This year I’ve given talks in Tokyo, Osaka, Baku, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, London, Montreal, Palm Springs, and other places.
But I think the coolest place I’ve been to all year is Bentonville, Arkansas.
Yes, Bentonville, Arkansas.
A couple months ago I was invited to be part of a speaker series at a new place called BlakeSt. It’s not a country club: there’s no golf course, though there is an ozone pool (better for you than chlorine) and other athletic facilities, and a truly beautiful building. (Part of it is the home of Betty Blake, who went on to marry Will Rogers. The expansion is completely seamless, the beautifully executed.) It’s a bit more like a London club, but with more programming, and more of an emphasis on wellness and creativity, not drinking so much your valet has to pour you into the carriage.
One of the striking things about the place is that while the exterior just looks like a really nice, big house— and in this respect it fits right into the area and really respects its location— the interior is a riot of really, really good art. The staircase leading up to the second floor has a bunch of photographic portraits, including one of the only photographs of Abraham Lincoln, and an amazing picture of Biggie Smalls.
Of course, the Walton family is known for its art collecting: the Crystal Bridges Museum is the most prominent example, but there are tons of Walton-sponsored art projects and collections.
It also has a truly spectacular music room, which an incredible JBL Paragon D44000 speaker from the 1960s, photographs of rock icons, and a pretty good collection of vinyl records and a fabulous turntable. (Van Halen really sounds amazing through the system.)
Needless to say, when I was prepping for my talk, I took over the music room, selected a bunch of records (Ziggy Stardust, Van Halen 1, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” a couple others), and got down to work.
And because of the curious demographics of Bentonville (about which more below), the crowd was really smart and engaged— they came for active rest, really got into the activities, and asked great and thoughtful questions after the talk.
So a marvelously-curated venue, an interesting crowd— it all made for a cool event.
Bentonville though, is really fascinating. It’s the home of Walmart— the first Walton’s store has been turned into a museum— and BlakeSt is a project started by one member of the Walton clan. I spent part of my childhood in a small town in Virginia, and I keep thinking that Bentonville is a great example of what a small Southern town can become with good-old fashioned grit, determination, American optimism, and tens of billions of dollars.
In most places, new money just steamrolls the past. Think of most Chinese cities, where historic buildings just get crushed by new money. In Bentonville, in contrast, the money hasn’t destroyed the past; what it’s done is something more like fermentation— a transformation that creates something new in which the original is still visible, but also transformed and preserved.
For example, Bentonville has some also some terrific mural work. But you really have to wait until dark to appreciate the most interesting art installations: the awesome neon art all over downtown.
You’d expect to see neon in a small town; but only a few of them are commercial signs. Many of them are art works by Roadhouse Relics founder Todd Sanders, one of the leading neon Pop artists working today. The shift from business to high art, and art works that reference America’s commercial past— a perfect target for Walmart wealth.
The town is also super-clean, there are nice little parks and playgrounds everywhere, and the Bentonville fire station seems to double as a vintage fire engine museum. So unlike lots of wealth, it’s gone back into public infrastructure, not just private collections.
But it isn’t just the Walton family alone that has created this unique environment. Walmart’s global headquarters are still in Bentonville, and so the town has a lot of executives from companies that are major Walmart suppliers or vendors. As a result, people who formerly lived in New York or LA or Seattle, or come from Europe or Asia, now find themselves in Bentonville. And what’s followed this global expat population? A ton of cool restaurants, coffee places, boutiques— the sort of thing they’re used to— as well as BlakeSt, which aims to be a kind of social hub.
As a result, you get these crazy juxtapositions. One morning I had an espresso at Onyx Coffee Lab. Onyx is the only place I’ve ever seen in the US that uses a Budapest-style coffee service (the most civilized in the world, as far as I’m concerned). So that was kinda weird.
But Onyx is across the street from the Flying Fish, a diner-style place serving fried catfish and crawdads. It looks like it’s been there since 1950.
And the weird thing? Neither one feels out of place.
I can’t decide if the result is more like Disneyland’s Main Street USA, or the Truman Show, or the Southern Reach in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation— the juxtaposition of real small-town Americana, world-class modern art, and global elite culture is kind of mind-bending. But given my own experience— growing up in the South, living in Silicon Valley, working all over the world— I really love it.
Of course, the old Waltons store stands across the street from the town square where there’s a Confederate statue, and Bentonville itself is on the Trial of Tears, so the history isn’t all Steamboat Willie and patriotic newsreels. And you could make the case that beautiful modern-yet-traditional Bentonville is polished with the rags of all those small town businesses that Wal Mart has eviscerated over the last several decades— that the lovely town is a monument to an enormous transfer of wealth driven by a rapacious business model and ruthless corporation.
But at the same time, there’s something else about the atmosphere, something that I love to see when I go to the Netherlands or Denmark. The amount of well-designed public space and public art, the wealth without ostentation, the power that doesn’t express itself by living outside the rules— it’s all exceptionally orderly and civic in a way we don’t see quite as clearly as we should every day in America. Very unexpectedly, Bentonville has the feel of a social democracy.
Of course, it’s still Arkansas
No one is really innocent (writes the man who got his start in life with a college scholarship from a tobacco company). The question is what people who are lucky enough to have (or to have inherited) wealth and power do with it.
Anyway, going to Baku was awesome, and I’ll never forget it. Likewise, Tokyo and Seoul are always fascinating. But I look forward to seeing what happens next in Bentonville, and where it goes.