- SIGN OF THE PROBLEM: Melody Thomas by a car illegally parked at ABC, just one of her complaints.
Arkansas Baptist College, built by former slaves in the 1880s at what was then High and 16th streets, has gotten accolades for its stunning growth in recent years — from 300 students to 1,193 since 2005, from a budget of $1 million to a budget of $18 million. An estimated $27 million has been spent on construction and renovation on campus, the college says.
But Arkansas Baptist is smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. There is no buffer between campus and neighborhood, as there is at nearby Philander Smith, which is gated. If you are a long-time resident of the neighborhood — and many who live there are — and unused to trash, parking problems, loud college parties, a marching band that plays at 11 p.m. at night (complaints brought that to an end) and a football team that sets off at 6 a.m. through the streets en route to practice at Quigley Field at Central High, and clusters of young people congregating or smoking marijuana, you might be less than thankful for the ballyhooed growth of Arkansas Baptist.
The neighborhood has seen bad times — Arkansas Baptist President Fitz Hill notes that one of its homes was featured in the 1994 HBO documentary "Bangin' in Little Rock — and boarded up homes are not uncommon. Hill's response to complaints is the neighborhood: "In 2011 it's banging drums. In 2005 it was banging guns."
Neighbors don't necessarily agree with Hill on that point: They say the neighborhood had become quiet, if poor, in the days before the college's turnaround.
"The gangs were already locked up," said Melody Thomas, who lives with her husband, Rob, and 16-year-old son one lot north of the intersection of 16th Street and Marshall and whose family has lived on Marshall for years.
The Thomases recount a number of irritants: the streets lined with parked cars, noise from the college dumpster pickup, trash in the street. Thomas said she'd had to call the police last Thursday when she heard "two cars zooming down the alley and stop behind a house." Somebody threw a brick in her yard to hit her dog, she said. She's told students she's seen smoking marijuana in the alley behind her house and her mother's house to move along.
Hill insists that neighbors are blaming things on students that students have nothing to do with, but Thomas said she can identify them by their clothing — ABC colors are purple and white — and backpacks.
When the school began to expand — it's added a dormitory, a community cafeteria and new classrooms on the campus proper — and closed the portion of 17th Street that bisected the campus, parking problems increased. The school's lot has only about 300 spaces, and cars are parked bumper-to-bumper around the school. At one time, neighbors say, students were parking their cars on the sidewalk as well as the street. The city responded to complaints, putting up new signs that restricted parking 50 feet from intersections so drivers could navigate them more safely. But city traffic controller Greg Clay said the signs have been "pulled by students and tossed in dumpsters, so it's an ongoing" effort to keep the intersections clear.
Students have parked in front of her driveway, says Estoria Wayne, 77, of 1600 W. 16th St.; she's sent her son out to get them to move and had to call police once. "It has been a nightmare," she said. The LINKS van that comes to the home of Bobbie Singleton, 1505 MLK, to pick up her quadriplegic son can't get near the curb, she says, and she has problems backing out.
Singleton also complains of trash in her yard, which she says is thrown down by students returning to campus from a nearby Church's Chicken.
Singleton's home is next door to the college's student union, built this year on a small lot between two one-story residences. The lot is just one of 37 that the college has bought in a patchwork about the neighborhood. At a neighborhood meeting the college had, Wayne said, a realtor passed out cards. "I told her I didn't ask for no card and I didn't want one," Wayne said.
The school has leveled derelict houses; some lots will be for parking, some will be for future school expansion. A lot cleared at MLK and 16th Street will be the site of the Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship and Community Development; construction should get underway next year. (Ford has given the school $2.5 million.) The school also renovated a historic home as its G.E.D. house and the house that was in "Bangin' in the Rock" has been turned into a daycare center. Another property will be refurbished as a fine arts center. But two other lots contain portable storage units and wrecked furniture is in the yard.
To Melody Thomas, it feels like a "hostile takeover."
"First we were all excited" when Hill was hired, Melody Thomas said. "We wanted them to grow. [But] it became clear to us he was going to aggressively take us over."
The Thomases had their house, a restored 19th century home, on the market a couple of years ago for $99,000. She said Athletic Director Charles Ripley and another man approached her one day and asked if she'd take $77,000. She said no. "Then he said, 'I guess you wouldn't want to donate it?' "
Some residents have told the Central High Neighborhood Association that "they are afraid the march is on, that they are beginning to be surrounded by parking logs and can't get anyone to hear them at the college," said association president Joyce Matthew. "We asked them to get a petition started."
Bill Asti, an architect who has consulted on the Central High overlay district designed to preserve historic properties in the district, said neighborhood preservationists met with Hill some time back in the hopes of preserving housing stock. "What our hope was that if Fitz was going to be demolishing [properties] ... to let us move homes to some empty lots," something that's not always feasible, Asti acknowledged.
"Fitz is a bright, wonderful man. Our objective is to help the community become sustainable. That's not the objective of Fitz Hill and Arkansas Baptist ... the function of the institution is not to create a stable community, their function is to educate kids ... and maybe save some souls along the way."
That's something Hill vehemently denies. Hill says the college "has always been a part of the community" and his administration is "not trying to push anybody out."
"We're trying to improve the community daily," Hill said. "If we were doing nothing, people wouldn't like that" either he added.
Hill is proud of the fact that the college is serving a high number of first generation students, and exchange students. Its student body is 70 percent male, unlike most Baptist colleges, he said (the football team started under Hill is likely the draw).
Yes, there are parking problems, he acknowledged — though a new lot at 18th and Marshall should help that — and noise. "It's a trade-off," he said, noise for safety. And though he lives in Chenal, Hill said, he hopes one day to live in the neighborhood.