Pettaway Coffee is part of a reinvigorated neighborhood south of I-630. Brian Chilson

Yesterday I got a call from my friend Phyllis, who lives near Star City. She is sort of kin to me in an Arkansas way, as the granddaughter of my step-grandmother. (It’s Arkansas.) She wanted my address so she could send me a ring that belonged to my late grandfather, Howard Baker. Howard owned a country store in Tamo, where he lived and worked. His house was right on the highway, next to Howard Baker Grocery.

Tamo was never a bustling city, but it was a little community with enough folks to support a post office, Howard’s grocery store, a gas station and a few other little businesses. Howard was proud of his little brick house, which was next to the store.

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I asked Phyllis to call me if she ever gets up here to Little Rock. “Oh, no. I never go to Little Rock, and I don’t stop if I have to drive on the interstate through there.”

Recently I went down to the Pettaway neighborhood, in the heart of the central city, and drank a great cup of coffee at Pettaway Coffee. Pettaway is a neighborhood south of I-630 and east of Main Street where things are clearly on the upswing, with some beautiful new construction, tasteful redevelopment, a nice park and new retail space, including the coffee shop. And guess what? I felt safe, secure and welcome.

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I have always admired and respected Kathy Webb, a coalition-builder as a state representative and an engaged member of the Little Rock Board of Directors. She is about to retire as executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, where she and her team have done remarkable work to provide people in need with safe, nutritious food. Others share that mission. Our church has a food bank, as do many others.

But we need more. I make that suggestion without criticism or lack of enthusiasm for all the hard work that is done to put food daily in the hands of people who need it. We need a longer term effort that deals with the root causes of hunger and lack of fresh, wholesome food.

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Some cities pass zoning regulations that limit the number of small-box food retailers. Little Rock took a furtive step in that direction when Dollar General wanted to locate in the central city. Some well-meaning folks have worked hard to push large grocery stores to come back to urban areas where fresh food is hard to find. Others suggest a mobile grocery store would be helpful.

But economics is a cruel discipline. Big box food stores are really no different than other retail businesses in one fundamental sense: They go where their customers are. Every business, whether a restaurant, a nail salon, a liquor store or health club, wants to be where its customers can access the business easily and conveniently.

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The landmarks of healthy communities

Large grocery stores and successful elementary schools are often found in the same neighborhoods. They are pretty good key indicators of community health, but they don’t come first. They spring from the neighborhoods they serve.

The Heights Kroger in Little Rock happens to be between Jefferson Elementary and Forest Park Elementary, two of the highest scoring schools in the state. There is a clear symbiosis among healthy neighborhoods, good schools and grocery stores. It is no accident that Edwards has a grocery store on South Main, right by Pettaway, in a location that had been vacated by another grocery chain. I do remember the tornado there, of course, but the grocery store is there because people are living near it, and buying groceries.

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In the recent past, Little Rock had numerous small elementary schools in the central city that served the densely populated neighborhoods that once existed. In 2016 when I became the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, there were still six elementary schools within about a one-mile radius of Broadway and I-630 (Gibbs, Rockefeller, Carver, Booker, King and Washington). In the past there were even more elementary schools. By 2016, Rightsell, Ish, Mitchell, Franklin and Woodruff had closed or were being shut down in stages. Now Rockefeller and Booker are also closed as regular elementary schools.

I recognize the impact of the long-running desegregation litigation on these schools, but the fact remains that schools are both community anchors and key trailing indicators of community health.

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All of this happened slowly and steadily, and we all got used to it a little bit at a time, sort of like global warming. When we started down the slippery slope no one saw the impacts that would be caused by the exodus of residents from the central city.

The plants and the trees die slowly, and one at a time, until the once verdant landscape becomes a sandy desert.

You have school deserts and food deserts where you have people deserts. Urban people deserts have vacant lots, boarded-up houses, closed or under-enrolled schools, vacant commercial buildings and other signs of neighborhood deterioration. Food deserts are often also clothing store deserts, hardware store deserts, gas station deserts, and restaurant deserts. The last institutions to go are the churches and the schools, but they can only hold out so long in neighborhoods that collapse.

Recipe for improvement

If we need a food commission to address concerns about food deserts, we ought to be able to face up to the fact that we have neighborhoods that have either failed, or are failing.

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So what do we do?

First, we listen to and follow leaders like Kathy Webb. We feed the hungry. In our community no one should go to bed hungry, especially children. It is a moral imperative that we take care of people who are in great need. In my faith, that is a basic tenet. But no matter whether we help our brothers and sisters as an article of faith, or by a sense of morality or compassion, we must do so without judgment and without hesitation.

But that will never solve the causal issue. Zoning out small box retailers in some areas, or pleading with grocery chains to locate in a food desert, will never fix anything. Those things focus on effects, rather than causes. They look at the problem backwards. Putting a grocery store in an area with declining population won’t solve anything because the store will not survive. People don’t move to an area because it has a grocery store. Grocery stores come to places where the owners can sell enough groceries to support the store. People come first, and the grocery stores come when there are enough people to sustain profitable retail enterprises.

People come to places where they feel safe, where they have homes that are affordable and holding their values, and where they can have a sense of sanctuary and belonging. People come to places where they can get a good cup of coffee, see their neighbors, and spend a little time getting something to eat where they don’t have to do the dishes.

Retail follows rooftops. Until we face the fact that healthy, vibrant neighborhoods are the wellspring of good schools, full-service grocery stores, cell phone stores, auto service centers, restaurants and all the rest, we are accommodating our failures, rather than solving our problems.

Imagine how good our central city schools would be if all of the money spent on studies and consultants had been spent on making the neighborhoods around those schools attractive places to live. Imagine Pettaway on steroids, growing larger and expanding, adding young families and small businesses. Imagine the redevelopment wave reaching Central High School, and moving south and west. And yes, where there are enough people, grocery stores will come.

Our city government needs to focus on increasing the number of people who both work and live within a mile of I-630. If that effort were successful, the service businesses would pop up like mushrooms. We need city action to change the sense of place in areas that are now grossly under-populated. Some committed developers are doing just about all they can to resuscitate neighborhoods in the central city. I can name four, but I won’t, who have done more to bring people to the central city than all of the studies and governmental promises for better code enforcement, community policing, sidewalk construction and the rest. That stuff probably helps, but it is not making the critical difference.

The city authorized spending $745,000 on a downtown master plan. I would have preferred to give 15 people $49,000 toward the price of a home in the target area. The only condition would be that the homeowner would have to live in the home, and pay the money back if they sold the home within three years.

We need to change the way people live, work and interact in the central city. It starts with development incentives, and disincentives for owning boarded-up, dilapidated  houses that are owned by people who are hoping others will improve the neighborhood so that the owners of the boarded-up houses can achieve a windfall. It starts with a can-do attitude at the Department of Planning and Development.

One fundamental principle would be to support those private developers who are already bringing people to the central city. Talk to them, and ask them what we, as a city, can do to assist their efforts. Stop telling them what they cannot do, and start asking them what the city can do to assist them. These developers are not the enemy. They are the city’s customers.

Another thought is to block up enough of the vacant properties in a concentrated area to transform those lots into affordable homes in a neighborhood. Get the private sector involved. Start in one distinct area, and hit critical mass on both sides of the street in the target area where the change can be easily seen. Talk to the developers who are already doing the work. They are the ones who know what it takes to make this work.

Incentivize living in the central city. Market to all of the people who get off of work, hit I-630, and get out of Little Rock as fast as they can. Ask them what it would take to shorten their commutes from 45 minutes to 5 minutes. Talk to their employers and partner with them to assist their employees if they locate in Little Rock. Every hospital would benefit if its employees lived closer to the workplace, in a home that was attractive and affordable.

This house in Tamo has seen better days, as has Tamo itself. It’s a cautionary tale.

Right now it is a challenge to recruit hospital workers to Little Rock because many of them do not want to live here. Imagine a neighborhood surrounding one of the existing schools, with a clean nearby park,  and with nice houses on big lots adjacent to wide, quiet streets.

We would have some takers. There are a lot of people who never left, and who take good care of what they own. And there are some people who have already come to live in the central city, and are happy there.

I can tell you what almost never works: Round up the usual suspects. Hire an out of state firm to do a plan. Take a bunch of surveys. Hold some meetings, and eat some box lunches. Crank out a slick paper plan. Hold a press conference and declare victory. When all is said and done, more is said than done.

It is time to get to work, and stop planning to do it. Do it.

As I sat alone in Pettaway with a cup of hot coffee, I was wishing I was sitting there across from Phyllis and talking more about the granddad that she knew better than I did.

Howard Baker Grocery is gone. Now there is a little place on the highway that mostly sells beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Howard’s abandoned house is falling in on itself, and about all that is left of Tamo is the water tower.

We can’t let that happen here.

(Howard) Baker Kurrus is a longtime Little Rock resident and former superintendent of the Little Rock School District.

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