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Philadelphia recedes through the cabin window of my plane, the Comcast towers and turtle-shell stadiums disappearing, along with the drug and gun epidemics swallowing neighborhoods whole.
I land in an entirely different version of an American city. Rolling through the wide, lush, tree-lined streets of Bentonville, Arkansas, I have arrived in what appears to be a safe, clean, outpost in northwest Arkansas that in short order has become home to a flourishing middle class and the best museums within a thousand miles. I’ve made it just in time for the start of the Bentonville Film Festival. At the pristine Skylight Cinema I snag one of the last backrow seats just before the house lights dim.
After some cursory remarks from the festival’s organizers thanking Walmart, the founding sponsor, as well as Coca-Cola, the presenting sponsor, the films begin. I soon realize we won’t be watching films at all. The first tranche of screenings for this Storytellers Showcase, which I wrongly assumed to be a slate of indie shorts, are instead the finalists who’d created commercials as part of the Coca-Cola Refreshing Films Program.
The opening spot features a slim, attractive white woman texting plans to meet up with a slim attractive Indian woman at an AMC cineplex, where they purchase Cokes in the lobby before walking into the theater. The camera pans over 28 diverse audience members—many ethnicities, gay couples, etc.—with everyone holding a Coke product, label out, smiling like children being tucked into bed. And that’s the commercial. ”I strive to give representation to outcasts and underdogs,” the director, Christine Zivic, writes in the mission statement I find on my phone. “My upbringing in a neurodiverse family, with Serbian and French-Canadian parents informs my progressive outlook on cultural diversity and inclusion.”
I look around the theater to see if anyone else is confused or surprised to have paid $40 for a ticket to this screening, only to end up watching soda commercials. But the standing-room-only crowd, some of whom are drinking Cokes purchased in the lobby, appear entranced.
In the next commercial, I realize that Zivic misstepped by not including anyone from the disabled community. Titled “A Leg Up,” this spot follows a young white girl with a broken leg and crutches frustrated by her injury as she tries to make a meal in her kitchen. Suddenly appearing in the theater lobby, she purchases her 48 oz. Coke and large popcorn, and then via some movie magic that helps her carry the wares, she’s in her seat beaming manically. The theater is packed: A young white man high-fives a young Black man, a trio of women, one Asian, one Black, and one white joyfully recline into their seats, while nearby a young white woman with blond hair leans on the shoulder of her young Black date.
They all go on like this, and oddly, none of the creators introducing their finalist spots in prerecorded messages, nor the festival organizers adding their 2 cents at the front of the theater, calls them commercials—or even branded content. These are all films.
And this, I realize, is Bentonville—the greatest product Walmart has ever sold.
A short walk from the film festival screen is the free-admission site of the Walmart History Museum, a temporary location while the new state-of-the-art facility, set to launch in 2024, is under construction. It is easy to forget, wandering the museum, that for much of the first 20 years of this century, Walmart’s reputation was in tatters. Perusing Sam Walton’s family photos, and the lucite paperweights of mini Walmart stock prospectuses, the case is convincingly made that all Walton ever wanted to do was spread the good gospel of affordable prices for regular, working-day people.
In the back of the museum, a holographic Sam Walton sits on a stool in a bright, white box. He wears a red tie, sports coat, and blue jeans. Though Sam died in 1992, and the box has more than a passing resemblance to an open coffin, the virtual Walton appears quite real, shifting his weight back and forth while he waits for visitors to engage his AI-powered voice to discuss his road to success as one of the richest humans in history. When I try to chat up the projection, Walton’s major motor functions seemed to be offline, yet his digital eyes still follow me as I read his words off a display. “I would like to be remembered as a good friend,” he once said. “I have such a strong feeling for the folks in our company. They have meant so much to me.”
Some of those folks—or associates, in Walmart’s parlance—might have struggled to fully register the warm feelings during and after Sam’s reign. The history of Walmart’s breakneck expansion across the United States includes a long list of victims broken or destroyed by the company. “Wal-Mart has been fingered as the source of virtually every conceivable economic ill. It kills jobs and downtowns, say critics, and destroys community character,” according to a 2008 Federal Reserve Bank report. “[Walmart’s] been accused of discriminating against women, using illegal immigrants, requiring work off the clock and being overly aggressive in stopping the formation of labor unions among its workers. It’s been blamed for sprawl and traffic congestion, as well as aesthetic offenses.”
As Walmart’s communications officers have tirelessly argued in response to such criticisms, the company provided products at a low price to many places that didn’t have them, as well as jobs where the alternatives might have been fast food, dangerous factory work, or nothing at all. Still, their low wages left tens of thousands of workers unable to “make ends meet without their paychecks being leavened by government food stamps, Medicaid, or the succor of a nonprofit,” as Rick Wartzman observes in his book about the retailer, Still Broke.
In contrast to a company like General Motors, which, as Wartzman points out, helped build the postwar American middle class with union job security and benefits, the cutthroat mentality incubated by Sam Walton in Bentonville was to use Walmart’s dominance to eliminate retail competitors by slashing costs wherever possible—including on labor.
Walmart’s aggressive anti-union approach thwarted some doomed organizing efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, rapidly deploying corporate staff that could unleash a full court press against any sign of union activity in the break rooms. “I’ve never seen a company that will go to the lengths that Walmart goes to, to avoid a union,” said Martin Levitt, a former Walmart consultant who later wrote a book titled Confessions of a Union Buster. “They have zero tolerance.”
In the late 2000s, Walmart’s image had become so bad, and recruitment of top talent so difficult, that the company finally began to change some of its ways, at least cosmetically, by embracing environmental and corporate social justice initiatives, though it would take until this year for the company to bump its minimum hourly rate to $14—still hardly enough to keep track with the cost of living.
It was at this time that the family began investing in Bentonville, a former sleepy Southern town of livestock processing factories and cash crop farms that happened to become the headquarters to Walmart after Sam Walton opened his first retail location nearby. The exponential economic growth of Walmart catalyzed a similar change of pace across the whole city—and indeed all of northwest Arkansas—which has led to the explosive sprawl of beautifully designed restaurants and cultural amenities like the Tower Bar, the top-floor bar of Bentonville’s new modern art museum, The Momentary, where I found myself after an afternoon of film festival screenings.
One couple sat along the wall of glass quietly drinking craft cocktails and watching clouds float by like stage props, while Prince’s How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore played to the otherwise empty sixth-floor lounge. Midcentury bucket chairs and glistening terrazzo floors completed the cosmopolitan lacquer of this newly remodeled town, firming up an emergent version of the city that would be unfamiliar to anyone who called it home just a decade ago. But that kind of acute alienation from the recent past can simply be a sign of incredible progress.
“Boy, they make it seem like it’s the biggest thing in the world,” said Zach Orr, who’d taken a bar stool beside me. Orr was talking about the film festival, spread out along the lush lawn of The Momentary, which includes an outdoor performance stage that hosts popular bluegrass bands and once hot hip-hop acts like Wu-Tang and Outkast’s Big Boi. Like several other attractions in the area, the museum charges no admission, and the entire complex—museum, music venue, bar, artist-in-residence studio spaces—is one of dozens of big ticket projects spearheaded in recent years by the Walton brood. Before it opened, Sam Walton’s grandson Tom said The Momentary would be “huge for the younger generation, the millennial,” the type of attraction that would help Bentonville “become one of the hottest destinations in the country.”
Orr, 31, looked over a printed lineup for the Walton-funded film festival, noting that the program’s politics also seemed targeted to millennials. “Purpose Driven Progress,” he said, reading the title of a panel on the main stage. “That’s just about people competing to complain about who’s the biggest victim. Oh, wow—you’re a victim, in the most progressive community in America. I just don’t care. I’m too busy making money.”
A native of Little Rock, Orr had embraced the hustler’s mentality when he dropped out of the state university in Fayetteville. “I was going to class losing $1,000 a day,” he said, recalling the cost of attending lectures compared to running his power-washing business, cleaning the thousands of new windows sparkling across the booming business and residential sectors of Bentonville, which now stands as the commercial engine of northwest Arkansas (NWA). Selling the operation for a handsome pay day, Orr left the area for several years, streamlining front-of-house operations for Twin Peaks locations around the Middle West, a sports lodge chain chipping away at Hooter’s dominance in the breastaurant category. The nomadic pleasures of well-paid road life waned, though, as the siren of opportunity back home grew too loud to ignore.
When you talk to people in Bentonville a lot of stories go like this: Something the Walton’s built or funded created new, lucrative opportunities for various schemes and side hustles. Orr’s family, for example, recently caught wind of the site of the latest mountain bike trail being built in the area, and were poised to expand their rental property business to cash in on the new hot spot. Mountain biking was never a thing in Bentonville—but it’s a passion pursuit of Tom Walton and his brother Stuart, the millennial third gen heirs who’ve peeled off $75 million from the family fortune to build out hundreds of miles of new biking trails that, practically overnight, have made the four cities within northwest Arkansas—Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville—an international destination for cycling. As the site of the cyclocross world championships (sponsored by Walmart) and dozens of other events each year, the massive cash expenditure to build out the trails that thread in and around the downtown corridors have elevated the sport into a $159 million local market. Providing an outdoor recreational activity to Walmart’s middle-class knowledge workers and the thousands of vendors and suppliers that operate in close proximity to the retail giant, the money turned out to be a great “return on investment” Tom Walton told Outside magazine—and “a great model for rural America.”
Sipping The Momentary house old fashioned, I asked Orr about the seven construction cranes just outside the window in the middle distance. In fact, all around Bentonville, the only sound of comparable frequency to the whizzing metallic whine from packs of spandexed mountain bikers coasting along the wide, protected bike lanes that line the pristine streets was the heavy bang of dozers, jackhammers, and nail guns busily creating new luxury townhouses and commercial buildings on what seemed like every block. It’s all part of the infrastructure and housing needed to keep up with the inflow of 36 people currently moving to NWA every day. Recent estimates predict the area will double its current population to a million by 2045, a flood of new city dwellers that would make top-tier cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston blush with envy as they struggle to grow or even maintain their post-pandemic populations.
For Orr, as with many here I encountered, the primary draw is the opportunities created by Walmart. As both the world’s largest retailer, with a store at least 10 miles from every American driving up annual sales to some $570 billion, the company is also the biggest employer in America, with roughly 1.6 million people on its rolls—the equivalent of the entire city of Philadelphia. Walmart’s leaders have seen the writing on the wall about brick and mortar, and are now finally embracing the digital sphere as they spin up an e-commerce platform to compete with Amazon. Such an undertaking, though, requires a new kind of workforce—a highly educated talent pool of software engineers, web developers, cyber security experts, and other web-business operators accustomed to the restaurants, shopping, recreation, and entertainment they find in coastal urban centers. A type of lifestyle, in other words, that wasn’t available in the Ozark Mountains until Walmart decided to remodel them.
“I have connections to the people building the campus,” Orr said of the new Walmart headquarters being built by those cranes in front of us, adding that his uncle manages one of the construction outfits behind the new 350-acre Walmart home office. The roughly $1 billion facility will open in 2025 with 12 office buildings, its own hotel, pools, a yoga studio, and on-site fitness and food offerings competitive with the headquarters of Apple and other top Silicon Valley operators. “So I say, give me your campus, that’s like $40,000 a month in power-washing maintenance,” Orr says, estimating what he can make once he starts up a new power-washing outfit. “That’s my BMW account.”
Just about everyone I meet in Bentonville turns out to either be getting in on the Walmart hustle or know a handful of people trying to climb the ladder within the Walton extended family universe. The opportunities seem endless. As long as you are willing to play the game, you can come out a winner.
And it is a game that doesn’t appear to have many appealing alternatives—particularly for the region’s fastest growing target demographic, Americans in their 30s. It was that slice of the age bracket that held almost $4 trillion in debt by the end of 2022, a 27% increase from three years prior and the fastest rate of debt accumulation for the age group since the 2008 Great Recession. Looking to stretch their dollars, young, white-collar professionals continue to flood out of states with high costs of living. Last year, New York and California said goodbye to more upwardly mobile American workers under 35 than any other state, with most heading to the middle of the country.
But it’s not just economics repelling young Americans from expensive coastal enclaves. While crime rates are finally beginning to dip in major urban centers, the remote work exodus out of dense office districts took commercial activity with it, leaving behind clusters of homeless camps that continue to drive away retailers and restaurants of all sizes while office skyscrapers go dormant from lack of activity. Combine the decline in downtown amenities with some of the worst public transit systems in the country, and it’s no surprise that affordable, safe, and well-run cities like Bentonville are ascendant.
Yet, there’s a catch to getting all of these amenities at such a good price: The benefactors who built this city have a very particular notion of what life should look like. This isn’t so different from company towns built by reigning business titans of their day—at least the ones like Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Lowell, Massachusetts, which were generally benevolent to the employees they recruited to these corporate-centric communities, helping to build homes, churches, community centers, and even critical infrastructure while instilling a reigning culture that, as much as anything else, held up the company as an enlightened entity worthy of loyalty and devotion. What distinguishes Bentonivlle is that no family has ever had so much money at their disposal to execute such a comprehensive vision of what it means to live in an American city.
And Bentonville is but one example of a city being built festival by festival and museum by museum by America’s oligarchy, where fashionable politics and a trendy arts scene serve as the benign or even beautiful face of ruthless corporatization and elbows-out labor practices. It is, in fact, leading the way for a flourishing new form of oligarch urbanism—of centralized development concentrated around the interests and unprecedented wealth of a small group of the ultrarich. While these metro areas reflect the idiosyncratic preferences of their patrons—bike trails, eco-preservation, and modern American art in the case of Bentonville—they rely on the same homogenized corporate structures of clustered nonprofits and for-profit consultant entities that vertically integrate the local government and business economy to serve the parent corporation which the benefactors ultimately control.
To be sure, there were advantages to fabricating an entire metro area up from scratch with seemingly no budget constraints. Not only had the Waltons given birth to an entirely new arts scene and thriving recreational biking and hiking economy, but they helped the city with little budget items, too, smoothing out growing pains that can hinder local governments trying to quickly absorb tens of thousands of new residents. When I popped into the pristine city hall building to check out its calendar, I noticed that the city council was voting on a half-million dollars in grants from the Walton Family Foundation for a revised city land-use plan, as well as runway improvements at the local airport.
Across the street, larger efforts were underway at the Bentonville library. Already a large, spacious facility with private study rooms, a teen zone, adult work spaces, a fireplace reading nook, a genealogy center, a computer lab, and a cafe that wouldn’t be out of place in an expensive private university, the library—which is considered a point of interest on the city’s integrated bike trail system—abutted a construction site that would add 22,800 square feet to the footprint. All of this was thanks to more than $6 million from the Waltons.
Up the road, a crew was chipping away at the 14-acre site for the new Alice Walton School of Medicine. Named after Sam Walton’s daughter, one of the more active heirs reshaping the city, the 154,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art medical training compound will operate under the University of Arkansas umbrella and include, along with the usual surgery theaters and medical labs, a set of “healing gardens, an urban farming space, outdoor classrooms and a rooftop terrace” as part of its ambition to “be as one with the surrounding forest lands.” That, along with Alice’s forthcoming 75,000-square-foot Whole Health Institute, is just a piece of the Walton family’s larger ambition to create a nation-leading regional health care system that captures some of the $950 million in medical billings that residents of greater Bentonville now spend outside the region each year.
This explosive investment in the area’s critical infrastructure is matched by the company’s concerted effort to control the costs of labor—practices that aren’t unique to Walmart in this corner of Arkansas. Tyson Foods, along with the transportation conglomerate J.B. Hunt, make up the trifecta of Fortune 500 corporations helmed by families running their business out of NWA. And while neither of the other two families running those businesses possesses anything close to the approximate $212 billion fortune held by the Waltons, the $2.4 billion or so amassed by the Tysons as America’s largest poultry producer has gone a long way to curry favor with the local government enforcing workforce regulations at the company’s 20 poultry plants across Arkansas.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the virus was spreading quickly among the predominantly immigrant workforce at Tyson’s poultry plants, the company’s communications team was crafting language in public statements and releasing videos featuring Springdale’s mayor, Doug Sprouse, downplaying the role of open plants in spreading infections. “What we’re finding out is that much more often than not [the virus] is being spread when they’re not at work,” Mayor Sprouse said in a Tyson promotional video. As Olivia Paschal found in public records requests she reported for Facing South, Mayor Sprouse, as well as Greg Hines, the mayor of Rogers, another NWA city with a Tyson plant, had both attached their names to quotes written by Tyson’s communications team extolling Tyson’s pandemic mitigation efforts.
“Sending this quote to you for your review,” wrote Jeff Wood, Tyson’s director of local government relations, in an email to Mayor Hines ahead of a Tyson announcement that 700 factory workers in 10 Tyson plants had become infected. “Tyson is not only taking steps to protect the health of their employees, but also helping to ensure the well-being of entire communities, and we are experiencing the benefits of their public service,” went the quote attributed to Mayor Hines. When Paschal asked the mayor about how the communications with the public were created, he admitted that the statement had been “prepared by Tyson representatives” before he signed off on it.
Borrowing a page from the Walton playbook, the Tysons have recently made significant investments through the Tyson Family Foundation to help revitalize the downtown of Springdale, where their company has maintained its headquarters since its founding. On several art and culture efforts, Tyson family members have teamed up with the Walton heirs, cutting checks for the Walton’s Momentary and serving on the board of CACHE, a public arts collective with studios in both Springdale and Bentonville.
Seeding small grants to the NWA artists who display works there or who perform at local events, a patron system has emerged, with the arts community heavily reliant on these two families to make a living. “I need the grant money,” one musician, who’s received Tyson grants and worked gigs in Walton facilities, told me. However, the concentrated source of funding, he says, makes it difficult for artists to create anything that might offend their patrons. “If you cross them you’re fucked, it’s basically career suicide.”
A similar chill permeates the grassroots groups and nonprofits representing the low-wage workers who can struggle to make ends meet on the retail and factory wages set by Walmart and Tyson management. ”Walmart and Tyson are involved in almost every single nonprofit you see around here. They hire people to be on the boards or to lead the groups,” Magaly Licolli, a founder of the poultry worker labor outfit Venceremos, told me. As one of the few nonprofit organizations that doesn’t take money from the Walton or Tyson families, Licolli has organized a nascent labor effort in NWA, leading strikes at Tyson plants where some poultry line workers were once reportedly forced to wear diapers so as not to soil themselves when denied the bathroom breaks that slow down production.
“Art is a huge component for any culture to express what’s going on politically or socially,” Licolli said. “When Walmart took over the funding of the arts here, it silenced the artists and controlled the narrative of the art itself. So we saw a lot of Walmart money going to murals at the beginning of Black Lives Matter, but they were paying artists that weren’t from the local Black culture. It was just corporate art—art that doesn’t feel like anything, just a stamp to say we care about these issues, but really they don’t, because they’re not taking care of the Black community, or the immigrant community, or improving working conditions or the level of poverty.”
One fledgling grassroots art group composed of the teenage children of poultry workers began making art and theater projects around Springdale, with a focus on issues of significance to the immigrant community. The group, which went by the name Stitches, began receiving grant funding, “and from there the white people took the project to expand it and make it better. But they pretty much killed the essence of that project,” Licolli said. “Taking over the arts is a way to kill the essence of the culture and the town.”
Stitches co-founder, Samuel Lopez, landed on the cover of Time magazine in 2018 as one of 31 People Changing the South. Recalling the intense courtship to take Walmart funding to expand the arts programing beyond Stitches, Lopez described the less-than-savory quid pro quo. “The closer we got to political topics the closer we got to losing the funding. The money deterred people from being able to speak what was really on their mind, or what they believed in … [to the point] that you kind of became shunned,” he told me. He ultimately left the Walmart orbit because not being able to document the realities of life for NWA’s factory workers and other lower-income residents in the surrounding area wasn’t worth the paycheck. “I got tired of performing for white audiences as if my story and my pain is somehow cathartic to them. Giving me that money was just an illusion of justice.”
“The Walton Family Foundation has long supported arts and culture initiatives in Northwest Arkansas,” Kathryn Heller, a senior communications officer for the Walton Family Foundation, wrote in an email responding to questions about expectations attached to their project funding. “These efforts include support for a wide range of organizations, including community-based and culturally-specific programming to help foster an inclusive region where small entities play as integral a role as large institutions.”
With the struggles of those on the lower end of the economic ladder seemingly airbrushed out of the constant churn of art and cultural events that purport to depict the thriving, multicultural region in all its diverse splendor, it’s rather easy for those in the higher-income brackets to remove themselves from the experience of anyone struggling to make ends meet in NWA. As recently as 2019, only 600 homes in NWA sold for more than $500,000. Three years later, the number of houses going for half a million has tripled. For the buyers who’ve pushed the luxury residential market up into the $1 million to $3 million range, there’s little reason to step outside the circumscribed route of the Walmart headquarters, one’s favorite third wave coffee shop, the local art galleries, new restaurants, and gorgeous hiking trails, and see any of the 343 homeless counted across the NWA last year, a small percentage of the state’s total homeless population. Nor do the denizens of NWA’s comfortable, tree-lined streets (recognized for 25 straight years by the Arbor Day Foundation as a “USA Tree City”) have to worry about violent or even petty crime, particularly in Bentonville proper, where the city’s negligible crime rate tracks closer to small towns about a tenth of the size. Yet in Springdale, away from the fledgling downtown center that would appear to be thriving thanks to its Walmart- and Tyson-sponsored arts and culture scene, Lopez and his neighbors who make their living in the poultry factories encounter a crime rate more aligned with Arkansas as a whole, which is one of the five most dangerous states in the nation.
Not long after Sam Walton had his first taste of success in the retail business, he decided to protect his nascent fortune by diversifying corporate ownership across his family. “The best way to reduce paying estate taxes is to give your assets away before they appreciate,” he wrote in his memoir, noting that in 1953, when his oldest child was just 9 years old, he’d already given 20% stakes to his wife and kids, keeping the same slice of the pie for himself. Today, Walton’s surviving heirs own a little less than half of the company; utilizing around two-dozen trusts to filter about $575 million in annual grants through the Walton Family Foundation, half of which usually go to projects in NWA. Some estimate that the family’s good works have allowed them to avoid roughly $3 billion in federal estate taxes.
“We are not embarrassed to say we are borrowing heavily from Austin’s playbook,” Olivia Walton, the wife of Tom, Sam Walton’s grandson, told The Economist in reference to the family’s bike trails and other efforts to make Bentonville more like arts-friendly Austin, Texas, an appealing alternative to the coasts for highly skilled knowledge economy workers. Indeed, unlike say Kingston, New York, where Peter Buffet, an heir to Warren Buffet’s fortune, has taken a more below-the-radar approach to deploying hundreds of millions of dollars to reimagine the social and economic reality of a small city, the Walton’s are not shy about their ambition to methodically transform NWA. At the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, there’s an ongoing effort to analyze and offer suggestions to the Walton Family Foundation as they overhaul NWA’s “economic, educational, cultural and environmental fields,” as a 2017 report put it. Recruitment drives have seen the Northwest Arkansas Council, a group run by members of the Walton, Tyson, and Hunt clans, offering $10,000 and free bikes to qualified applicants who relocated to NWA in 2020. When Silicon Valley began laying off workers during recent waves of economic stability, the council ran an aggressive million-dollar ad campaign to lure tech workers to Bentonville.
In September on a 350-acre slice of rolling Bentonville grounds surrounded by forest owned by the Walton’s, the third-gen heirs will oversee their second annual FORMAT, an arts and culture festival that has drawn major artists like LCD Soundsystem, The National, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, and Beach House, while art installations will make fashionable critiques of our capitalistic society. Last year’s event included a dystopian-themed speakeasy with a front door that looked like a port-a-potty and a mixed-media installation of secondhand T-shirts that “decelerates the frenetic pace of mass commodification with handcrafted production.”
The alluring mix of top-tier entertainment and morally purifying art about the pernicious effects of the very same wealth concentration that makes that entertainment possible isn’t the only draw, though, for the young families that relocate to NWA. At the Helen R. Walton’s Children’s Enrichment Center, a bike ride from the new Walmart home office, the company’s knowledge workers can drop off their offspring to be immersed in the “Whole Child” approach. Kids partake in “a variety of developmentally sound learning centers including music, library, and science [and] most importantly, a highly trained staff with teacher-to-child ratios far below the state requirement.”
The close attention teachers pay to students continues through the 4 to 1 teacher ratio touted by the Thaden School, the private academy funded by the Walton Family Foundation that opened its doors to middle and high school students in 2017. The lush grasses and high-design buildings scattered over the pristine 26-acre campus have the feeling of being made by one person, the structures and perfectly arranged plant life operating under some kind of unified aesthetic harmony. Thaden’s ongoing construction hasn’t taken away from its curb appeal, already racking up a bevy of the nation’s top design and architecture awards, including an American Institute of Architects’ honor lauding “the campus master plan [that] was envisioned as an urban pastoral learning landscape,” as the architect of the project, Marlon Blackwell, described it. With net assets of $78 million and a head of school pulling in a compensation package worth $585,000 a year, Thaden has recruited a caliber of educators good enough to assume the mantle of the top-ranked private school in Arkansas. Should any of Thaden’s executive team lose sight of their mission shaping the young minds of Bentonville, there are regularly scheduled bespoke leadership coaching sessions at the University of Arkansas Sam Walton business school, not far away.
With six of Arkansas’ 10 best high schools in NWA, and eight of the area’s high schools ranked among the top 10% in the nation, Bentonville families have excellent options should their kids not meet the admissions criteria to join the 500 students at Thaden. Outside the NWA, however, Arkansas families are faced with less promising choices. With 22% of Arkansas’ children living in poverty and 30% of the state’s parents lacking secure employment, the rest of the state’s school systems are perennially underfunded. Even including the NWA in the tally, just 41% of Arkansas public students were proficient in reading and less than half were proficient in math before the pandemic. Those figures had been an improvement over 2015 benchmark testing until almost all of that progress was wiped away by remote learning and pandemic lockdown disruptions, according to a recent report from the Walmart funded Forward Arkansas. Today, while half of Arkansas high school graduates go on to attend some college classes, the drop-out rate sits around 50%, leaving only 25% of all high school graduates with college credentials.
“Significant progress on student outcomes remains elusive,” Forward Arkansas found this year, noting “we should first develop a deeper understanding of how existing education funding is being used and why certain funding decisions are being made, especially at the local level.”
Perhaps no investment has had the same effect in NWA as the 2011 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. As the marquee undertaking of Sam Walton’s daughter Alice Walton, whose $63 billion fortune has made her at times the wealthiest woman in the world, Crystal Bridges catapulted the once culturally barren NWA into the upper echelon of the nation’s top art destinations. Initially the home for an endowment four times the size of New York City’s Whitney Museum, along with Alice’s $500 million art collection, the trove of masterworks spanning five centuries has steadily grown with major acquisitions, including the massive Louise Bourgeois bronze and steel Maman sculpture and Jasper Johns’ “Flag” painting, both of which are on view in a museum that is open to the public with no charge for admission. Situated on 120 acres on the northern edge of Bentonville (a parcel gifted from the Walton family), the museum itself is an immersive experience designed by the preeminent Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, who set the structure’s connected glass-walled pavilions over a pair of spring-fed ponds in such a way that, from various vantages, it can seem as though the museum floats upon the water, surrounded by the same dense forest of sycamores and oaks where Alice and her siblings rode horses when they were younger.
“To think that all the children growing up in this region now have access to art as a part of their education is probably the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” Alice said during a taped conversation with Safdie as the museum prepared an expansion, now ongoing, that will nearly double its footprint.
While sitting on the gallery’s leather couch—set in front of the museum’s luminous Mark Rothko “No. 210”—I think of a conversation I had earlier in the week with Americo Torres, a man in Bentonville who’d taken up gardening after retiring from his job at a carpet supplier in town. Americo and his wife, Cecilia, fled from civil war in El Salvador for Los Angeles in 1980. When that city became too expensive, they moved to Bentonville, following their daughter Jennie, who had recently graduated college and found work in Walmart’s claims department. I’d met Americo because his front yard flowers had caught the attention of a city councilman who was so impressed by Americo’s garden that he gave him a city award for residential landscaping. At his home, Americo’s wife gave me a tour of the backyard vegetable garden and trees full of apples and pears while Jennie spoke of how she could see herself at Walmart for the entirety of her career, just as one of her colleagues recently celebrated her 30th anniversary.
“It’s great because Walmart just keeps growing and growing,” she said, extolling the retailer’s move into drone deliveries and generous health care benefits. She was particularly excited, though, about the campus for the new home office and the “Walton family having thought about it all,” she said. “It’s not just exercise in the gym, it’s nutrition, it’s chefs teaching you how to cook, it’s mental health, it’s psychological health. It’s incredible.”
Cecilia too had found herself in the Walmart loop, working for executives at the company as a well regarded nanny.
The strange spectacle of an astroturfed local art scene functioning as a corporate advertisement for the virtues of a new model city whose entire culture was the personal project of a single billionaire clan felt removed and distant from the idyll of the Torres backyard garden, where the family seemed neither entranced nor concerned by this arrangement.
For them, the museums and bike trails were just part of what the Waltons did to improve NWA. They liked their lives here in a Southern outpost that provided an affordable place to live, a slice of land with which they could grow their own food, and enough room in the house to host friends and family who traveled from El Salvador, Spain, or London to see how high the Torreses had climbed the ladder of American success.
I think of the Torres family as I walk from the Rothko at Crystal Bridges and down to the museum’s five miles of trails dotted with outdoor art. Before reaching the James Turrell skyspace, I come upon the sculpted bronze figures of George Segal’s Three People on Four Benches. Two sculptures, both resembling women made of papier-mache, sit facing the forest with their backs to a similarly papier-mached-looking middle-aged man on an opposite bench, his arms crossed toward a ravine. Further on, in a small bubbling pond, hundreds of large silver orbs from Yayoi Kusama’s 1996 work Narcissus Garden float back and forth along the smooth turquoise surface. The eyes of Segal’s stern, lonely man are painted in such a way that it was unclear if they were shut, leaving open the possibility that the figure is simply tired and resting, or shutting out the rest of the world to become fully immersed in the troubles and pleasures of his own life, unbothered by the silent, silver orbs sparkling beneath the broad blue skies of Arkansas.
Landing back in my collapsing home city the next morning, I caught a glimpse of a different kind of glow, cast off the skyline of office towers. These remain largely vacant as landlords struggle to persuade workers back to what’s become 9.7 million square feet of empty offices across my metro area. In the shadow of those towers, my city’s roughly 5,000 homeless congregated in sprawling encampments and tent alleys, though nowhere had become quite as bad as the area dominated by the largest open air drug market in the nation. And while the murder rate had seemingly stalled out this spring after breaking records for the past several years, it was little consolation; there were 53 children murdered with guns by May, leaving the city’s youth homicide rate stagnant.
But maybe I was being too hard on my home of the past decade. After all, it’s been nothing but love as of late for the city’s public art scene, while marquee dining destinations continue to accumulate trophies at the James Beard Awards, including a nod as the host, once again, to the best restaurant in the nation. And the recently crowned Democratic nominee for mayor, all but assured to take over city hall, dominated a crowded field with a campaign promise to finally restore order and dignity to the neighborhoods suffering alongside those 30-foot murals and $18 cho muang dumplings.
It was possible, in fact, that we were just a city of men as Augustine described: fallen, yes, but by no means unable to recover and rise to the heights of a place like Bentonville, where the Waltons have engineered something so complete and comprehensive in its design as to suggest divine creation. And should things fizzle out with our new mayor, perhaps a renewed faith in the possibility of a better tomorrow would bring my hometown a benefactor of its own. What else could we pray for, if only someone with enough virtue and money to turn this into a city of God.
Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.