In the Shadow of Little Rock

One Man's Dream To Revitalize a Neighborhood

Little Rock's Central High School, a National Historic Landmark

This year, as the National Park Service prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Little Rock, Ark.-based Central High School's integration crisis, the neighborhood around the National Historic Landmark is suffering from deteriorating houses and crime. While all the attention was on the school, the neighborhood was neglected.

Paul Dodds, 52, a Harvard-trained attorney who moved to Little Rock four years ago, is on a mission to turn that around.

"I hope to help save some of the historic housing, while helping the neighborhood become a stable, mixed-income, and ethnically mixed safe place for people to live," Dodds says. "Right now, too much of it stands as a testimony to 50 years of residential re-segregation after the integration of Central High School in 1957. I am convinced that all sorts of people can live together comfortably, and this is as good a place as any to prove that. Symbolically, it is an important place to prove that." 

Dodds on the porch of one of the houses he has restored

Dodds, a managing director for the local Urban Frontier LLC, currently lives a block from the school in a house he paid $13,000 for before gutting and restoring it. He is pouring his life's savings into a part of the city that most investors have avoided for years, seeing it not just as a financial risk, but a dangerous area.

"Cities typically foster tolerance, and historic neighborhoods, especially ethnically and economically mixed ones such as Central High, are ones which demand tolerance from residents of all kinds." Dodds says. "I need my neighbors' tolerance every bit as much, or more so, than they need mine."

So far, Dodds says he has enjoyed living in the neighborhood and has had few problems. "I live in more fear of deadbeat owners abandoning their properties, and of the city being unable to deal with them, than I do of being attacked. The slow, ongoing deterioration around me presents the greatest investment risk, and greatest roadblock to others coming here." 

Another house Dodds restored

Having spent a childhood in New England and the past 13 years in Europe, Dodds appreciates cities that are dense and diverse. He hopes to help change local legislation to jumpstart his neighborhood. Repairing houses is the easy part. Tackling laws is where things get a bit harder. His first obstacle is that, typically, federal historic-tax credits aren't always available for individual house rehabilitations.

"The credits work fine for big projects, but the thousands of little houses needing them are very difficult to bring under the wing of the tax-credit program," he says. "The Central High neighborhood has a large, wonderful old school, recently rehabbed with tax credits—with ruined homes all around it. If sophisticated partners could be motivated to make Federal credits work on the 'house-to-house-combat' scale of inner-city historic rehabs, it could make a big difference in ensuring neighborhood viability." 

A work in progress

So how long does Dodds think the neighborhood is from being revitalized? "It took many years for the neighborhood to get this way, and the turnaround will not happen overnight. If the general real-estate market continues to be reasonably strong, and we are able to get legislation through to provide state historic-rehabilitation tax credits, and to improve city and state tools for dealing with vacant, urban properties, the turnaround could really take hold in the next five years or so."

Dodds says a city ordinance providing protection and bringing the Central High District under the Historic District Commission would make a huge difference in stabilizing the area.

"To maintain the area as a viable, mixed-income and mixed-ethnicity neighborhood, we need to start planning now for affordable rental opportunities." he says. "More density could lead to lively, pedestrian friendly shopping areas. The real key is developing a shared sense of a positive urban vision, in a town which has been dominated by sprawl for 50 years."

Since completing his own house, he has purchased eight other distressed properties with 17 units, now in various stages of renovation, which he will either rent or resell.

Beneath the neglect, Dodds says he sees a still beautiful, quiet residential neighborhood whose streets lead downtown.

"It is especially gratifying to watch my neighbors start to take out the paint brushes, and as their means permit, start to fix up their homes," he says. "If my saving burnouts from destruction leads others to have hope and begin to reinvest in their homes, I am grateful. One of the most rewarding moments came recently, when an older African American woman walked by my house one evening and said, 'I always used to feel afraid walking by this corner, but now I feel safe.'"

Save America's Treasures granted $2,500,000 toward the renovation of Central High School.

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