Hell in a hand­bas­ket

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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.

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