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There went the neighborhood 

Airport expansion, empty lots and Little Rock's fading East End.

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."

He's considering moving. He's been hanging on, he said, in the hopes that maybe the airport will come in and buy him out, but he's had no offers yet.

"Is there an alternative?" Coleman asked. "Is there some way I can go to the airport and ask for some kind of moving expense or some kind of benefit?  Because they killed me ... They moved the community right out from under me."

They're feeling that same strain down the street at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church. Pastor C.B. Robinson said that 20 to 25 percent of the congregation has disappeared in the last few years, with at least half the people who remain driving in from elsewhere. Robinson said that though people were paid for their homes by the airport, many of them wound up worse off in the long run. "Yes they were compensated," Robinson said. "But most of those people went from paying virtually nothing in a mortgage to moving to an area that's just as impoverished, with a [higher] mortgage. The fact of it is, nobody really gained."

As people get older, he said, they have a tendency to want to revisit and reflect on the area that helped shape their lives and develop their character. For many in his flock, those places simply don't exist anymore.

"Some of my members are saying, I don't have a place to take my children to and say this is where we grew up, because it's all gone," Robinson said. "It's important to be able to go back to those areas: that tree we had swings tied onto and etched our names in, and to be able to go back to the school and say this is where I grew up and this is the neighborhood I grew up in." 

Robinson tells them the only thing he can. "We have to try and remain optimistic," he said. "The past has value, but you can never go forward until you can look in the rearview mirror. It's OK to look back, don't get me wrong. But there comes a time in everyone's life when you have to move forward."

 

Ronald Mathieu is the director of the Little Rock National Airport. He said the land acquisitions in the East End were made primarily to allow for the extension of the airport's north/south runway, which will be used for general aviation — private jets, business jets, and prop aircraft. The newly extended runway should open at the end of September.

Mathieu said purchases of property in the neighborhood fell into two general categories: Federal Aviation Rule Part 1836 acquisitions, for land in the path of the runway extension and adjoining safety areas, and Part 150 purchases, which deal specifically with mitigating noise impact. The purchases made under Part 150 were optional, Mathieu said, with people given the opportunity to "volunteer in." Though the Airport Commission won't be presented a finalized report on the neighborhood impact of the runway expansion until January 2011, preliminary information provided by the Little Rock National Airport shows that roughly 680 parcels of land were purchased in the East End of Little Rock, with 11 businesses and 180 households relocated, at a cost of approximately $22 million.

The airport has yet to acquire the land once occupied by the Hollinsworth Grove housing project, Mathieu said. The Little Rock Housing Authority relocated the residents, and later paid $700,000 for demolition of the project. "At some point that land will ultimately transfer to the airport," Mathieu said, with the areas just east of there set aside for future expansion of aviation manufacturing companies. After the economy picks up, Mathieu hopes to see an industrial park nearby, where suppliers for the cluster of aircraft-related companies could set up permanent facilities.

When it comes to the East End neighborhoods, Mathieu called the acquisition program there "generous," with displaced renters and homeowners compensated and comparable houses purchased in other parts of the city. The program was not without its problems, however, such as the case of residents Zelma Graves and her 98-year-old mother, Estella Watson, who lived next door to one another on Apperson Street. The airport bought both Watson's and Graves' houses. But soon after, Graves said that she and her mother wanted to stay. The airport commission moved to evict the two women in April 2009, but a deal was reached a few days later to allow Watson to stay in her home until she died. Eventually, Watson and Graves moved out, and their houses were demolished.

Even without the land acquisitions in the area, Mathieu thinks the East End would have eventually "ceased to exist" as a community. "It was an aging community," he said. "It was no longer a vibrant community. I think the reason for that is, as the children grew up and got educated, they didn't move back into the community ... it was primarily an older, aging community that was surrounded by industrial development."

Part of the community center complex, St. Vincent East clinic opened in 1972 through a partnership with St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center and the City of Little Rock.

LaValeria Smith is the clinic manager. In the 15 years she has worked there, she has seen drastic changes in the surrounding community. When she started, the community center was a hub of activity, especially during the summers when neighborhood kids used to come to the pool, which is no longer in use. Even though it's quieter now, she says the clinic is still desperately needed, offering full medical and dental services that accept walk-in patients, and a sliding fee scale depending on the patients' income. 

"I would love to retire here, I really would," she said. "But I don't know what the community is going to do, I don't know what the state is going to do, I don't know what the city is going to do. I do know what I love doing, and I feel like I'm at the right place at the right time."

Smith said that the people who once lived in East End still drive back to the clinic for their medical and dental care, or refer their friends and relatives. Though some have suggested that the clinic might be forced to close someday as the East End continues to fade, Smith can't help but wonder what will happen to the patients who depend on it for their medical care. In the end, the question for her is: what constitutes a community? 

"We need to consider who we serve no matter if the community moves out or not," Smith said. "Is the community just your surroundings, or is everybody our community? ... People out here need me, and they need a voice. So, guess what? I'm the voice." 

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