In September 2009, the Meadowcliff/Brookwood Neighborhood Association learned that Hindman Park, which those neighborhoods border, would be included on a neighborhood pride tour for people in town for the Neighborhoods, USA conference to be held the following May.
City Director Joan Adcock made the suggestion because the members of the neighborhood association, fed up with drug-dealing and crime — including the two bodies dumped in the park in 2006 — were coming together to reclaim their neighborhood by fixing up its central asset.
Three months later, on the eve of Christmas Eve, a 24-hour record deluge swelled Fourche Creek by several feet, downing trees, sweeping brush and trash into the creek and flooding Hindman Community Park, the water nearly reaching the roof of the pavilion there.
In the February following the flood, two teen-age boys who'd gone to the park to help a volunteer do clean-up were confronted by a gang, beaten so badly they required hospitalization and robbed.
"That put us over the top," neighborhood activist Norm Berner said. The events galvanized residents of the Meadowcliff and Brookwood neighborhoods to make the neglected, overgrown but potentially beautiful finger of a park along the cypress-lined Fourche, banked by hills and a large novaculite outcrop, safe again.
"We can't call it the big damn rock," Berner mused the other day as he scrambled down the face of the distinctive outcrop to the trail below. He's trying to come up with a descriptive name for the 9-hole disc golf course installed in August 2010 just off the path to the rock; the Big Dam Bridge name came to mind because bridge proponent and County Judge Buddy Villines, Berner said, has promised to provide asphalt for Hindman's trails.
The creation of the disc golf course was a spin-off from a 30-day whirlwind cleanup by neighbors and their friends and their friends' friends that rid the Hindman of trash and graffiti, cleared undergrowth, saw the pavilion get a new roof and replaced a bridge swept away in the flood.
NUSA members were so impressed by what they saw in the park — and before and after videos shown at a dinner — that it awarded the neighborhood a prize at its next annual convention. The neighborhood association's president, Rick Daes, and Berner also won volunteer awards.
The work to keep the park clean has continued, with volunteers working to trim trees to raise the understory, pull hundreds of tires from the Fourche, keep the park clear of trash and hack back the privet that chokes the wooded areas. A lot of manpower comes from Department of Community Correction parolees doing community service; on a recent Saturday, 51 parolees showed up to pick up trash and clear out the undergrowth. Overseeing the work "is not a walk in the park," Daes said. He's hoping to get more neighbors — their number has dwindled since the initial fervor last year — to come out on Saturdays and help supervise the community service workers.
Daes, Berner and others in the neighborhood "are just the most resourceful people I've ever seen as far as knowing what they want" to do with the park, Adcock said, for the most part without city dollars.
The city has responded to the sweat equity the neighborhood has invested in the park. Mayor Mark Stodola was so impressed with the work that he contributed $750 left over from his campaign coffers to buy a gate for the Brookview Drive entrance to the park. Previously, the only gate to the park was at 65th Street, and Daes and others in the neighborhood took on the responsibility of closing it every night. But, Daes said, "It was like closing the front door and leaving the back door open." After the Brookview gate went up, "it was like flipping off a switch with crime," Berner said. "No more graffiti, no more lights shot out, no more tagging." No more traffic into the park at 3 a.m. by folks who weren't "coming in here to buy ice cream."
Last November, when the MBNA hosted a 5K race in the park to raise money to send folks to the NUSA conference in Alaska, City Manager Bruce Moore visited the park; later he cobbled together some city money to provide signage.
Mark Webre, assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department, visited the park to look at the MBNA improvement plans "and when he got to the trails, I saw his face light up," Berner said.
The community park is across the Fourche from Hindman Golf Course and the former Western Hills Country Club, 127 acres off Western Hills Boulevard that the city bought with bond money to develop into a park. Connecting Western Hills to Hindman Park and Hindman Golf Course would create the city's largest park, though it would require the construction of some kind of walkway over the Fourche. If that happened, the possibilities for bike trail development are huge: Berner believes Hindman's "Long Trail," a mile-long trail that follows the creek, should one day be part of a system that hooks in to the Trail of Tears park on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Hindman's trail is an easement for Little Rock Wastewater, and the utility has helped keep the path clear, redirected it where needed and installed culverts to ease passage over feeder streams.
Flooding, Daes said, is a fact of life at the park. But trash isn't; "as far as litter, that's got to be the cleanest park in Little Rock," he said. He and others have identified the places where storm drains empty into the park and collect trash there before it gets dispersed all over the park.
Berner's optimism and energy is manifested in his non-stop discourse on Hindman's value and what it could one day include — the state's largest disc golf course, for example, an outdoor education center, environmental projects with the Little Rock School District, and a navigable Fourche Creek. The latter would require clearing the downed trees and brush that have clogged the Fourche since the 2009 flood; Berner would go even further: "It's on my bucket list to get this all the way to the Arkansas River," Berner said.
To that end, Berner has contacted 2nd District Congressman Tim Griffin and written the National Guard adjutant general asking for guard help in clearing the creek.
Adcock, asked if she thought Berner would have any luck getting the guard's help, said, "If I was a betting person I would say they'll be there."
Those wishing to pitch in at Hindman can come out for the Great American Cleanup on March 10, starting at 8 a.m. For more information, go to www.meadowcliffbrookwood.org.