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Walking in East Little Rock 

click to enlarge ROUGH SHAPE: The house at 1821 E. Sixth Street, sits boarded up and in disrepair image
  • Matt Amaro
  • ROUGH SHAPE: The house at 1821 E. Sixth Street, sits boarded up and in disrepair.

Because I wanted to see where the sidewalks and the city end, I walked to East Little Rock.

First there is the thoroughly gentrified River Market area bustling with bars and banks, expensive restaurants and new construction, then a walk through the tangle of the Interstate 30 ramps. I am the only pedestrian. Finally there are the sidewalks, the wide expanse of manicured and watered lawns, the benches and trees of the beautiful Clinton Library, where East Second Street ends. You cannot go through the Library to get back to Second Street farther east without paying, so you go around, still on the wide sidewalks, then to Third Street, where the sidewalks lead to the Heifer Project's giant center — like the Library, another architectural wonder.

Strolling through Heifer's immaculate grounds, I realized that from this isolated center near downtown Little Rock help goes out to the poor in dozens of third-world countries — a worthy and noble project. Yet when the sidewalks and lawns end, just blocks east of the modern offices of the Chamber of Commerce, there is a stout and permanent barricade, as if to say "the East and the West shall not meet." The barricaded Second Street picks back up, and here, after a world of commerce and food and drink, there is another third-world country, a forgotten and desolate world of dilapidated houses and abandoned cars, litter and empty streets. There are no sidewalks. The atmosphere of neglect and abandonment is tangible, almost palpable. It is eerily quiet here, and thoroughly depressing. There are no sounds of traffic and the only perceptible smell is that of a decaying cat in a gutter on this hot day in mid-July. This is the invisible other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his book "The Other America" that began the War on Poverty. We are still losing.

The unemployment rate here is more than 16 percent. The poverty rate is more than 37 percent. The income level per capita is less than $15,000. In other terms, the income per capita in this area is 50.1 percent less than the Little Rock average. The median household income is 48.2 percent less than the Little Rock average. The poverty level in East Little Rock is 164 percent greater than the Little Rock average.

Poverty and crime are inextricably linked, anywhere. The estimated crime index here is 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average.

Violent crime is estimated to be 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average and the Little Rock violent crime rate is 270 percent higher than the Arkansas average.

The estimated property crime rate is 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average.

These statistics are about the same for South Little Rock, south of the Wilbur D. Mills freeway (Interstate 630), which, just as Interstate 30 does, splits areas away from each other, generally on racial lines.

And in the midst of this landscape, there is a Department of Human Services office. People go there, the unlucky and invisible ones, to apply for what once were called food stamps. (If you have a criminal record, you shouldn't bother to go there.) Going in and out of fashion since inception in 1939, the program ended with the end of the Depression and the country's gearing up fully for the WWII industry, then an 18-year lull of studies, reports and legislative proposals ensued. President Kennedy restarted the program in 1961.

The USDA's idea for the first FSP is credited to various people, most notably Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and the program's first administrator, Milo Perkins, who explained that "the program operated by permitting people on relief to buy orange stamps equal to their normal food expenditures; for every $1 worth of orange stamps purchased, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were received. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could only be used to buy food determined by the Department to be surplus." Perkins expressed his idea this way: "We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm."

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