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Wilbur Mills' wall

I-630, Little Rock and 25 years in a divided city.

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A road is concrete and sweat; steel rebar, paint and reflectorized signs. While those who built it might care about race and class and cash and commerce, a road doesn't give a damn about any of those things, not about those who drive over it, or the wellbeing of the communities around it. A road exists only to move people quickly; to raise us up out of the mud and let us glide along; to suture one place to another, and those places to others, forever and ever, amen. That said, it is human beings who choose the route of a road, and choices like that are always ripe for folly. 

When you want to travel quickly through Little Rock, chances are you're going to be taking Interstate 630, the Wilbur Mills Freeway; the six-lane, roughly 200-foot-wide road that has run through the middle of the city for a quarter century now. Conceived as early as 1930, when city planner John Nolen first laid out the basic plan for a cross-town expressway, the freeway gained momentum in the late 1950s with the rise of President Eisenhower's grand plan for the interstate highway system. The first, mile-long section of the expressway, between Cedar and Park streets, opened in April 1969. The rest was completed — thanks to powerful Arkansas Congressman Wilbur D. Mills, who helped secure funding — in several stages over the course of 20 years (see sidebar). The full length of I-630, from I-30 in the east to I-430 in the west, officially opened to traffic on Sept. 29, 1985, with the dedication of the westbound lanes from Center Street to I-30.

Originally planned as a way to grow Little Rock by giving citizens a quick route to suburbia and new shopping centers in the west, the end result of the construction of the freeway is familiar to anyone who has driven through a major American city in the last 30 years: prosperity and sprawl in the 'burbs, deterioration and blight in neighborhoods near the city center. Though the downtown area has been gathering steam in recent years — especially near the River Market, where several high-rise residential developments have brought people back downtown to live — I-630 still stands largely as the dividing line between what is, for all intents and purposes, two Little Rocks: A white Little Rock north of the freeway, and a black Little Rock to the south. The freeway has undoubtedly led to a bigger and more robust city. But given what was lost, was the tradeoff worth it?

Talking to people about the construction and impact of I-630, the conversation almost always turns to the topic of race. It's easy to see why. Other than the Quapaw Quarter and a few isolated pockets of gentrification where the housing stock is historic or otherwise exceptional, the neighborhoods south of I-630, especially those between University and I-30, are largely black. To the north of I-630, other than a few small pockets of integration between Capitol Avenue and the freeway, the neighborhoods from University to downtown on the north side are almost all white.

Though neighborhood groups successfully lobbied for the freeway to be sunk into the ground as it went through downtown Little Rock to preserve the sight-lines and mitigate noise, for many preservationists the route chosen for I-630 is troubling — not quite a deliberate slap at the black community, but close enough for government work. Though the black business and entertainment center that once stood along Eighth, Ninth and 10th streets downtown had been in decline since the early 1960s, the construction of I-630 was the death blow. Black Little Rock has never had a place like it since.

When we spoke in the fall, Heather Register Zbinden was the interim director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on Ninth Street. Housed in a near-exact replica of the headquarters of the Mosaic Templars black fraternal organization — which tragically burned to the ground in 2005, just as preservationists were on the cusp of restoring the building to its former glory after 25 years of false starts — the Templars headquarters was one of the few remaining architectural gems of downtown Little Rock's black business, entertainment and residential district, which stretched roughly from Seventh Street to Roosevelt Road on the north and south and from Broadway to High Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) east and west.

While Zbinden said historians will probably never know whether the route chosen for the eastern stretch of I-630 was racially motivated, what is clear is that planners went out of their way to preserve "white" landmarks, even as large swaths of the historically black section of downtown were bulldozed. "The black sections of town were targeted," she said. "But when 630 comes through downtown, MacArthur Park is saved. It curves around MacArthur Park, and then it curves back around Mount Holly Cemetery."

Zbinden said that while white businessmen downtown often went to the city to complain about how the rerouting and closure of streets during the early phases of construction was hurting their trade, and newspaper accounts find several instances of whites in the right-of-way reporting they weren't paid what their businesses were worth, there wasn't really an organized protest movement in the black community against the construction of I-630 in those early days. Still, relocation was hard.

"Some of them claim [relocation] caused death to their family members or nervous breakdowns," Zbinden said. "They were compensated, but my understanding is that it wasn't at a real value ... From a human standpoint, it seems so cruel. Okay, you took my house, and you gave me a small amount of money and a relocation fee. But I can't buy a house for that. How do I find a new place to live?"

Though the black business district around Ninth Street was largely shuttered and blighted by the time most of it fell in the name of progress, the preservationist in Zbinden — who has seen what has blossomed from similarly-blighted areas in cities like Memphis — can't help but think about the What Ifs had 630 and accompanying urban renewal not taken most of what she calls the original architectural fabric of the area.

"When you have that original fabric, you can do so much with it," she said. "But once that fabric is gone, how do you rebuild it? As historians we dream more about renovating than building. Looking down Ninth Street from Broadway, there's so little of that original fabric left. It's hard for a lot of people to imagine what it was or what it could be."

The programming director for local community radio station KABF, John Cain was born at Wrightsville, but spent most of his youth working in Little Rock on Ninth Street. At 74, he's old enough to remember the clubs along Ninth in their heyday, when Friday nights often found spots like The Diplomat Club, Taborian Hall (the current home of Arkansas Flag and Banner) and the El Dorado Club alive with music and dancing. Cain said the area was just beginning to decline in the mid-1950s when he left to join the Navy, but it was still a great place to come of age. The slow slide to the eventual destruction of the district, he said, was unexpected.

"I think it just kind of snuck up on a lot of people. The demographics on the street were changing," he said. "A lot of those businesses just closed down when [the owners] didn't pass it on or nobody bought it. ... I saw a lot of younger people coming in who didn't have the ties and didn't know the real history of Ninth Street. It just went away with practically no opposition that I recall. There weren't a lot of stories about the new freeway coming. Nobody was saying anything about trying to turn it around. There was not much organized resistance to it."

After he moved to Birmingham and Atlanta later in life, Cain came to know that pattern well as he watched interstate projects march across those cities. "I think the phenomenon is so big that people figure there's nothing they can do about it. They just try to survive and get by," he said. "They realize: well, this is all I can do. My life is over here, I might as well move somewhere else. They don't fight back." Cain suggests that the size, scope and drive of the I-630 construction project simply overwhelmed the community's will to resist.

"Federal and state programs that just move things out disconnect lots of people all at once," he said. "It told people: We're building West Little Rock! Let's all go live there! And the government and the city went along with it. Coercion and complicity come together, and there's nothing people can do."

While Cain said that history has proven I-630 to be a good thing for the city, helping Little Rock grow, he still seems a bit mournful when he talks about the Ninth Street area. On the upside, Cain said, the demolitions that came with the construction sparked a preservationist spirit in many Little Rock residents, including him. In 1983, after years away, he returned to the city and eventually became a driving force behind the effort to save the Mosaic Templars building and other surviving buildings on Ninth Street. The construction of I-630 "cut both ways" for him.

"It was the demise of Ninth Street, but it created this preservation movement. ... That's when I became a preservationist: when I realized it was going away." Though Cain said he originally thought preservation was about bricks and mortar, time and reflection (not to mention the fire that destroyed the building he'd fought for years to save) have changed his mind.  "I though it was just about place initially," he said. "But as I got in deeper, it made me think about spirit — people's consciousness or awareness about what's going on around us. Preservation now is a spiritual thing for me."

Wade Rathke is one of those who did stand up and try to fight the freeway. As an idealistic young man, Rathke moved to Little Rock from New Orleans and founded the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, in June 1970. Though the organization eventually expanded to over 100 cities as the Association for Community Reform Now, in those early days it was the humblest of grass-roots activism.

"I was a young punk kid who thought I knew everything. I started ACORN when I was 21 years old, so we're talking about some years," Rathke said. "It's only as I've gotten older that I realized: What the hell was I thinking?"

Eventually, ACORN helped draw together several Little Rock community organizations into a coalition called Save the City. The group won the creation of Centennial Park, and garnered national attention for their campaign against racially-motivated block busting in the Oak Forest neighborhood. Their biggest victory came in July 1975, when federal District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the group in their lawsuit against the I-630 project, agreeing that the environmental impact statement filed by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department for the eastern section from Dennison Street to I-30 was inadequate. As a result, the state couldn't let contracts on the work, and construction was stalled for four years, until April 1979, when federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele ruled that a new impact statement filed by the Highway Department was adequate.

Even though ACORN didn't succeed in stopping the freeway, Rathke said the fight wasn't in vain. During the writing of the draft environmental impact statement that was eventually released in 1978, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department held a series of "listening sessions" to hear the concerns of ACORN, the Quapaw Quarter Association, and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. A major result of these meetings was the implementation of a plan to construct the freeway 20 to 22 feet below ground level as it came through downtown to minimize noise and "visual intrusion." (Sinking the downtown section of the freeway had been mentioned in the 1972 impact statement, but only as an alternative to elevating the freeway on raised piers.)

In the fight against I-630, Rathke said, he was up against a "classic old boy's network" of entrenched realtors, landowners and local politicians. "They were used to getting it their way and getting it in the back room and it didn't take many of them to make a decision and make it move," Rathke said. "At that point, there was not a single-member district program in terms of electing people in the city of Little Rock ... you were dealing with situations where five or six members of the school board and city council lived within six blocks of each other somewhere in Pulaski Heights. We didn't have any real pretense of deeply representative government."

The route of the I-630 project, Rathke said, was as much about class as it was about race, and really had to do mostly with dollars and cents. "It's a lot cheaper to run an interstate through a low-income community than it is an upper income community just in terms of real estate value," he said. "It's much easier to displace the politically dispossessed than it is to displace people who know people who know people."

Thirty-plus years, Rathke believes, has proven ACORN right about many of the detrimental effects they predicted for Little Rock and other cities where cross-town freeways went forward: more segregation, more pollution, less green space. Projects championed as inevitable progress and engines of growth back in the day have often been mourned as the killer of inner-cities in long hindsight.

"You can look at Overton which was stopped in Memphis and other expressway projects that didn't get built during that time, and they're blessing their sweet stars today," Rathke said. "I'm sure developers and real-estate men and the few women they allowed in made a killing back then, but their legacy is tragic."

Though he has since moved back to New Orleans, Rathke said he still gets back to see Little Rock family every few months. Back when the expressway was being built, ACORN's calculations were that the interstate would save around six minutes of commuting time for the average drive from downtown. He still times it when he drives the freeway, and says it still pretty much checks out. Even a quarter-century later, he said, Little Rock hasn't done much soul searching about I-630 and what it did to the city.

"There's really none of the kind of evaluation that should have been done 20, 25, 30 years ago," he said. "What did we really do here? Did we do the right thing, and what will it teach us about the future of the city?"

Jay Barth is the chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College, and has written extensively on the issue of the physical and mental divide between blacks and whites in Little Rock. Barth said that in the 1950s before construction of I-630 began, Little Rock was a much more integrated city, with white neighborhoods abutting black neighborhoods in some cases. "We can't over-nostalgize the past," he said. "The Heights were white. Southeast Little Rock was African-American. But it was a quilt. It wasn't everybody hanging out together, but at least you had some sense of black and whites sharing the same space. That got wiped away."

Barth said that as the construction of I-630 progressed and the white population of the city crept west, the Little Rock School District didn't move its boundaries to match the migration. "You had all of these folks moving to the west and southwest who are almost all white, who were part of the Pulaski County Special School District, which was almost all white. That became another, I guess, benefit in the eyes of those who lived during that period. Those schools became 'good' schools and 'good schools' meant white kids."

As Barth reported in a September 2007 cover story for the Arkansas Times, by 1980, 40 percent of the land area of the city was in the predominantly white Pulaski County Special School District. This resulted in a kind of pseudo-white flight, with residents flocking to West Little Rock and the white schools of the PCSSD, while black students remained near the city core and became a larger and larger percentage of the Little Rock School District. After the city and LRSD boundaries were largely unified in 1987, true white flight from Little Rock began in earnest, with white families moving to bedroom communities like Benton, Bryant and Cabot, and many of the white families who didn't leave shuffled their kids into private schools. Today, the Little Rock School District is just under 67 percent black, though that is down from almost 70 percent 10 years ago.

Asked whether there was a racial motive behind the construction of I-630 or the route it took through the Ninth Street area and surrounding black neighborhoods, Barth said that while there was undoubtedly some "race consciousness" to how it was all done, historians will probably never know how much of a factor race played in actual decision-making. "I don't think we're ever going to find that letter from Important Person A to Important Person B saying we need to racially divide the city," Barth said. "But there was certainly indifference to division and, in fact, arguably an economic benefit to the division that was underway." From Barth's perspective, the construction of I-630 was much more about money than race, with realtors and landowners in West Little Rock providing much of the push for construction.

"I think it was much more about, how do we get people to bigger homes out west and give them the suburban experience?" Barth said. "Obviously the desire for suburbanization on the part of upscale folks, who were almost all white, there was some segregation element behind that — get out of the city, get away from African-Americans. But I don't think it was quite as clean as 'we want to divide white and black people.' It was: 'We want to create economic opportunity, especially economic opportunity for realtors and land developers.' "

Barth said that had I-630 never been built, Little Rock would likely be a much more compact, much more densely-populated city — but also would probably be a smaller city. The 1960s, Barth said, were a "transformative period" in America, with people seeking larger homes and larger lots than old-style urban subdivisions could provide. "That kind of desire from the public wouldn't have been shut out" had I-630 not been built, Barth said. "I think we might have seen truer white flight in some ways. Race wouldn't go away. White people with means still would have wanted bigger houses. There still would have been something built interstate-wise around the city. There would have been a way out. So I think maybe it would have perpetuated true white flight to surrounding areas instead of flight to the west. [The interstate] kept people in the city, even if it wasn't in the central city."

Still, Barth said the construction of I-630 was "unquestionably bad for Little Rock" in hindsight. If Barth, who lives in the Quapaw Quarter, had his way, the freeway would be headed for the dustbin of history. "When you think about the environment, when you think about social relations in the community, when you think about our trust of one another across racial lines, there's just nothing good about it," he said. "If I could change one thing about the city, it would be having that thing plowed up."

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