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Hillcrest: The best neighborhood in Little Rock



I live in a two-story brick house on Ridgeway Street that my neighbors would surely like to see spiffed up, but Ridgeway is in Hillcrest, and because Hillcrest attracts an eclectic, tolerant type of person, the neighbors have never complained. At least not directly to me.

The mortar between the bricks is made from river sand, so that the brickwork sags in places; the previous owner repaired the cracks without benefit of trowel (or expertise), but who cares? The house stands, if barely. Our friend who makes small repairs to our house has filled the box gutters with some kind of expanding plastic foam to keep the rain out (otherwise it runs down the brick wall of the glassed-in porch), so that yellow bubbles poke out as if our gutters are sprouting fungi. But who cares? It's Hillcrest, and you've got to have a sense of humor when you live in what peripatetic columnist John Brummett famously called "drafty charmers," with their rhomboid windows hinting at shifting nearly century-old foundations. We live with it. And we are happy to be there, because Ridgeway Street — and Midland, Crystal Court, Linwood, Colonial Court, Pine, Oak, Cedar, Hill Road, Oakwood and all those presidential and lettered streets, etc. — are in the best neighborhood in Little Rock. The street is curvy by design, "following the foothills and hillcrests" as a 1911 promotional brochure cited by Cheryl Nichols and Sandra Taylor Smith in their cherished (by the neighborhood) opus "Hillcrest: The History and Architectural Heritage of Little Rock's Streetcar Suburb" said. Like Midland Hills' curving streets, ascending from Markham and the old city of Little Rock, and the neighborhood's eclectic architecture, Hillcrest's residents also eschew the grid and cookie-cutter way of thinking, which is a nice way of saying they're a little bent. (Mostly toward the left, but we tolerate those who've lost their way.)

On Ridgeway — which has a constant supply of children filling in as older ones go off to college, meaning there will often be kids playing basketball in the street, the hoop set up on the sidewalk, or riding bikes or chasing balls, so you had better drive slow or we'll kill you — there's a lot of what you would call bonhomie, which is to say that we like to visit one another clutching fresh gin and tonics in our hands or plastic cups filled with wine (the better to disguise the libation if one is en route to the Hillcrest Girls Softball League play in Allsopp Park, as every parent of a girl is at one point or another). I am certain this is true of other streets in Hillcrest as well, and I can vouch for Kavanaugh when First Thursdays and Harvest Fests and all the other street parties held in the no-big-boxes-here commercial district roll around.

A little more history from the Nichols-Smith book: The upper part of Hillcrest, where the big houses line the streets leading to Knoop Park, a brilliant creation of the Works Progress Administration to give the neighborhood a place to stroll and view the Little Rock skyline, was once its very own town, Pulaski Heights, incorporated in 1905. The area to the south was the city's first suburb, springing up around the streetcar line on Kavanaugh (then Prospect Avenue). In 1906, Pulaski Heights added the Hillcrest Addition, the crest north across the ravine that would become Allsopp Park. A steel suspension bridge gave the folks north of the ravine access to the streetcar line, and in true Hillcrest spirit, the concrete piers that remains in Allsopp Park have been painted with a scene of people seated in a movie theater, an act carried out by clever teen-agers in the early dawn. In a move that anticipated today's westward expansion, the little town glommed on to Little Rock in 1916 to get fire protection.

Hillcrest has resisted the tear-down trend our brothers and sisters in the Heights have embraced, so the homes that sprang up in those days are the homes you see today, with a few sad exceptions. Name the architectural style, you'll see it here.

Little Rock's city fathers wisely heeded landscape architect John Nolen's advice to preserve the woods that would become Allsopp Park as being too hilly to develop. And what a park it is, deep woods crisscrossed with walking and bike paths. There are crawdads to fish for in the creek, a resident pair of hawks in early spring and places to play in the flatlands.

I didn't grow up in Hillcrest, so I'm not as familiar with its sewer tunnels the way all Heights children were with theirs in the 1950s. But I did know about Spatz Bakery, which had the best chocolate eclairs ever, in one of the quaint storefronts along Kavanaugh, a little business district that helps make Hillcrest the complete, perfect neighborhood it is.

Pulaski Heights Junior High School, built between 1920 and 1936 as an elementary school, was scarcely changed when I went to school there in the 1960s, though the boys could go through the girls' door and the girls through the boys' door. There was a wonderful little grocery across the street on Lee where you could get a Grapette; the orthodontist office was there, too, so there was no way to get out of getting your braces tightened periodically. Back then, when schools didn't close until there was actually snow on the ground, the Island X was waiting to serve cheese dip to kids trudging home. The Mexican restaurant later became known as the Felony Lounge, but I'm not sure why. It burned down in the 1990s.

About 30 years after I was a student at PHJH, I was walking my own kid to Pulaski Heights Elementary, next to the junior high. Here's how you get your kid to school in Hillcrest: You pour a big cup of coffee and head out the door with child in tow and walk there, with all the other parents holding cups of coffee, all accompanied by the family dogs. The gossip continues after the bell rings, on the return home.

Here's how far I have to go to get to a grocery store: About five blocks. To the waterworks park: About five blocks. To Allsopp Park: About five blocks. To the new bike store: Two blocks. To the cute independent dress shop: Four blocks. To the bus stop: Two blocks. To the Greek diner: Seven blocks. To get a great margarita: Five blocks. To the upscale country chic furniture store: Seven blocks. To the pool hall (were I to suddenly decide to take up smoking): Five blocks. To the hairdresser — well, if there's anything overblown about Hillcrest, it is that there is a salon, or two, on every block. On a recent night, the neighborhood bar (near the pool hall/bar) was full of locals listening to one of their own, a heart surgeon when she's not singing, croon with a klezmer band.

Is there any other park in town where you'll hear the strains of the bagpipes being played by the musician who lives in the "Hillcrest Addition"?

Plenty of neighborhoods have chickens these days, but we think the gals we have in the two henhouses on our street are the best in town.

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