When we finished talking, that sad, sad face was gone. He left with a big smile.”

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One Response to “Urban oasis: Bernice Garden”

  1. Kristin September 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    Great story. We drive from Bryant on Sunday mornings to the market because we love the garden space. Thank you Anita and Laverne!

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