A Tale of Two Cities: Little Rock’s Bipolar Problem

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Dickens’ famous novel, written about London and Paris, was set in a period shortly before the French revolution. It could easily be rewritten to discuss the city we live in. On one side we praise the great advances from our city of light while the other creeps further into darkness and despair. We have a chasm wedged between the two cities that is not a channel of water but instead a freeway and we are very likely headed toward a revolution unless we can figure this out.

Most of the people in my day-to-day life north (or occasionally west) of this great divide. We get together and eat at our fantastic restaurants north of the divide, we drink at the bars here, we go to work at our jobs here, and we essentially live our lives in a small section that makes up less than a third of the total square miles of Little Rock.

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We praise and share with all our northern friends when Little Rock is named the best mid-sized city to live, because of course it is. How could it not be? We have great restaurants, great entertainment, great new developments, and, oddly, relatively low crime.

Occasionally though a few of us will peak ever so briefly over the wall and realize that the Little Rock we know is not Little Rock at all.

I send my kid to daycare in the Quapaw district, just a block from the Governor’s mansion. About once a month or so there will be a wreck on the freeway either dropping her off or picking her up. We live in Briarwood so when that happens I simply run down Wright Ave, cross over to 12th street at Woodrow, and go all the way down 12th until I hit Hughes to go back over 630 to my house.

Before I go any further, let me tell you this is not about race. In this roughly 5 mile trek sure I pass more black people, but not by much. In fact in the three years I have been doing this I would guess that the number of poor white people I see here have doubled.

Things are decidedly different here. Poverty is apparent, as is crime. At least every other trip I see drug deals in the middle of the day, sadly it sometimes feels like the drug dealers are the only ones with steady employment. The only development I pass is the shiny new 12th street police station that somehow feels indicative of this area.

Anyone who ventures through this area very often feels no surprise that Little Rock is also ranked as the most dangerous mid-sized city in America.  It is the world that people south of the divide live in.

Residents to the north rarely think about it until a ranking like this comes out. In fact I would say we rarely think about anything south of 630 at all except for the occasional passing thought about UALR. Even then I have met people who were not aware that Little Rock even had a university, which might be part of the problem UALR has with enrollment. That is another story for another day though.

It is not just the “snobby white people” to the north of 630 who forget about our neighbors to the south. It is the elected officials too (who for the most part all happen to be white living to the north of 630). South of 630 is generally ignored in any city led development, instead decisions are made that further drive down the overall value and prosperity of the area.

Consider the contrast here. A prime spot barely south of 630 where the former Brandon House furniture sits was up for development. This could be a gateway location into the south side of the city. Instead of seeing a signature development project the Little Rock board approved plans for a mid range hotel and large gas station. The tie breaking vote came from the Mayor himself who has proven he cares little for south of 630 development.

At the same time plans for a much smaller gas station in downtown Little Rock was withdrawn after strong opposition from the city board. The reason? Board members were afraid it would detract from the gateway into the city they are trying to build at Broadway with the new bridge and the multimillion dollar, city funded, remodel of Robinson Center.

This vast policy and culture difference will not end well friends. Much like the era of Dickens’ novel, we are in the days before a revolution. Crime is growing rapidly in the neighborhoods just north of the freeway (trust me, I live there). Last year’s 12th Street protests show me that we are not far away from a Ferguson, MO style riot.

So what can we do? Like most major problems we need to tackle this from multiple angles to make a difference.

1.  Better Candidates – Unfortunately the problem we run into with local elections is lack of quality candidates. In 2010 Mayor Stodola won re-election with over 80% of the total vote thanks to poor quality candidates. This year will be very similar due to another low quality opponent. It is the same situation in most city offices.

To vote in better candidates we need better people running for office in the first place. It probably starts with a well-organized campaign to find candidates that care about the whole city and not just the high money areas. Then we need to start building that candidate up now, for the 2018 election. Not a last-minute effort 6 months before an election.

2. Private development – We need developers interested in bridging the divide. It takes time, but it works (think River Market, Clinton Center area). If we want to increase the prosperity of the area we need to start moving money into the area. Built an amazing restaurant in some of the amazingly inexpensive areas just south of 630. How about a higher end shopping center at 12th and University? What about a high-end development corridor down Fairpark linking UAMS and UALR? Only being respectful of the residents this time.

Then hire people from the area. Move money from north to south and watch the crime go down. Sure, take your precautions and hire quality security officers.You show north residents it is ok to go south again. You show south residents that we care and that they can earn a quality living. Development cost would be a fraction of anything built on the north side. (Bonus, throw in tax breaks to do so)

3. Build culture around UALR – UALR could be an amazing cultural center of Little Rock. Earlier this year I visited Madison Wisconsin and walked away very impressed. It is not just the campus itself, which UALR will probably never be as big, it is the culture around the campus. They have a large park/amphitheater area that rivals River Front Park. Lots of walking distance restaurants. Huge biking community. It could be UALR.

It is hard to shift from a community college style campus to a residential campus and get quality residents. As it stands I cannot think of any reason a potential college student would want to move on campus or into the neighboring apartments. We need a strong community center south of 630, this should be it.

I want us to care about all of Little Rock. Because caring about all of Little Rock is what will make our city better. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the south and embrace them as our neighbors. Lets start a positive revolution in this city.

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A Tale of Two Cities: Little Rock’s Bipolar Problem