Cre­at­ing East Vil­lage

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Senior Editor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

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.

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