A road is concrete and sweat; steel rebar, paint and reflectorized signs. While those who built it might care about race and class and cash and commerce, a road doesn't give a damn about any of those things, not about those who drive over it, or the wellbeing of the communities around it. A road exists only to move people quickly; to raise us up out of the mud and let us glide along; to suture one place to another, and those places to others, forever and ever, amen. That said, it is human beings who choose the route of a road, and choices like that are always ripe for folly.
When you want to travel quickly through Little Rock, chances are you're going to be taking Interstate 630, the Wilbur Mills Freeway; the six-lane, roughly 200-foot-wide road that has run through the middle of the city for a quarter century now. Conceived as early as 1930, when city planner John Nolen first laid out the basic plan for a cross-town expressway, the freeway gained momentum in the late 1950s with the rise of President Eisenhower's grand plan for the interstate highway system. The first, mile-long section of the expressway, between Cedar and Park streets, opened in April 1969. The rest was completed — thanks to powerful Arkansas Congressman Wilbur D. Mills, who helped secure funding — in several stages over the course of 20 years (see sidebar). The full length of I-630, from I-30 in the east to I-430 in the west, officially opened to traffic on Sept. 29, 1985, with the dedication of the westbound lanes from Center Street to I-30.
Originally planned as a way to grow Little Rock by giving citizens a quick route to suburbia and new shopping centers in the west, the end result of the construction of the freeway is familiar to anyone who has driven through a major American city in the last 30 years: prosperity and sprawl in the 'burbs, deterioration and blight in neighborhoods near the city center. Though the downtown area has been gathering steam in recent years — especially near the River Market, where several high-rise residential developments have brought people back downtown to live — I-630 still stands largely as the dividing line between what is, for all intents and purposes, two Little Rocks: A white Little Rock north of the freeway, and a black Little Rock to the south. The freeway has undoubtedly led to a bigger and more robust city. But given what was lost, was the tradeoff worth it?
Talking to people about the construction and impact of I-630, the conversation almost always turns to the topic of race. It's easy to see why. Other than the Quapaw Quarter and a few isolated pockets of gentrification where the housing stock is historic or otherwise exceptional, the neighborhoods south of I-630, especially those between University and I-30, are largely black. To the north of I-630, other than a few small pockets of integration between Capitol Avenue and the freeway, the neighborhoods from University to downtown on the north side are almost all white.
Though neighborhood groups successfully lobbied for the freeway to be sunk into the ground as it went through downtown Little Rock to preserve the sight-lines and mitigate noise, for many preservationists the route chosen for I-630 is troubling — not quite a deliberate slap at the black community, but close enough for government work. Though the black business and entertainment center that once stood along Eighth, Ninth and 10th streets downtown had been in decline since the early 1960s, the construction of I-630 was the death blow. Black Little Rock has never had a place like it since.