Conway's an Arkansas town. That means that for the most part, we're pretty set in our ways. When people come in with newfangled ideas, implying that the way we've been doing things isn't necessarily the best, that gets our back up a little bit. We're liable to say some pretty heated things in defense of a status quo we never liked that much until somebody had the gall to suggest it could be improved.
My favorite recent example of this was a proposed sign ordinance primarily impacting Oak Street, the road that goes through our picturesque downtown and then devolves into fast-food tattoo-parlor shopping strip territory for the next half mile until it hits the freeway. Business owners, looking for the most effective (and that often means obtrusive) way to get passersby's attention, naturally opposed the ordinance. When push came to shove at the City Council meeting where the ordinance was debated, and the city planning director gestured at a photograph of the wires and signs and LEDs littering Oak Street with the comment, "That's ugly," a businessman stood up for a different aesthetic viewpoint. "That's not ugly," he retorted. "That's beautiful. I think that's beautiful."
We've got a new round of changes coming to our little town -- the kind you drive around. The first roundabout on a major thoroughfare in the city opened last year at the intersection of Tyler and Washington streets, hard by Hendrix College. The city's official website promises that more roundabouts are on the way, and they ain't lying. Road construction on Prince Street and Western Avenue, just north of Conway High School and next to the west end of Laurel Park, has progressed far enough to be identifiable as a roundabout.
Now I love roundabouts. I was thrilled when the Washington Street roundabout opened, and I now take every opportunity to drive through there. I've never seen more than momentary confusion or hesitation from drivers navigating the roundabout, even when it was first completed, and I haven't seen anything but absolutely smooth sailing for months (I drive through it 3-4 times a week).
I admit that the concept is something we're not used to. The city felt it might be helpful to include links to educational videos on the subject of roundabout etiquette on its homepage. But it's only one lane and four entrances, people. I think even the oldest stick-in-the-muds here in town should be able to figure it out.
Yet a few months after the Washington Street roundabout was completed, a letter to the editor appeared in the paper from someone apoplectic about the prospect of having more of these abominations constructed. He claimed to have seen daily examples of near-crashes, cars stopping in the middle of the roundabout in utter confusion, and even folks backing up when they missed their exit the first time around. Dire predictions of the apocalypse followed, should the city be foolish enough to expand its roundabout experiment. In fact, the letter writer has the resigned, exasperated tone of those who are certain disaster is right around the corner, but that people with their minds set on absolute stupidity cannot be stopped by plain common sense.
Needless to say, the roundabout of progress kept churning despite the writer's intimations of doom. And ironically, I doubt that his mind has been changed by the failure of fatal accidents (or any accidents that I know about) to materialize at Washington and Tyler. I can't wait to see a fresh round of outrage at the change of traffic pattern on Prince Street, which will fade unremarked and unremembered when we become used to the changes and no longer feel inclined to call ugliness beauty, safety danger, and a circle a square.