A lot of America is subject to cultural stereotypes, good and bad. Southern hospitality. Hot tubs in Marin County. Rude New Yorkers. Traveling through Oklahoma and Arkansas, I am reminded that people from these states have been type cast as “backward.” The stereotype can probably be traced to the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s, when thousands of “Okies” and “Arkies” migrated to California to find work. Many had been farmers and ranchers who found themselves powerless during an economic depression that left many homeless or barely getting by in a strange new place. Maybe people who are feeling that vulnerable could seem a little “backward” to their more fortunate, and sometimes disdainful, new neighbors.
But Oklahoma and Arkansas so far don’t support the stereotypes. My San Francisco bestie, Carol, met me in Oklahoma City this week and we loved it. Our hotel was in a fun neighborhood called “Bricktown,” which the city has restored by creating parks, a waterway, and walking trails. That in turn has attracted restaurants and bars, innovative architecture, and a lot of people enjoying themselves.
A few blocks away, the civic center is similarly walkable and currently full of brightly-colored tulips and daffodils. Most impressive is the neighborhood’s memorial to honor the victims of the 1995 bombing of the city’s Murrah Federal Building. The memorial is two marble walls at opposite ends of a granite reflecting pool. One wall represents the time before the bombing and the other represents the time after the bombing. On the adjacent lawn, 168 granite chairs name the tragedy’s 168 victims. Describing it doesn’t do it justice. The memorial is a powerful work of art that is both inspiring and peaceful.
Yesterday, we left Oklahoma City and headed east to Bentonville, Arkansas. Bentonville is the home of the Walton family and Walmart’s corporate headquarters. I wanted to visit this small town to understand how a family that has put small businesses out of business, exploited working people, and homogenized the things we buy has created a place where small retailers are thriving, residents are well-heeled, and individual expression is celebrated.
Bentonville is truly a place where most Americans would want to raise their kids. Giant parks provide miles of groomed and flowered trails for hikers and bikers. On the tree-line town square, locals stand in line for 99 cent scoops of Walton ice cream. This community of 50,000 residents also has a world class art museum. The museum itself is a work of art, designed to complement the geography of the Ozarks, and inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Its exhibits acknowledge — in English and Spanish — how art presents us with varying perspectives, cultural biases, and hope for what is best in us.
The museum is free, bringing visitors from around the world who can enjoy excellent restaurants, public art all over town, and a feeling that the world is a nearly perfect place. All of what is best in this town is courtesy of the Walton family, whose business shelves beauty products for black women in locked cases, and requires people buying them to use a special register at the back of the store. https://www.wjtv.com/news/national/i-was-shocked-new-walmart-checkout-policy-called-racially-biased/
The Walton family seems to have an amazing vision for American communities. What if they used their enormous power to create more Bentonvilles? Isn’t that a legacy any family would want? Maybe there’s a suggestion box somewhere around here.
Each Wal-Mart store should reflect the values of its customers and support the vision they hold for their community.
— Sam Walton