Hell in a handbasket
It was, in retrospect, a remarkable moment. With the media assembled, there was the governor of Arkansas calling out the state’s largest city while the mayor of that city stood in the audience and listened. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my decades of following Arkansas politics.
In essence, this was what Gov. Asa Hutchinson said to Little Rock during a news conference at the state Capitol on July 6: You’re about to go to hell in a handbasket if you don’t get a handle on violent crime, and you’re hurting the rest of the state in the process.
Those weren’t, of course, the governor’s exact words. He’s much too careful a lawyer for that. He’s a man who takes several seconds to reflect each time he’s asked a question in order to ensure he chooses the right language. But the implication was clear.
Here’s what Hutchinson actually said: “The looming cloud of violence harms us all—not just Little Rock, but the entire state. And when you think about Little Rock as our seat of government, as a center for tourism, medical services and economic development, my focus as an economic developer is to bring people to the state of Arkansas who want to live and work here and see our incredible quality of life. And if Little Rock is not safe, then we cannot succeed at our goals as a state.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Little Rock is both the state capital and by far the state’s largest city. Whatever hurts the image of Little Rock hurts the image of Arkansas. When the nation’s top news story on July 1 was that 28 people had been injured during a shootout in a downtown Little Rock nightclub, the whole state suffered. The governor, who was raised in a far corner of northwest Arkansas but now lives in state-owned housing within blocks of some of Little Rock’s most dangerous neighborhoods, gets it.
Everything changed at about 2:30 a.m. July 1. Everything. Nobody at Little Rock City Hall seems to understand that. The city sustained a body blow as the new month dawned. Will the wound prove fatal? That largely depends on the city’s response, and at present there’s a lack of urgency. My fear is that this was a tipping point for Little Rock, the place I’ve called home since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in late 1989. The problem with tipping points is that once you realize one has occurred, it’s often too late to do anything about it.
To see what Little Rock hopes to avoid, consider the past four decades in Jackson, Miss. In 1980 Jackson had a population of 202,895. Little Rock was at 159,151. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. Little Rock now has 30,000 more residents than a city that was larger by 40,000 as recently as 1980. That’s two entirely different trajectories for the state capitals of adjoining states—one was gaining 40,000 residents while the other was bleeding population.
Large numbers of Jackson residents decided it made better sense for their families to move north in the metropolitan area to cities such as Ridgeland and Madison. Little Rock, meanwhile, annexed areas to the west, and much of the movement that occurred was within the city limits rather than out of the city.
Even more dramatic has been the population loss in Alabama’s largest city. Birmingham had 326,037 residents in 1950, more than triple the size of Little Rock. Birmingham was about the same size as Atlanta (331,314) at the time. By the 2010 census, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. Little Rock is now about the same size as Birmingham. It was a third the size in 1950. Again, two different trajectories.
Even closer to home, let’s consider what happened to Memphis. In 1960 the Bluff City had a population of 505,563. By the 2010 census there were only 298,645 people within the 1960 city limits (Memphis had maintained its overall population only through a series of annexations). The city’s core lost more than 200,000 residents. DeSoto County in north Mississippi grew rapidly as people fled Memphis.
Cities such as Jonesboro in Arkansas, Jackson in Tennessee and Tupelo in Mississippi became regional centers as residents of small towns in those areas simply stopped going to Memphis. There was a time when residents of northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They went there to shop, eat out, visit the doctor and attend concerts. Fueled in part by the public perception that Memphis is a crime-ridden city, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. It grew from 21,418 residents in 1960 to 67,263 in 2010. There are now almost 75,000 people calling the city home and no end to the growth in sight.
Cities around Little Rock have seen solid growth, but it hasn’t caused Little Rock to lose population. Conway grew from 9,791 residents in the 1960 census to 58,908 in 2010. In that same period Benton grew from 10,399 to 30,681; Cabot grew from 1,321 to 23,776; and Bryant grew from 737 to 16,688. Will we now see Conway, Benton, Cabot and Bryant continue their growth while Little Rock begins losing population? Without a strong response from city and state government, that’s exactly what we could witness in the years ahead.
At a time when local television stations focus on crime stories—they’re easier to cover and more interesting to the average viewer than stories about government and public policy— viewers in the Little Rock television market will continue to think twice about driving into the capital city. Perception becomes reality. This is how a city’s decline begins, one violent crime at a time, one television news story at a time.
The clock is ticking. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola is a former prosecuting attorney. The governor is a former U.S. attorney. It’s imperative that they lead the way before Little Rock experiences what Jackson, Birmingham and Memphis all have suffered through in my lifetime.