Seen from the interstate, on the way from somewhere to somewhere, Levy looks picturesque, even pretty, nestled in the bowl of a valley west of North Little Rock's Park Hill, a patchwork of rooftops sticking up above the trees.
Once you get off the freeway, you can see that Levy is really a town within a town. It's a working-class place, as it has been since the start — plain, honest, maybe even a little gritty. Many of the businesses that anchored the community for years, like Venable Lumber Co., are boarded up or gone. For a lot of people, it's a middle place now, somewhere they drive through to get elsewhere, someplace they leave at quitting time, someplace they live but want to leave when they can afford better. The best symbol of Levy these days might be the monolithic overpass that leaves a swath of the old downtown buried in shadow a good bit of the day.
That said, while older businesses have moved on, others — many of them catering to the area's growing Latino population — have sprung up: Mexican grocery stores, restaurants and a Latino-patronized billiard parlor downtown. There are still old-line businesses there, still people there, folks who say they're in for the duration. And if a neighborhood isn't about the determination to stay, to make something new from the old, then what is it?
The town of Levy was started by Ernest Stanley, a young businessman who opened a hardware and grocery store there in 1897, near a field where farmers often camped while bearing their crops to market in Little Rock and points east. Morris Levy, a German-Jewish shopkeeper from Little Rock who later opened a successful dry-goods store in nearby Argenta, had provided Stanley with enough money to start his new store, so Stanley named the town that grew up around it after him. North Little Rock was apparently hot to annex Levy nearly from the beginning, so Levy incorporated in 1917 to try and cling to municipal independence. They couldn't stop progress or the expanding borders of their neighboring city, however, and Levy was officially annexed into North Little Rock in 1947.
The hardware store started by Ernest Stanley is still in Levy, if you can believe it, making it one of the oldest continuously operated businesses in Central Arkansas. It's not in the same place as the first incarnation (that spot is occupied by a gas station under the interstate overpass now), but it's still the same name out front in the latest location at 4308 MacArthur Drive.
People drive in from miles around to shop at Stanley; to get their mowers worked on, their chainsaws sharpened, to buy bags of framing nails, canning jars, jar lifters, sandpaper on rolls, draw knives, oil cans straight out of "The Wizard of Oz," cast iron skillets, pocket knives and woodworkers' spoke shaves in two sizes: small and large. A big black and white cat — which the clerks have named, perhaps inevitably, Stanleycat — came in from the cold a few years back. They didn't have the heart to put her out, so she stayed, sleeping amongst the cans of paint and prowling the aisles. The clerks know most of the customers by name, just like clerks before them knew many of the current customers' fathers by name. It's that kind of place. There aren't many like it anymore, in this world of Faster/Cheaper trumping all.
Jeff Dumboski bought Stanley from the third-generation owner in 2005. Dumboski grew up in Levy and remembers coming to Stanley with his dad. Levy back then was a whole different world.
"It was nice," he said. "Everybody got along with everybody. You could ride your bike everywhere you wanted to go, you didn't get hassled, you didn't get messed with. You knew all the neighbors on your street, and even the neighbors a few streets over from you." His mother still lives in the same house he grew up in, he said, but only knows a few of her neighbors. People have moved away over the years, many of their houses going to rental property.
Dumboski said that people come to Stanley because of the service. He didn't set out to own a hardware store, he said, it just kind of happened that way. His heart's still in his hometown. "I still believe in Levy," he said. "There's still a lot of the old folks around who I remember as a kid. I still see them in here. The rental business, which is a lot of Levy now, is good for business."
Across town from Stanley is another old-line business that plans on staying: Hogg's Meat Market. Inside are all the flavors of the fleshy rainbow. Steaks thick as "War and Peace." Raw, smoked, peppered and sugar-glazed hams. Butterflied pork chops overflowing with stuffing. Big bags of chicken tenders, made in-house. Everything but the moo, oink and cluck. Vegetarians need not apply. Just to keep everything honest and up front, one whole wall of Hogg's is covered by a long mural, a herd of placid cattle being driven to market on one end, while a herd of fat pigs roots under idyllic hills on the other.
Mike Hogg, who took over from his father, runs the place. Hogg's has been in North Little Rock for 49 years, and in its current location at 4520 Camp Robinson Road since 1976. Like Dumboski at Stanley Hardware, Hogg said it's the small-town service that keeps people coming back. "If somebody wants something cut special, we're able to do it," he said. "Lots of people have their family recipes for sausage, and we can do that. We've got lots of customers that bring their sausage seasoning in or bring a recipe, and we'll make their sausages for them." Hunters from all over Arkansas and even Texas send their kills to Hogg's to be made into their special venison jalapeno and cheese summer sausage. Hogg said he's watched the meat business shrink since taking over the business. When he was learning the trade from his dad, there were 1,500 independent meat-packing houses in Arkansas. Now there are none. He used to sell whole barbecued hogs, but the closest whole pig he can get now resides in Iowa.
Hogg hopes people will spend their money at small businesses, and tries to do the same. He goes to Wal-Mart once a year, he said, to help his grandson spend the gift cards he gets at Christmas. A few weeks back, Hogg said, he was throwing a party for one of his sons, and went to a local liquor store to buy some wine and a dozen thirty-packs of beer. When he stepped to the register, the clerk spoke up.
"She said, 'You need to go to the gas station to get your beer. It's a whole lot cheaper.' " Hogg recalls. "I said: 'No ma'am, Doug's my neighbor. He buys his meat from me, and I'm going to buy my beer from him. I don't give a damn how much it is.' "
And that, friends, is how you keep a community alive.
Equally venerable is the neighborhood of Baring Cross, west of Pike Avenue and south of Levy. The blue collar neighborhood, once home to Vestal commercial nurseries, was settled in the 1870s by the families of railroad men working at the Iron Mountain (now Union Pacific) yards and got its name from the Baring Cross railroad bridge (named for the financiers, the Baring Brothers and Judge John Cross). Cut off from the rest of North Little Rock, Baring Cross wasn't part of the city until 1905, and it's always had its own flavor. The late humorist John Fergus Ryan, in his "Argenta Memoir," recalled his ramshackle house, saying his garage moved closer to the house every time the clothesline was tightened.
Drive through Baring Cross today and you'll see more stable home construction, attractive one-story Craftsman-styled homes built with federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds. An apartment-retail-restaurant development, Rockwater Village, is going up along the River Trail. Be careful getting there though: Baring Cross is also home to North Little Rock's first roundabout intersection, and it's a doozy.