Say "Central" and most people familiar with Little Rock will reflexively add "High" to it. The school is the city's most famous icon. Today, the neighborhood surrounding Central High is seeking to vie for its share of attention — and with some success.
Less famous than the grand Quapaw Quarter it abuts, less fashionable than the later-vintage Hillcrest and Heights neighborhoods to the west, the Central High neighborhood nonetheless has the "good bones" that New Urbanism advocates crave: Vintage homes aching for restoration, streets largely devoid of commuter traffic, mature trees and big lots. And, like so many inner-city neighborhoods, it has also suffered over the decades from municipal neglect, an exodus of middle class and affluent residents, and deterioration of housing stock.
A drive through the area offers a clear vision of its grand past. On streets like Battery (whose former prestige is revealed by the mansions divided by a park on a two-block stretch between 19th and 21st), Schiller, Summit and Wolfe you can find block after block of impressive houses, ranging in size from cottages to large homes. Many were clearly the domain of families with money and influence.
But the families who built those houses — almost all white, wealthy, and well-connected — abandoned the neighborhood many decades ago. In the years following, much of the fabric of the neighborhood began to unravel. Houses deteriorated, infrastructure was ignored, crime rose and owner-occupants were often replaced by renters. The population shifted to mostly poor and mostly black, and poor black neighborhoods typically didn't do well in Little Rock during the middle part of the last century.
Still, the area seems to be regaining some of its cachet; there may not exactly be a Renaissance going on, but the neighborhood's partisans say the area has more going for it than conventional wisdom will attest. Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College are investing in the area, and while some houses sport the city's red tags denoting a condemned property, others display work permits for renovations. Middle class home-seekers interested in the ongoing trend of urban revival are coming back into Central Little Rock.
Sheila Miles is president of the Wright Avenue Neighborhood Association, for the area bounded by 17th Street on the north, Roosevelt on the south, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east, and Thayer Street on the west. It and the adjoining Central High Neighborhood Association are the voices of the residents in the area, and neither of which is shy about going to City Hall when they feel their neighborhoods aren't getting the attention or services they deserve.
"We're building relationships with neighborhoods, businesses, we have a good working relationship with the city," said Miles. "They've been really helpful in working with us on improving the image of the neighborhood. We established a crime prevention group and are trying to improve the public safety. I think those are some of the things that will set the foundation for a stronger community."
Miles says she's seen improvement since she moved to Battery Street in 2006.
"What drew me to the neighborhood initially was I loved the character of the historic homes," she said. "Once I moved here I met some really nice neighbors, and I see this area for one that is, I guess you could say, a diamond in the rough."
One of those neighbors who also saw through to the sparkle is Jennifer Carman, who has lived on Schiller Street since 2004. That's when she bought a 1912 Craftsman-style American Foursquare house that had been vacant for 18 years.
"The house was full of sleeping bags and needles and used condoms and debris," she recalls. "It was pretty shocking."
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