A Tale of Two Cities: Little Rock’s Bipolar Problem

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Dickens’ famous novel, written about London and Paris, was set in a period shortly before the French revolution. It could easily be rewritten to discuss the city we live in. On one side we praise the great advances from our city of light while the other creeps further into darkness and despair. We have a chasm wedged between the two cities that is not a channel of water but instead a freeway and we are very likely headed toward a revolution unless we can figure this out.

Most of the people in my day-to-day life north (or occasionally west) of this great divide. We get together and eat at our fantastic restaurants north of the divide, we drink at the bars here, we go to work at our jobs here, and we essentially live our lives in a small section that makes up less than a third of the total square miles of Little Rock.

We praise and share with all our northern friends when Little Rock is named the best mid-sized city to live, because of course it is. How could it not be? We have great restaurants, great entertainment, great new developments, and, oddly, relatively low crime.

Occasionally though a few of us will peak ever so briefly over the wall and realize that the Little Rock we know is not Little Rock at all.

I send my kid to daycare in the Quapaw district, just a block from the Governor’s mansion. About once a month or so there will be a wreck on the freeway either dropping her off or picking her up. We live in Briarwood so when that happens I simply run down Wright Ave, cross over to 12th street at Woodrow, and go all the way down 12th until I hit Hughes to go back over 630 to my house.

Before I go any further, let me tell you this is not about race. In this roughly 5 mile trek sure I pass more black people, but not by much. In fact in the three years I have been doing this I would guess that the number of poor white people I see here have doubled.

Things are decidedly different here. Poverty is apparent, as is crime. At least every other trip I see drug deals in the middle of the day, sadly it sometimes feels like the drug dealers are the only ones with steady employment. The only development I pass is the shiny new 12th street police station that somehow feels indicative of this area.

Anyone who ventures through this area very often feels no surprise that Little Rock is also ranked as the most dangerous mid-sized city in America.  It is the world that people south of the divide live in.

Residents to the north rarely think about it until a ranking like this comes out. In fact I would say we rarely think about anything south of 630 at all except for the occasional passing thought about UALR. Even then I have met people who were not aware that Little Rock even had a university, which might be part of the problem UALR has with enrollment. That is another story for another day though.

It is not just the “snobby white people” to the north of 630 who forget about our neighbors to the south. It is the elected officials too (who for the most part all happen to be white living to the north of 630). South of 630 is generally ignored in any city led development, instead decisions are made that further drive down the overall value and prosperity of the area.

Consider the contrast here. A prime spot barely south of 630 where the former Brandon House furniture sits was up for development. This could be a gateway location into the south side of the city. Instead of seeing a signature development project the Little Rock board approved plans for a mid range hotel and large gas station. The tie breaking vote came from the Mayor himself who has proven he cares little for south of 630 development.

At the same time plans for a much smaller gas station in downtown Little Rock was withdrawn after strong opposition from the city board. The reason? Board members were afraid it would detract from the gateway into the city they are trying to build at Broadway with the new bridge and the multimillion dollar, city funded, remodel of Robinson Center.

This vast policy and culture difference will not end well friends. Much like the era of Dickens’ novel, we are in the days before a revolution. Crime is growing rapidly in the neighborhoods just north of the freeway (trust me, I live there). Last year’s 12th Street protests show me that we are not far away from a Ferguson, MO style riot.

So what can we do? Like most major problems we need to tackle this from multiple angles to make a difference.

1.  Better Candidates – Unfortunately the problem we run into with local elections is lack of quality candidates. In 2010 Mayor Stodola won re-election with over 80% of the total vote thanks to poor quality candidates. This year will be very similar due to another low quality opponent. It is the same situation in most city offices.

To vote in better candidates we need better people running for office in the first place. It probably starts with a well-organized campaign to find candidates that care about the whole city and not just the high money areas. Then we need to start building that candidate up now, for the 2018 election. Not a last-minute effort 6 months before an election.

2. Private development – We need developers interested in bridging the divide. It takes time, but it works (think River Market, Clinton Center area). If we want to increase the prosperity of the area we need to start moving money into the area. Built an amazing restaurant in some of the amazingly inexpensive areas just south of 630. How about a higher end shopping center at 12th and University? What about a high-end development corridor down Fairpark linking UAMS and UALR? Only being respectful of the residents this time.

Then hire people from the area. Move money from north to south and watch the crime go down. Sure, take your precautions and hire quality security officers.You show north residents it is ok to go south again. You show south residents that we care and that they can earn a quality living. Development cost would be a fraction of anything built on the north side. (Bonus, throw in tax breaks to do so)

3. Build culture around UALR – UALR could be an amazing cultural center of Little Rock. Earlier this year I visited Madison Wisconsin and walked away very impressed. It is not just the campus itself, which UALR will probably never be as big, it is the culture around the campus. They have a large park/amphitheater area that rivals River Front Park. Lots of walking distance restaurants. Huge biking community. It could be UALR.

It is hard to shift from a community college style campus to a residential campus and get quality residents. As it stands I cannot think of any reason a potential college student would want to move on campus or into the neighboring apartments. We need a strong community center south of 630, this should be it.

I want us to care about all of Little Rock. Because caring about all of Little Rock is what will make our city better. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the south and embrace them as our neighbors. Lets start a positive revolution in this city.


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  1. September 29, 2014 at 1:59 pm — Reply

    One more issue, the dividing lines themselves. First it was I-630, now both Markham and Cantrell are doing the same thing. Rivers that can only be crossed by boat (car). Consider the difference between Hillcrest and Stiff Station these days. Neighborhoods are being divided up by both AHTD and local street departments.

  2. Gavin
    September 29, 2014 at 4:07 pm — Reply

    Also important to note is recognizing the limits of “good development.” Building a high-end shopping center in a low-income neighborhood will create mostly retail jobs for locals and could eventually displace them if the area gentrifies and rents rise too high.

  3. Matt Reed
    September 29, 2014 at 4:38 pm — Reply

    I’ve played all the SimCities, I’ll run for Mayor. How hard could it be to not be corrupt. I will still be able to send out a Godzilla onto the city right?

  4. September 29, 2014 at 7:03 pm — Reply

    I’m a Real Estate Broker who just closed on a house on Talmage Street which is south of the interstate. This house is similar to houses in the Hall High and Leawood neighborhoods which are just a couple of miles away. The street is just as pretty as the neighborhoods just mentioned as well with mature trees, well kept lawns etc. Based upon the comps I could not list the house anywhere close to the homes just around 2 miles away. So we listed the house for less. Talmage is a beautiful home with a two car garage, 5 bedrooms and 2.5 baths along with updates for $140,000! I got an offer soon after I listed it. We got to a deal for around $134,000 with seller paying closing costs. Buyer was represented by another broker. One week goes by and buyer terminates due to inability to obtain suitable financing even though we had an approval letter from a bank. So we put the house back on the market. A few days go by and another buyer comes by and we go under contract for the same price with seller paying closing costs. Low and behold another week goes by and the same issue occurs. Buyer is unable to obtain suitable financing even though we have an approval letter from a bank. I guess some lenders pass these out like party favors these days. Anyways back to square one. A few weeks go by and here we go again. We are under contract with another buyer for the same price, $134,000 and seller paying closing costs. This time I feel confident about financing more so than the last two. All three transactions were with different buyers with different brokers representing them. So my clients, the sellers, need to find a house to purchase. We go under contract contingent upon the closing of the house they are selling. An inspection report came back on my listing on Talmage calling for a new roof and some other minor repairs. My clients agreed to do these repairs. So everything is looking good. A closing is sure to happen….. Until the appraiser steps in. 4 years ago this house appraised for $130,000. Since then many upgrades have happened, a brand new roof is going up, and Seller is paying the Buyer’s closing costs up to $4,500. This seems about right doesn’t it? Not according to the appraiser. He calls me saying he sent me some comps he wants me to look at to my email. I couldn’t help to notice that one of his homes was similar with updates but was 4.5 miles south and sold for $125,000. I called him to discuss why pick a comp 4.5 miles south when you can go less than 2 miles north and find homes similar sold for $200,000???? He said he probably wouldn’t use the comp 4.5 miles away but just wanted me to see it. I told him it sounds to me that if it’s south of the interstate it doesn’t matter to him and he’s biased. The appraisal came back at $119,000, which is $15,000 less than 3 different buyers were willing to pay.

    So, I had 3 willing buyers represented by 3 different brokers not to mention the house was listed with a fourth broker before me for more. This appraiser has oppressed the homeowner not to mention other home owners in the neighborhood by giving a home a depreciated value from four years ago while homes less than two miles away have kept their value if not increased. It’s wrong. I gave up my commission in order to help. I hate to see this. I’m ok giving up my commission fortunately. I have other closings fortunately. It’s just wrong to these homeowners is all. Thank you.

  5. September 30, 2014 at 2:19 pm — Reply

    Good article.

    Transportation infrastructure has the power to both divide and connect communities. I-630 has clearly divided Little Rock. The Coleman Creek Greenway has the potential to connect neighborhoods in Midtown. It will one day run from Fair Park/War Memorial Park at Markham down through UALR campus and hopefully connect up with trails along Fourche Creek that go to Hindman Park and the Audubon Nature Center.

    I encourage you to look at plans for the Greenway, as, at least when I was on the committee, it contained plans for an amphitheater on UALR’s campus and other great things that would be resources to campus and community.

    I don’t think this has been updated in a long time, but it has some info: http://ualr.edu/colemancreek/

    People who see I-630 as harmful to Little Rock, especially older parts of the city, should be aware of plans to widen it and I-30.

    Coleman Creek Greenway map: http://trailsofarkansas.blogspot.com/2013/10/coleman-creek-greenway-update.html

  6. Brandy
    October 1, 2014 at 9:27 pm — Reply

    I live in the area across from UALR. On the Broadmoor side. The neighborhood would stay lovely if the area wasn’t turning into rent central. Yes I agree it’s a good thing that many houses over there are for rent to college kids, but the majority I see moving in are not this group. When we bought our house 10 years ago, the area was quiet. It’s grown less and less so. There’s a huge park in our neighborhood. It’s HOA only and should be a thriving park, however most of the time it’s empty. Our house could appraise for much much more than it does right now. Mostly because there are so many rent houses around us, but also because 2 houses on the other side of our block sold for around 60k -80k total. We have the monster in the sea of older adorable homes. Our house will likely have to sell at much less than we’d like to safely move into our dream. We hoped and wished for the tech park to go in close enough to raise our value a smidge. There are beautiful homes in the fair park, broadmoor, fairy-tale neighborhoods that will likely crumble as this divide widens. It saddens me to know that my 100 year old home which could be a stunner is likely going to sell to someone who cares not for the charm and will only see the fact that it could house a large family or a group of college kids. At the moment I have 3 neighbors I know. The rest are nearly transient, and as the bass of a cars speakers thunders past my window while I type I think again how much I miss the first years of living here.

    • Karen
      October 5, 2014 at 8:37 am — Reply

      Have you attended any neighborhood meetings?

  7. Mason
    October 3, 2014 at 10:44 pm — Reply

    I live in Baring Cross, which has a similar issue. Houses in Argenta and Park Hill, which are less than a mile away, appraise and sell for almost double that of houses in Baring Cross, even though the houses are very similar in size and amenities. This is despite the fact there have been multiple attempts to revitalize the area. The reason for this is pretty simple but very saddening. It is that many of the residents of the area do not care to see it get better. Revitalizations can only happen if the residents of an area are trying to help it along. Now don’t get me wrong, Baring Cross is getting better but at a glacial pace. Simple steps like mowing lawns and picking up trash and debris would go a long way, but you rarely see that in many areas of Baring Cross. My point is that is not only up to city officials and developers. The community must step up and do their part.

    As a side note, you might want to check out the revitalization of the Central High Neighborhood. Its not 12th and University, but it does show that efforts are working towards that direction. Its important to remember that little more than 10 years ago the Governor’s Mansion District was not a good area to llive, but now it boast some of the highest property values in the city. Revitalization takes time, and I think things will be steadily getting better. In another 15 to 20 years that area could be quite nice.

  8. Karen
    October 4, 2014 at 10:44 am — Reply

    The deal to put a huge Murphy Oil station right next to a historic black middle class neighborhood and at the entrance to the University District was initially passed by Mayor Stodola’s tie breaking vote, but outrage and pressure from the UD Neighborhoods Assoc and the member neighborhoods lead to rescinding the approval. The UD has a long term plan to create exactly what is mentioned in this article, a cohesive place marked by diversity, internationality, community, and education, and the neighborhoods are active participants. When Kathy Webb is elected to the city board, hopefully she will break the long-time pattern of the directors living north of the freeway voting consistently against the directors representing the south of the freeway.

  9. nicole
    October 7, 2014 at 7:58 am — Reply

    This article highlights many things but I will focus only the development. Like Gavin, bringing a high-end development won’t make a huge difference. That will likely bring retail/food services which are low-wage jobs creating a circle of poverty. Also, that probably means stores that will be marked higher than the average consumer in the area can afford or would want to pay. What new stores or restaurants would a development bring that isn’t already in Park Plaza or some strip out West or in Midtown? Want to spend more go to the Promenade at Chenal. It is unfortunate that the transportation system in LR is limited to bus service which doesn’t run super late because then Smart Growth (transit oriented development) could be an option. Smart Growth is most successful if there is housing, entertainment, food, etc within proximity (like a mile or so radius). I live in Boston now, born and raised in LR, Smart Growth is a big idea in the city and Gateway cities. I work in community development in neighborhoods that face similar issues as SWLR faces.

    The idea of a 24hr gas station where Brandon House used to be was a horrible idea in area that doesn’t need more stations and liquor stores. It would be great to see more small businesses–restaurants, arts, recreation–to the area. I am sure it is possible to loop UALR into development. UALR has come a long way over the years since I was growing up. Clearly, the city needs to do a quality of life survey utilizing all stakeholders–neighborhood associations, business, churches, etc–to really see the area come back to life.

  10. Jarod
    September 18, 2015 at 2:31 pm — Reply

    Greg – Couldn’t agree more about the need to spur development south of 630 on University and the 12th Street Corridor. Our humble transit system has a bold vision of developing Bus Rapid Transit services in these areas with transit stations and awesome levels of service to anchor development move people freely across this great divide. http://www.rrmetro.org/move

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A Tale of Two Cities: Little Rock’s Bipolar Problem