Creating East Village
For years, I’ve had a routine that I consider my guilty workday pleasure. I attend a noon lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service in downtown Little Rock. When the lecture ends at 1 p.m., I get in my car and navigate through the aging industrial district on the east side of the city for a late lunch at Sandy’s Homeplace Cafe on East 15th Street. There might be fried chicken livers, chicken fried steak or chicken pot pie on the buffet. The vegetables often include okra, peas, cabbage and rice. There’s both brown and white gravy.
I’ve long described the free lectures at the Clinton School as being among the top cultural amenities of living in Central Arkansas. They feed my mind. Sandy’s feeds my stomach. I love having lunch at the nearby Homer’s Restaurant on East Roosevelt, but I describe the difference between the two places this way: Homer’s is where the “suits” from downtown who want to act blue-collar go to eat. Sandy’s is where the real blue-collar folks go since you get all you want for one price.
My drive from the Clinton School to Sandy’s has changed in recent months. Rather than turning right at the Heifer International headquarters and passing abandoned buildings, I now pass dozens of construction workers.
What’s being billed as the East Village is coming to life. Those developing a part of the capital city that most Arkansans aren’t familiar with classify it as being bordered by Interstate 30, the Arkansas River, the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, and Ninth Street.
Two craft breweries have gotten young people used to heading east in recent years. Yellow Rocket Concepts—the company behind the successful restaurants Local Lime, Big Orange and ZAZA—opened Lost Forty Brewing on Byrd Street in December 2014. Yellow Rocket has the golden touch. Like its other concepts, Lost Forty was a hit from the day it opened. It turns out craft beers along with a food menu that has everything from smoked ribs to hummus. In March 2016, Rebel Kettle Brewing opened on East Sixth Street. It also has an inventive, constantly changing food menu to complement its craft beers.
In 2015, Cromwell Architects Engineers announced that it would move its headquarters to the corner of Sixth Street and Shall Avenue. The former home of Sterling 12 Star Paint would be called The Paint Factory with Cromwell offices on the first floor and 16 loft apartments on the second floor. Cromwell has a storied history. It’s the oldest architectural firm in Arkansas and among the oldest in the country. It can trace its roots back to 1885 with one architect and his son, who was a draftsman. The firm employed two of the most famous Southern architects— Charles Thompson (who died in 1959) and his sonin law Ed Cromwell (who died in 2001).
At 400 Shall Ave., eStem Public Charter School is converting a 111,096-square-foot warehouse that it bought in May 2016 into a campus that will house 850 students from kindergarten through the sixth grade and another 450 students from the seventh through the ninth grades. That will give eStem two campuses (the other is at Third and Louisiana streets) for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade that will feed into a high school on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The most anticipated restaurant opening in Little Rock in 2018 is in East Village. It’s Cathead’s Diner, a collaboration between well-known chef Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks, who operated Sweet Love Bakery from 2012-16. The restaurant at 515 Shall Ave. will seat 90 people indoors and another 30 people on a patio. It will add a much-needed venue for upscale breakfast meetings and draw even more first-time visitors to the neighborhood.
The area has a fascinating history. The East Village website describes it as a “first home to immigrants who worked small subsistence farms in the low-lying bottomland east of Little Rock. The area’s location along the bank of the Arkansas River and the presence of the Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads that arrived in the late 1800s helped change it into a thriving industrial area. Late 19th century maps of Little Rock show industrial activity concentrated along the banks of the Arkansas River between Cumberland and Byrd streets, which is the area that now contains Interstate 30.
“The early 20th century saw an increasing number of heavy industrial concerns such as foundries, cotton mills, freight yards, lumber yards, brick yards and furniture factories. Several small worker housing developments replaced the farms and homesteads that were the first structures in the area. The industrial concerns were connected to commercial areas to the west by the main thoroughfares of Third, Sixth and Ninth streets. By 1939, the East Village was home to the Southern Ice Co., a furniture warehouse, Gregory Robinson Vinegar Co., auto repair shops, Darragh Building Supplies, various warehouses and the Stebbins & Roberts paint factory. A 1949 newspaper advertisement describes ‘big outstanding heavy industrial plots’ for sale ‘right in the fast-developing East End Industrial Center’ and specifically describes the arrival of the Stebbins & Roberts building among other ‘big industrial developments.’”
Now the old industrial area is coming back to life. Think of it as River Market II. I’ve enjoyed watching the renaissance of that former warehouse district during the past two decades. It will be fun to watch the transformation of the neighborhood to the east in the years to come.