The fox that bounds away at our approach looks like an illustration from a child's storybook: sleek, rusty brown, his brush tail following him into the weeds like the tail of a comet. Seeing such a creature, it's hard to believe that a man could probably walk west from here to downtown Little Rock in less than 45 minutes without even getting winded.
Fifteen years ago, there was a neighborhood where the fox lives now. Across the street was the old Hollinsworth Grove housing project. Only the streets remind you now that any of it was ever there. Nearby, a clapboard house still stands, just barely. It is slowly returning to the dirt. The walls and roof are folding in on themselves, like rotten origami. The vines are taking it all back.
Out past the Clinton Library and the headquarters of Heifer Project International, the East End community — the largely black neighborhood roughly bounded by Bond Street and the railroad in the east, Ninth street and the airport to the south, and the Arkansas River to the north — is frayed to the point of breaking. It was mostly commercial properties that gave way for the Clinton Library and Heifer Project International construction. Meanwhile, the downturn in the economy has dampened construction on a "non-profit corridor" in the area, including a new 167,000 square foot campus for Lions World Services for the Blind planned for Sixth Street between College and Collins Streets, and an office for Carelink, which provides services for the elderly, across from Heifer on World Avenue.
Go further east, and you'll find that airport expansion — with dozens of houses bulldozed for a new runway, future development and to blunt the impact of the noise from airplanes — has carved into the places where people lived. The little community school on Apperson Street where the neighborhood kids went to class in the 1950s stands forlorn, with broken windows. The school-sized Nathaniel W. Hill Community Center on Sixth Street — with a full service medical clinic run by St. Vincent Health — stands largely empty most days. The Carver Magnet School still draws hundreds of kids, but they come from miles away. Driving around the East End, the feeling on block after block near the airport is one of emptiness; that this is a place where the world has moved on.
It wasn't always this way. During the 1940s and '50s, returning black G.I.s — spurred by the crumb of equality they'd known in the military — came home to the East End and set about trying to change things, eventually helping form the East End Civic League. The voting block the East End could deliver on Election Day would become a force in Little Rock politics, a fact which paid off in the form of improvements like sidewalks, street lighting, and eventually the community center and Hollinsworth Grove.
The vitality of the East End in those days seems a thousand miles away from Travis Coleman's garage at the corner of Sixth and Bender Street Started in 1979, it's one of the last retail businesses still open in the East End. The day we visited, Coleman and several employees were readying scrap to take to the recycling yard, prying the lead weights off scuffed aluminum rims before loading the wheels into a truck. Coleman's tow rig, with his name and phone number on the door, sat off to the side, looking like it hadn't moved in awhile.
"I've been having a hard time," Coleman said. "You're never going to make a whole lot, but I wasn't struggling. I'm struggling now."