Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
In 2003, Paul Dodds, a Harvard-trained attorney, came to Little Rock from Berlin. He had never been here before. He did not plan to stay.
But today, Dodds, who one friend here describes as a “world citizen,” lives in the city’s core, in a house at 17th and South Park streets, a block from Central High School. He paid $13,000 for the house, gutted it and restored it.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Dodds, at 52, is pouring his efforts and his life’s savings into a part of Little Rock that most investors have avoided for years. People with money have generally shied away from the neighborhood, seeing it not just as a financial risk, but as physically dangerous.
Dodds says he was affected by “the fortress mentality” at first too. He checked into buying a wrought iron fence — “6 feet tall and militarily defensible” — but it would have cost as much as he paid for the house.
He waited. He lived on his lot in an RV while he oversaw renovation of the house. “Nothing bad happened,” so when the time came, he opted to erect a more genial picket fence. Sometimes he leaves the gate opened. Still, Dodds says, “nothing bad” has happened. He feels at home in the neighborhood.
Walking out his front door, he greets John Nowden and Van Watson, of the Community Police Patrol, as they ease by, windows down, in their cruiser. He hails a neighbor making repairs on a nearby roof. Walking past a group of Latinos, he stops and speaks for a few moments in Spanish. He would have been more fluent had the conversation been in German, French or Russian.
“Maybe it’s because I lived on 123rd Street and Amsterdam [in New York City],” Dodds laughs. “But this place doesn’t seem scary to me.”
Having spent a childhood in New England and the past 13 years in Europe, Dodds appreciates cities that are dense anddiverse. He likes old houses, cities that can be traversed on foot or by bicycle, places “where interesting things happen because a lot of different people are living close together.”
He saw the makings of all that in the long-neglected neighborhood surrounding Central High, an area still blighted by deteriorating houses, empty lots and crime, even as city leaders and the National Park Service prepare to mark next year’s 50th anniversary of the school’s integration crisis.
On blocks where many would see only a couple of derelict houses, perhaps with boarded-up windows and syringes in the yard, Dodds saw houses whose owners were struggling to keep up their yards, raise families and maintain their equity.
Beneath the neglect he saw “a still beautiful, quiet residential neighborhood,” with streets, designed before suburbs, that led gracefully downtown. It reminded him of the town in Connecticut where he’d grown up.
Even in many crack houses, burn-outs, and condemnations, Dodds saw good lines and “potential beauty.” Deciding the place was an “urban frontier,” he decided to become a part of it.
Dodds scouted real estate around the school and settled on a burned-out shell. The first time he saw the place he later bought, a dealer approached, offering to sell him drugs. Inside the house, a prostitute worked on the sofa.
Today, that house is fit and trim. Its gardens and screened porches would grace any neighborhood, but they look like they belong here. Dodds too feels at home, and comfortable with his neighbors. Some — the addicts, and those who’ve been to prison — he sees are “damaged souls.” “They are not harming me,” he says.
To Dodds, the only difference between an alcoholic and someone strung out on crack is that the crack is illegal. He would prefer — and feel safer with — laws that “decriminalize addiction” by giving addicts legal ways to get drugs.
“What really harms me,” he wrote in an opinion piece published earlier this year in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “is the distribution of illegal commerce” in his neighborhood, “and the distribution of violence” that goes with it.
“The addiction is not going to stop,” he wrote, “certainly not forced by our collective will. I just wish the illegality would.”
Dodds worries about the violence, not only because it threatens him, his neighbors, and the whole city’s future, but also because he has made this area his business. Since completing his own house, he has purchased a half-dozen other distressed properties, now in various stages of renovation, which he will either rent or resell.
Repairing the houses is the easy part. Tackling laws that rot the neighborhood is hard.
One of the problems with this neighborhood, and others like it in Little Rock, is that even when a house is being neglected, and dragging the value of nearby properties down with it, legal restraints favoring the owner can make intervention impossible.
In some cases, as the neighborhood has lost value, titles are clouded by liens and foreclosures. Owners often die without leaving wills.
City officials recognize the problems but have been slow to find solutions. Dodds is more impatient. He may play down the riskiness of life in the ’hood, but he does understand the relationship between trash, broken windows, and crime — and between crime and financial security.
One house Dodds owns is a vacant, century-old structure on Thayer Street, within shouting distance of Central. The property adjoining it was used for years as an auto salvage yard.
When that business closed, the property’s owners neglected the site. It reverted to weeds and illegal dumping. In January, the body of a 44-year-old woman — Little Rock’s seventh murder victim of 2006 — was found there amid the rubble.
Dodds appealed to city and state officials to get the site’s owners to clean it. When nothing happened and it seemed to him that the process was just “poking along,” he researched public records and discovered that the site was owned by Johnson Bros. Investments, and that the company’s secretary-treasurer was Bob Johnson of Bigelow, an Arkansas state senator.
Soon, Dodds was standing with a television reporter in front of the trash-filled lot. “We’d like to see it be safe,” he told KATV’s Jason Pederson. “I want to see it be clean. I’d love to see it be a park. But if it’s not going to be a park, at least I’d like to see it be a place where dead bodies don’t get dumped and people don’t get murdered.”
Asked whether a state senator should be held to a higher standard than any other landowner, Dodds replied: “I think people who are in a position of public trust should take care of the environment around them.”
Within a week, the lot was cleaned. It still was no thing of beauty, but a hurdle had been cleared. With the ugly, dangerous lot restored to a moderate level of decency, Dodds could turn his attention to restoring the high-ceilinged house next door.
Trash, indifferent landlords, liens, tax delinquencies, demolition orders, intestate successions — Dodds sees them all as “systemic roadblocks” to the revival of this important neighborhood. And he’s dealt with such “roadblocks” in places where they were entrenched more deeply than here.
Before moving to Little Rock, Dodds lived for years in Germany and in the former Soviet Union, “helping to dismantle Communism.” Using his background in law and economics, he joined governmental agencies engaged in the unprecedented task of transferring vast amounts of property from Communist to private control.
It was an unlikely career for the son of a Congregationalist minister and a journalist. “We had very little money,” he said, “but high social status. We lived in a big parsonage in Waterbury, Connecticut, where we could barely afford the heat.”
Later, the Rev. Dodds went to work for the National Council of Churches. He served for a time in Rome as the organization’s official observer at the Second Vatican Council. In 1968, when the elder Dodds was granted a sabbatical, he again took his family to Rome.
Paul was 14 years old. Italy stole his heart. “It was so old, and so beautiful,” he recalls. “And we ate so well!”
Beyond the delights of fine cuisine, the experience taught Dodds that “there are different ways of living that we can learn a lot from, and that we are not number one, and that not everyone was trying to be just like us.”
The family returned to the United States, where Dodds finished high school, traveled a bit, did odd jobs, and then enrolled in Columbia University. He graduated in 1978, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in economics.
He then attended Harvard Law School, graduating again with honors. He clerked at the Massachusetts Supreme Court, restored a historic townhouse in Cambridge, and spent a few years in corporate law. But it was a difficult time.
Dodds, who is gay, saw “all these friends” around him dying of AIDS. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which turned out to be treatable. His father died. And, with New England’s economy staggering, his job suddenly ended.
It was 1989. In Europe, the eastern bloc was crumbling. People were storming the Berlin Wall. Dodds, who had by now also visited London and Berlin, watched with fascination. He wanted to be in Berlin.
He called contacts there about possible jobs. “One guy told me that all hell was breaking loose in Germany, and that if I came, I would find work.” That was good enough. Dodds says he figured, “What the hell. I’d rather be unemployed in Berlin than in Boston.”
He sold the townhouse and almost everything else he owned, and arrived in Berlin two days before that country’s political unification. Before long he was working for the Treuhandanstalt, the German ministry charged with dismantling and selling East German properties. He stayed at the agency for the next four years.
“Its mission was to try to get the state-owned assets into the hands of responsible private investors,” Dodds explains. “It was huge. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of the world. It was the world’s biggest yard sale.”
It was also, in the view of many Germans, a financial catastrophe. Dodds, who had an inside view, agrees.
“It was not pretty,” he says. “In fact, it was a god-awful mess.”
But Germany was not alone in having to cope with such a massive transition of property. Two years after the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union broke apart. Again, countries faced the legal, financial, and practical dilemmas of transferring factories, shops and land from state ownership to private control.
Many Western observers believed that the former Soviet countries could learn from the Treuhand’s experience. Officials with the United States Agency for International Development were among them. In 1995, Dodds, now employed by USAID, moved to Kiev, Ukraine, serving as an advisor on privatization.
From there, there years later, he moved to a similar job in Yerevan, Armenia. He remembers how unprepared officials in both countries were for even the concept of a market economy.
He recalls, “It was as though I was telling them, ‘Hello, I’m from Mars, and you’re about to go there. Like it or not, you’re about to enter a new world, and this is how it works.’ ”
He explains, “The thing that was so strange about the collapse of the Eastern bloc was that, for the people who lived there, the economy had been going along. It seemed a little down-at-the-heels, but then it was suddenly gone, as though a neutron bomb had gone off. No one could figure out where it went. They didn’t realize that it had rotted out from beneath them.”
In Ukraine and Armenia, Dodds encountered bureaucrats who, he says, “were in a position to stymie anything.” There were no legal structures in place for what was being attempted. There was little new capital. And there was a culture that had liked things the way they were.
This was not the “god-awful mess” he’d seen in Germany. It was more like an altered universe, one that was grappling with shock and hanging onto its familiar old roadblocks. Though Dodds was being well paid — and there was almost no place to spend any money — he eventually grew weary.
In fact, he says, “I got sick of it. The money was good but the corruption was terrible. I was trying to introduce kind of normal, Western business practices, but it’s hard to bring about systemic change when people don’t want to change.”
He says he felt unwanted, “like a court-appointed shrink.”
The death threats didn’t help. Some of the people Dodds worked with resented the change in economic climate. Others believed Dodds was a spy.
“I wasn’t a spy, but in a way, I guess you could say I was a plant. I was working for the international donor community, trying to establish some new ideas.”
On top of everything else, the weekly commute between Yerevan and Berlin, where Dodds’s German partner still lived, was taking its toll. When that 10-year relationship fell apart, Dodds found himself somewhat at a loss, wondering what to do next.
Looking around, he saw jobs he probably could have had, involving economic restructuring, in Iraq, Serbia, Croatia and Nigeria. But all the posts were beginning to look the same, and he’d grown “tired of being a gypsy.”
“I was homesick. I needed a place to land,” he says. The United States beckoned. Still, he knew that “a lot of expatriates have a hard time making the transition back.”
The phone rang. It was Dodds’ friend Ben Steinberg, a Princeton grad living in Tanzania. Dodds had gotten to know Steinberg and his wife, Alexandra Terninko, in Armenia when Steinberg was also working there, directing a non-governmental economic development group.
Now, like Dodds, Steinberg and Terninko were thinking of returning to the U.S. But they knew their country had changed. As Steinberg puts it, “We had seen the stature of the U.S. really fall in the eyes of a lot of the Tanzanians we knew, due to the Iraq war. We decided to come back and get involved.”
Steinberg told Dodds he had been reading about the presidential aspirations of Gen. Wesley Clark. He proposed that the three of them go to Washington, D.C., to check out Clark’s campaign. If they liked what they saw, they could sign on as volunteers.
From Berlin, Dodds bought a Winnebago RV on eBay. The trio reunited in the U.S., drove in the Winnebago to Washington and were impressed. But it was clear, Steinberg said, “that that was not where the action was.”
Dodds turned the Winnebago towards Little Rock. Steinberg and Terninko followed in their Honda. For a few weeks all three of them lived in Dodds’ Winnebago at a campsite in North Little Rock’s Burns Park.
Steinberg recalls walking into Clark’s campaign headquarters, upon “a scene of total chaos.” He says, “I think we ended up cleaning the kitchen. There was no furniture and not much organization, but there was a lot of positive energy.”
They stayed, and though Clark never reached the White House, Dodds, Steinberg and Terninko all found they felt unexpectedly at home in Arkansas.
“I’d been out of the country for 13 years,” Dodds says. “My parents had died. I had no geographical center. I had to recreate it.
“When I came to Little Rock with the campaign, I met these incredibly nice, very energetic people. They had a sense of community, and this volunteer culture, and that’s a very American thing. I’d missed that.
“I also found the people I met here so comfortable. I’d lived so many snotty places. I didn’t want to be someplace snotty. And I found Little Rock so welcoming. I thought it was sincere.”
He laughs, “I guess I respond well to welcome.”
“Once I got used to the scale of the place — I mean, it is little — I really, really liked it. I felt it was a place where I, as an individual, could make an impact.”
Steinberg and Terninko also have adopted Arkansas as their home. They now live in Helena, where Steinberg again works to help an economically distressed area — this time the Arkansas Delta — as an officer with Southern Financial Partners.
“I see Paul as almost a community healer,” Steinberg says. “He does whatever he can. You know, he came here and pretty quickly passed the bar, and then he taught a class at the law school about how to deal with abandoned properties, and when he found out that some students were having trouble with the bar exam, he set up a tutorial program.”
Marion Kahn, who owns a Little Rock marketing firm, was also an early volunteer for Clark. She remembers Dodds arriving before the campaign’s headquarters even had furniture.
“He looked for a place where he could make a contribution,” she says, “because that is what Paul does. He has this warm charisma that almost masks, at times, how incredibly bright he is.”
Kahn began to see Little Rock differently after she got to know Dodds. “He had that freshness,” she says. “It was like when you go away on a trip and you come back and look at your house, and you see how the furniture can be rearranged.
“He saw the good part of Little Rock, and he could put that together with what he’d seen in other major metropolitan areas, in the U.S. and abroad. He had this vision that would benefit everyone, and he was willing to commit to try to make it happen.”
She adds, “In Little Rock, it seems we are more divided by socio-economic factors than is the case in other cities. But, for Paul, that’s not a factor, because he simply sees people as people. He’s a great guy. Whenever you’re with Paul, it’s just a pleasure.”
Annie Abrams, who lives in the Central High neighborhood, also met Dodds through the Clark campaign. She got to know him better as he was restoring his house.
“He knows how to blend in,” she says. “He’s a very decent person. He has something on the inside that makes him different.”
She explains: “He’s not afraid to get on his bicycle. He walks and rides in the quote ‘neighborhood,’ that everybody else is supposed to be afraid even to drive a car in.
“He hires people to work for him that other people would be scared of. Even felons. A lot of them have good skills, but they can’t get jobs because they’re felons. Paul doesn’t care about that. He can see their worth. And he knows that, if you’re really going to talk about getting neighborhoods safe, you’ve got to give people who have been to prison — you’ve got to give them a second chance.”
(Dodds speaks of his workers with slightly different terms. He says, “Most of the guys I hire are in early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, often living in ‘chem-free’ houses. Some are recently released inmates on parole.”)
Abrams understands the problem with laws that, while written to protect owners’ rights to their property, can result in a seven-year wait, while would-be purchasers try to save a deteriorating structure.
“He is very interested in trying to untangle that aspect,” Abrams says, “and yet respect the people who live here. His basic philosophy — that I agree with — is that he doesn’t believe in demolition.”
A city employee who also knows Dodds through his work in the neighborhood was willing to talk about him, but asked not to be identified. The employee said Dodds is pushing for changes that police and city code enforcers have been seeking for years. They see him making headway where they could not.
“He’s our ace in the hole,” she said. “He came here and he was appalled. This area should never have gotten the way it did, with so many houses boarded up, so many vacant lots.
“It started with white flight. Then the freeway went in. It went gradually down, until now, we’ve got all these poor people who are afraid to come out on their porches.
“All the attention was on the school, while the neighborhood was going down around it. Jesse Jackson was the first person I ever heard who acknowledged it. When he came here, when they opened the Clinton library, he said, ‘How in the world did these houses get in this kind of shape?’”
Dodds focuses more on potential than on the past. “Little Rock is lucky that it does not have block after block of houses that have been abandoned, as some cities do,” he says. “In that sense, we’ve got it really good.
“Yes, we’ve got the blight, the risk, the crime,” he says, walking through an alley near his house. “And we’ve also got this wonderful housing stock, which is not replaceable, and these old trees.
“Even the most blighted blocks contain solid homes that are being carefully maintained by working, middle-class folks — mostly African-Americans — who are hanging on and leading perfectly normal lives.”
Dodds calls the long-term residents of this neighborhood “the true unsung heroes of Little Rock.” He considers their story an extension of the one that is being told at the high school nearby.
“They are the backbone of this community,” he says. “They are the people who need to be helped.”
Dodds sees his efforts at fixing up a house here, and getting a lot cleared over there, as “redistributing equity,” the value spreading out in circles. “Just as a ruin sucks equity out of my neighbors’ homes,” he says, “the careful rehab of ruins does the opposite.”
Dodds saw his own parents forced from their home in Boston by taxes after their once-affordable neighborhood underwent gentrification. He does not want that to happen here. When property values around Central “turn around,” as he believes they will, he says, “these people who’ve stabilized the neighborhood will need help with tax relief.”
Having dealt with legal and economic systems affecting property in other parts of the world, Dodds did not expect to settle into similar issues here in the U.S., much less in Little Rock. Yet here he is.
He chuckles at the similarities. Properties stuck in various forms of “legal limbo.” Difficulties finding willing investors. Cultural attitudes that blindly support failing economic systems.
“When I was in Armenia,” he says, “I used to jump up and down and tell my colleagues, ‘Don’t sell a property unless you can also give investors the package of rights they need to develop it!’ ”
Here, he hopes to navigate some laws and help to casnge others, not to move properties from Communism to free markets, but to hammer “worthless and scary ruins” in one of America’s most historic neighborhoods into “safe and desirable homes.”