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Aspiring to great Heights 

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

At the risk of sounding like some nostalgic curmudgeon, the Heights that I grew up in during the '70s and '80s is a far cry from the Heights of today — which is not to say that all the changes are unwelcome (more on that later). But it's no longer the place where I saw my first movie at the Heights Theater ("Fantasia") or where I bought trinkets and candy at the local five-and-dime, Heights Variety. Thanks to loyal customer support, some institutions remain — Heights Toy Center, WordsWorth Books, Mr. Wick's, Cheers, Terry's Finer Foods and Browning's Mexican Grill to name a few (although the new Browning's bears no resemblance to the original). And, thankfully, in a rare effort at historic preservation, the marquee for the Heights Theater remains intact, though the building now houses a bank, pizza place and other businesses.

Since I'm walking down memory lane (essentially Kavanaugh), other fond memories include: playing Moon Patrol at the Yellow Rocket arcade, walking up to rent movies for the Betamax at the video store, sledding down Spruce Street, reading comics at Smith Drugs, trying to buy a copy of Judy Blume's "Forever" at The Paperback Writer (and being turned away by the owner — too risque), visiting the talking mynah bird at Bill's Pets, spending my allowance on stickers at the Design Center and getting fitted for my annual pair of summer sandals and fall topsiders at Tot to Teen. I also remember exploring the woods around St. John's before they were cleared to make way for a gated development and the adjacent vacant buildings of The Diocese of the Catholic Church before they were renovated.

The Diocesan offices, or St. John Catholic Center as it's called, form a triad of impressive, imposing buildings built in 1916 around a pleasant green space in a kind of cul de sac. As teens we enjoyed cranking up Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" while slowly rolling up to the forbidding gates at nighttime just for dramatic effect. Try it sometime.

What has perhaps changed most about the Heights is the residential landscape, and by that I mean the houses themselves. The Heights is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Little Rock and long considered one of the most affluent. But what was once a neighborhood of attractive homes — many modest, none over-the-top — has become one of hulking mansions without lawns, too big for their lots, built right up to the property line. They encroach upon the street — like those people who corner you at parties with no regard for personal space. I can remember the first to fall — one of the Heights' earliest houses, off of Country Club, razed to make room for two enormous structures, neither in keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood. And, of course, trees don't stand a chance in this process. Case in point: On the street I grew up on, two houses were recently torn down to make way for a colossal one with a swimming pool, and a cluster of soaring old magnolias were removed right along with them. Sadly, the tree-tear-down trend has firmly taken root, as many of the Heights' oldest have been uprooted. The repercussions reach beyond the aesthetic, as tree-root-removal can lead to drainage problems and other issues that affect neighboring homes. A few ill-fated attempts at preservation have been made over the years and then abandoned due to community backlash.

But you can still find homes from the turn of the century and early 1900s (with actual lawns), though fewer and fewer all the time. For the most part, you will find: new Dallas-sized houses designed without the expertise of an architect, small cottages aspiring toward greatness (i.e., little houses with grand stone whippets or topiaries flanking the front door) and a handful of charming, old Heights homes who embrace their age and imperfections.

A bit of history to put it all in context:

The Heights is part of The Pulaski Heights development that also included Hillcrest. Pulaski Heights was incorporated in 1903 and annexed to Little Rock in 1916. Both areas developed their own personalities over time, Hillcrest becoming the "funkier" of the two, the Heights the more conservative older brother.

The Country Club of Little Rock, established in 1902, is still a draw for many. It sits on beautiful acreage overlooking the river and downtown. In this area of the Heights, the golf cart seems to be the preferred mode of transportation; the preferred beverage, anything alcoholic in a Styrofoam cup (sometimes monogrammed); preferred dress, Lilly Pulitzer for the ladies and Duckhead for the gents.

But these are, of course, stereotypes — not without truth but not entirely accurate either. All manner of people choose to live here (even the odd Democrat). West of University, for instance — near the University of Arkansas System president's residence and Cammack Village — there are still small, reasonably priced homes to be found; which means this area tends to attract a more diverse bunch than other parts of the Heights.

Still other sections cater to the most affluent. On the south side of Cantrell, bordered by Kavanaugh, are the areas known as Prospect Terrace and Edgehill. Prospect Terrace includes the winding streets of Sherwood, Centerwood, and other wood-names, and is beloved by families whose kids go to Forest Park Elementary, one of the oldest and finest public schools in the city. Edgehill is where Heights living reaches its apex, a curving lane lined with the grandest of what the Heights has to offer — sprawling spreads with even more sprawling lawns, some with spectacular views. The houses aren't packed in close together the way they are elsewhere and are set back from the street.

The teardown trend aside, positive change has also come to the Heights — specifically a renaissance in the business sector. This is due, in part, to the efforts of Heather Smith, owner of the kitchen store Eggshells and president of The Heights Business Association. She moved here from North Carolina, fell in love with the neighborhood and decided to settle here. She bought what was Sauce Co. on Kavanaugh and opened Eggshells, a small business success story if there ever was one.

"People in the Heights seem to have a strong sense of community and sense of pride," Smith said. "It's a neighbor-friendly way of life. People walk the streets, they walk their dogs, they walk their babies. The fact that I can walk three blocks to work and have conversations with people along the way, stop at Boulevard for coffee, is so great. I love knowing the people at the bank, at the grocery store. ... If a dog gets lost people help find it."

Her efforts to unify merchants met with some resistance at first but much progress has been made, and the retail scene is thriving. "As small business owners, we struggle together and we celebrate together," Smith said. "Westward expansion really took its toll on the business community. Events like Happy Hour in the Heights give people a chance to get together and support local businesses. Holidays in the Heights, the Party on the Promenade, the Chili Fights with John and Charlie Porter, all of these things encourage a sense of community." Smith says they work closely with the active Heights Neighborhood Association and value that partnership.

Years before Smith arrived on the scene, however, the opening of Boulevard Bread (in 2000) heralded a new era in the Heights, introducing superlative coffee and bread to Little Rock and becoming the nexus of the neighborhood. The re-birth of Terry's (courtesy of Lex Golden) over the past few years has also given a real shot-in-the arm to the area, and Cheers, though fancied up over the years and now more bistro than burger joint, has remained a mainstay for locals for more than three decades.

The neighborhood eccentrics are now a thing of the past; there's no Billy Moore Clark (Billy "Mo" as he was called) in a jaunty tam o'shanter strolling the boulevard, Yorkie under one arm, walking stick in hand, tartan scarf draped over his shoulders. It's a fact that the character of the neighborhood changed along with the passing of this (WWII) generation. That said, there exists a real — and renewed — sense of community and belonging among the people who live there today. And if you're a kid in search of candies or stickers, there are still some sweet spots left to discover.

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