Aspiring to great Heights 

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

At the risk of sounding like some nostalgic curmudgeon, the Heights that I grew up in during the '70s and '80s is a far cry from the Heights of today — which is not to say that all the changes are unwelcome (more on that later). But it's no longer the place where I saw my first movie at the Heights Theater ("Fantasia") or where I bought trinkets and candy at the local five-and-dime, Heights Variety. Thanks to loyal customer support, some institutions remain — Heights Toy Center, WordsWorth Books, Mr. Wick's, Cheers, Terry's Finer Foods and Browning's Mexican Grill to name a few (although the new Browning's bears no resemblance to the original). And, thankfully, in a rare effort at historic preservation, the marquee for the Heights Theater remains intact, though the building now houses a bank, pizza place and other businesses.

Since I'm walking down memory lane (essentially Kavanaugh), other fond memories include: playing Moon Patrol at the Yellow Rocket arcade, walking up to rent movies for the Betamax at the video store, sledding down Spruce Street, reading comics at Smith Drugs, trying to buy a copy of Judy Blume's "Forever" at The Paperback Writer (and being turned away by the owner — too risque), visiting the talking mynah bird at Bill's Pets, spending my allowance on stickers at the Design Center and getting fitted for my annual pair of summer sandals and fall topsiders at Tot to Teen. I also remember exploring the woods around St. John's before they were cleared to make way for a gated development and the adjacent vacant buildings of The Diocese of the Catholic Church before they were renovated.

The Diocesan offices, or St. John Catholic Center as it's called, form a triad of impressive, imposing buildings built in 1916 around a pleasant green space in a kind of cul de sac. As teens we enjoyed cranking up Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" while slowly rolling up to the forbidding gates at nighttime just for dramatic effect. Try it sometime.

What has perhaps changed most about the Heights is the residential landscape, and by that I mean the houses themselves. The Heights is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Little Rock and long considered one of the most affluent. But what was once a neighborhood of attractive homes — many modest, none over-the-top — has become one of hulking mansions without lawns, too big for their lots, built right up to the property line. They encroach upon the street — like those people who corner you at parties with no regard for personal space. I can remember the first to fall — one of the Heights' earliest houses, off of Country Club, razed to make room for two enormous structures, neither in keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood. And, of course, trees don't stand a chance in this process. Case in point: On the street I grew up on, two houses were recently torn down to make way for a colossal one with a swimming pool, and a cluster of soaring old magnolias were removed right along with them. Sadly, the tree-tear-down trend has firmly taken root, as many of the Heights' oldest have been uprooted. The repercussions reach beyond the aesthetic, as tree-root-removal can lead to drainage problems and other issues that affect neighboring homes. A few ill-fated attempts at preservation have been made over the years and then abandoned due to community backlash.

But you can still find homes from the turn of the century and early 1900s (with actual lawns), though fewer and fewer all the time. For the most part, you will find: new Dallas-sized houses designed without the expertise of an architect, small cottages aspiring toward greatness (i.e., little houses with grand stone whippets or topiaries flanking the front door) and a handful of charming, old Heights homes who embrace their age and imperfections.


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