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Arkansas Baptist College, built by former slaves in the 1880s at what was then High and 16th streets, has gotten accolades for its stunning growth in recent years — from 300 students to 1,193 since 2005, from a budget of $1 million to a budget of $18 million. An estimated $27 million has been spent on construction and renovation on campus, the college says.
But Arkansas Baptist is smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. There is no buffer between campus and neighborhood, as there is at nearby Philander Smith, which is gated. If you are a long-time resident of the neighborhood — and many who live there are — and unused to trash, parking problems, loud college parties, a marching band that plays at 11 p.m. at night (complaints brought that to an end) and a football team that sets off at 6 a.m. through the streets en route to practice at Quigley Field at Central High, and clusters of young people congregating or smoking marijuana, you might be less than thankful for the ballyhooed growth of Arkansas Baptist.
The neighborhood has seen bad times — Arkansas Baptist President Fitz Hill notes that one of its homes was featured in the 1994 HBO documentary "Bangin' in Little Rock — and boarded up homes are not uncommon. Hill's response to complaints is the neighborhood: "In 2011 it's banging drums. In 2005 it was banging guns."
Neighbors don't necessarily agree with Hill on that point: They say the neighborhood had become quiet, if poor, in the days before the college's turnaround.
"The gangs were already locked up," said Melody Thomas, who lives with her husband, Rob, and 16-year-old son one lot north of the intersection of 16th Street and Marshall and whose family has lived on Marshall for years.
The Thomases recount a number of irritants: the streets lined with parked cars, noise from the college dumpster pickup, trash in the street. Thomas said she'd had to call the police last Thursday when she heard "two cars zooming down the alley and stop behind a house." Somebody threw a brick in her yard to hit her dog, she said. She's told students she's seen smoking marijuana in the alley behind her house and her mother's house to move along.
Hill insists that neighbors are blaming things on students that students have nothing to do with, but Thomas said she can identify them by their clothing — ABC colors are purple and white — and backpacks.
When the school began to expand — it's added a dormitory, a community cafeteria and new classrooms on the campus proper — and closed the portion of 17th Street that bisected the campus, parking problems increased. The school's lot has only about 300 spaces, and cars are parked bumper-to-bumper around the school. At one time, neighbors say, students were parking their cars on the sidewalk as well as the street. The city responded to complaints, putting up new signs that restricted parking 50 feet from intersections so drivers could navigate them more safely. But city traffic controller Greg Clay said the signs have been "pulled by students and tossed in dumpsters, so it's an ongoing" effort to keep the intersections clear.
Students have parked in front of her driveway, says Estoria Wayne, 77, of 1600 W. 16th St.; she's sent her son out to get them to move and had to call police once. "It has been a nightmare," she said. The LINKS van that comes to the home of Bobbie Singleton, 1505 MLK, to pick up her quadriplegic son can't get near the curb, she says, and she has problems backing out.
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