Say "Central" and most people familiar with Little Rock will reflexively add "High" to it. The school is the city's most famous icon. Today, the neighborhood surrounding Central High is seeking to vie for its share of attention — and with some success.
Less famous than the grand Quapaw Quarter it abuts, less fashionable than the later-vintage Hillcrest and Heights neighborhoods to the west, the Central High neighborhood nonetheless has the "good bones" that New Urbanism advocates crave: Vintage homes aching for restoration, streets largely devoid of commuter traffic, mature trees and big lots. And, like so many inner-city neighborhoods, it has also suffered over the decades from municipal neglect, an exodus of middle class and affluent residents, and deterioration of housing stock.
A drive through the area offers a clear vision of its grand past. On streets like Battery (whose former prestige is revealed by the mansions divided by a park on a two-block stretch between 19th and 21st), Schiller, Summit and Wolfe you can find block after block of impressive houses, ranging in size from cottages to large homes. Many were clearly the domain of families with money and influence.
But the families who built those houses — almost all white, wealthy, and well-connected — abandoned the neighborhood many decades ago. In the years following, much of the fabric of the neighborhood began to unravel. Houses deteriorated, infrastructure was ignored, crime rose and owner-occupants were often replaced by renters. The population shifted to mostly poor and mostly black, and poor black neighborhoods typically didn't do well in Little Rock during the middle part of the last century.
Still, the area seems to be regaining some of its cachet; there may not exactly be a Renaissance going on, but the neighborhood's partisans say the area has more going for it than conventional wisdom will attest. Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College are investing in the area, and while some houses sport the city's red tags denoting a condemned property, others display work permits for renovations. Middle class home-seekers interested in the ongoing trend of urban revival are coming back into Central Little Rock.
Sheila Miles is president of the Wright Avenue Neighborhood Association, for the area bounded by 17th Street on the north, Roosevelt on the south, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east, and Thayer Street on the west. It and the adjoining Central High Neighborhood Association are the voices of the residents in the area, and neither of which is shy about going to City Hall when they feel their neighborhoods aren't getting the attention or services they deserve.
"We're building relationships with neighborhoods, businesses, we have a good working relationship with the city," said Miles. "They've been really helpful in working with us on improving the image of the neighborhood. We established a crime prevention group and are trying to improve the public safety. I think those are some of the things that will set the foundation for a stronger community."
Miles says she's seen improvement since she moved to Battery Street in 2006.
"What drew me to the neighborhood initially was I loved the character of the historic homes," she said. "Once I moved here I met some really nice neighbors, and I see this area for one that is, I guess you could say, a diamond in the rough."
One of those neighbors who also saw through to the sparkle is Jennifer Carman, who has lived on Schiller Street since 2004. That's when she bought a 1912 Craftsman-style American Foursquare house that had been vacant for 18 years.
"The house was full of sleeping bags and needles and used condoms and debris," she recalls. "It was pretty shocking."
But Carman is pretty handy with a hammer — and is an independent curator and art appraiser to boot, so she knows something about historic research — and she turned her house from a derelict to the belle of the ball. And she didn't stop there.
"I have played a role in four houses on this street, and a fifth I've designed the redevelopment for," said Carman. "I've convinced other investors to do so with my guidance. If you have the money, I have the know-how."
Now those rehabbed Craftsman houses stand out like beacons on Carman's block, but they're still in the minority; other dilapidated houses await similar treatment. But there's a bit of a Catch-22 given the current economy, she says.
"When money came so easily, it was kind of a difficult proposition to focus attention on this neighborhood. It was more risky than people wanted to be at that time," said Carman. "The great irony is now the momentum is like a runaway train. I see people on a daily basis driving through the neighborhood, looking at houses. But now nobody can get money."
That's especially frustrating, she said, because she and her collaborators have sold every house they've rehabbed and haven't lost money on any of them. Still, banks tell her they'd like to see another one sell before lending money to rehab additional houses.
"Even if the people are confident," she said, "the bank isn't."
Carman remains optimistic about the future of her neighborhood, especially given ongoing national trends toward more urban living. One of the best things that could happen, she said, is for the city to give Wright Avenue some serious attention, such as street and sidewalk improvements. That, she said, would be a big help in drawing in businesses to the neighborhood.
"To me, it's a main thoroughfare in a historic district, and it deserves five or eight blocks of exactly what you see on South Main or in Argenta: Period lights with underground wiring, maintained green spaces."
Carman ranks her neighborhood among Little Rock's "best-kept secrets."
"The physical location can't be beat. It's close enough to downtown but not close enough to hear the [fire station] sirens all night long. It's perfectly positioned to get you access to Hot Springs, Little Rock, North Little Rock, but you don't have to constantly look at the interstate," she said. "It's a diverse and vibrant community of friendly neighbors who will lend you flour and eggs to make a cake."
Land Bank and the Promise Neighborhood
The city has begun efforts to tackle blight and provide affordable housing south of Interstate 630, creating the Land Bank Commission to acquire "vacant, abandoned, tax-delinquent, and city lien properties." The focus area is bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east and Pine Street on the west, with 17th Street as a southern boundary. The land bank has already acquired almost 20 properties in the area.
Another major neighborhood initiative is the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood. Funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Promise initiative is designed to provide a "cradle to career" pathway for children. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is the lead agency for the local Promise grant and state Sen. Joyce Elliott is executive director of Central Little Rock Promise. Little Rock was one of only 21 cities in the country to receive an initial planning grant for the Promise program.
The Promise initiative is a collaboration between city government, schools, churches and businesses "to make sure that we are changing our neighborhood from the bottom up by engaging community people and looking at changing institutions and systems," said Elliott. "We are concentrating our energies primarily south of I-630."
With $500,000 in hand for planning, the Little Rock effort is being patterned after the successful Harlem Children's Zone in New York, Elliott said, with modifications to address the specific needs of Little Rock's core urban neighborhood.
"The promise we are making to the neighborhood, should all of this work, is we will do whatever it takes to make sure this neighborhood changes so kids have happy, healthy lives from birth through 24," she said. "If we can get one generation well-educated, good jobs, good citizens, it will change the whole neighborhood, and their kids will not face the things these kids are facing now."
Central Little Rock Promise has eight partners — the city, UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Little Rock School District, Arkansas Children's Hospital, Little Rock Preparatory Academy and New Futures for Youth. Representatives from those entities make up the Promise board; residents from each of the seven census tracts in the target area make up an advisory board, which includes dedicated positions for young people, the Hispanic community and clergy — about 21 seats in all, said Elliott.
The central focus is on successful schools, parent nurturing and support, and community building. And while the programs are targeted at the Central Little Rock area, Elliott noted that parents from outside the neighborhood whose kids attend one of the target schools — Franklin, Bale and Stephens elementary schools, Little Rock Preparatory Academy and Forest Heights Middle School — will be eligible to participate in all of the programs, as will parents whose children attend schools outside the target area.
Central Little Rock Promise did not win a $12 million implementation grant it applied for. But, Elliott said, the coalition will move forward with its plans.
"The central thing for people to know is we will continue this effort," she said. "What we're doing is changing the way we do business. That's the strategy, and we have so many resources to do what we need to do in the neighborhood.
"It's such a great opportunity to be a game changer for our neighborhood," said Elliott. "If we learn how to get this right for this area, then we'll know what to do for expanding it further."