Columns » Jay Barth

Bitter tears



As I try to get back into some semblance of running shape, I'm now doing longer runs on weekends. Hills being a bane of my running, I typically seek the flattest possible option. That sends me to the most eastern parts of Little Rock to the neighborhoods surrounding the Clinton National Airport.

These are neighborhoods I came to know pretty well campaigning door to door while running for office four years ago. But, in the years since that campaign, while I've driven through them fairly regularly, I've not paid as close attention to what's going on in these neighborhoods east of I-30 as one does when seeking out distractions from the aches in 47-year-old knees.

Unfortunately, the images I see today are exactly what I saw several years ago: the same potholed streets, the same cracked and uneven sidewalks, the same vacant lots, and the same distressed housing. Despite the genuine signs of progress along the Main Street corridor just a mile or so to the west (and the occasional home being restored in the Hanger Hill neighborhood that borders I-30), slow, continued deterioration of block after block is the reality in the bulk of these neighborhoods. Even more important, the human expressions of poverty persist. This goes all the way down to the reality that some of the same homeless and under-housed men that I saw several years back continue to wander the streets of the neighborhood.

Two different writers have written in national publications in recent weeks about the persistence of poverty in Little Rock's capital city that I experience on my runs, coming to diametrically opposed explanations for it. Conservative writer Jason Epstein, who directed a Great Society era antipoverty program centered in eastern Little Rock, writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal blames government programs for creating a culture of dependency in these neighborhoods where he once worked. In dramatic contrast, long-time Little Rock writer Ed Gray, in an essay for Salon, targets conservatives like Paul Ryan (and Epstein) for bullying the War on Poverty out of existence before it had a chance to succeed in places like east Little Rock.

In my view, neither have it quite right. Blame for the persistence of poverty — with all its human costs — in these neighborhoods is not solely that of the political left (as Epstein would have it) or the right (as would Gray). It is the willing disregard of elected officials from across the political spectrum at all levels — national, state and city — for the mere existence of such troubled neighborhoods and their equally troubled and increasingly disconnected residents. As just one example, with the exception of a resurfacing of a portion of Ninth Street, not a single capital project from the initial round of spending of the city's heralded one-cent sales tax is for work in east Little Rock. The city government of Little Rock is not alone in its ignoring of the challenges of neighborhoods like this; its ignoring of their plight is simply the easiest to track.

The constantly unmet needs of much of these swaths of our community is reminiscent of the central message of what is perhaps the most gorgeous piece of political rhetoric of the last century that I recently heard once again: Louisiana Gov. Huey Long's 1928 election eve speech delivered in St. Martinville, La., under the mythical Evangeline Oak. There, Evangeline longingly waited for her lover Gabriel in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Long concluded his speech, "... but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment. Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come? Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled? Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here."

Huey Long was a deeply flawed public official whose actions were decidedly less elegant than his rhetoric. However, he recognized the existence of citizens like those living the city blocks on my runs and understood their pain and frustration, borne from generations of inaction on the problems most pressing to them. As such, he was unlike all but a handful of those elected to serve the people of east Little Rock in recent decades. A start toward solving the problems of our poorest neighborhoods, crucial to the long-term health of the city as a whole, is for public officials to face up to the challenges found on some of the city's oldest blocks.

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