Any description of North Little Rock’s Park Hill neighborhood will eventually, inevitably, include a comparison to Hillcrest, its better-known cousin south of the river.
On the surface, the comparison is apt. Park Hill, which straddles JFK Boulevard from Interstate 40 north to roughly McCain Boulevard, was developed at about the same time as Hillcrest. It’s home to a number of 1920s-era houses in the historic district, lots of sidewalks and mature trees, a central thoroughfare lined with locally owned shops.
The prospect of owning a Hillcrest-style house in a Hillcrest-esque neighborhood for roughly half the Hillcrest price is what pushed me past my childhood bias against the north side of the river. My mother was raised in Park Hill and my grandmother lived in Lakewood, the next neighborhood over, when I was a kid, but still, when I was growing up in the ’80s in what is now Midtown Little Rock, North Little Rock might as well have been Mars. No one cool came from North Little Rock, right? Our mall was so much better than theirs. I mean North Little Rock was practically Jacksonville, for the love of God. Yes, I used to tag along with my high school boyfriend to Peaches and the Arkansas Record Exchange (no CDs back then), but those two oases of hip were the exceptions that proved the rule.
A year after my husband and I moved back to Little Rock, though — in 2004, at the height of the real estate boom — we had to face the harsh reality that as much as we loved living in Hillcrest, we couldn’t afford to buy a house there, and neither could we bear to live in our crappy apartment with our Jerry Springer Show neighbors one more second than we absolutely had to. A cookie-cutter starter house in West Little Rock was out of the question, so my husband told me to stop being a closed-minded idiot and we started looking in Park Hill.
What we found, besides a perfectly charming 1924 bungalow with a huge front porch and a wonderfully roomy, flat backyard listed for $85 a square foot, is a neighborhood that, kind of like North Little Rock as a whole, just does its own thing.
There is a variety of architecture in Park Hill that doesn’t seem to exist in many other neighborhoods, for one. Craftsman bungalows and stone English Revivals from the 1920s sit next to post-WWII frame tract houses from the 1940s, ranches from the 1950s and ’60s, and, mixed in among the rest, some truly one-of-a-kind works of art that I never tire of walking past no matter how many years I’ve lived here. My two favorites: a house on Skyline that appears to be made of three cylinders kind of squashed together, and one on Goshen that someone who knows more about architecture than I do might describe as mid-century modern, all stark white and vertical lines with a playful turquoise front door. And in the next neighborhood over, Lakewood — a lovely if more homogenous area that is technically within walking distance if you can hack the hike up Snake Hill — there is a structure that I call the Parabola House. Picture picking up a square piece of paper by two opposite corners so those corners point up, then bending the other two opposite corners so they point down — that’s what the Parabola House looks like, plus a crow’s nest and a couple other random oddities. I would set up a tent in the street and stare at it all day long if I weren’t afraid of being arrested.
(In fact, Park Hill’s proximity to Lakewood is a major selling point, especially if you want to pay the annual fee to join the Lakewood Property Owners Association, which gets you access to a great park, a swimming pool, fishing and boating in the neighborhood’s six lakes, discounted rentals of a pavilion and a clubhouse, etc. Enjoying the lake views while you walk/jog/bike is free.)
All the different styles and sizes (and price points) of houses in Park Hill have attracted just as diverse a group of residents — socioeconomically, racially to some degree, and, judging from the yard signs during election years, politically as well. My nearest neighbors are a young single woman in a small frame house, an older lady in a ranch, a couple in their 50s with a passel of grandchildren the same age as my kids in a beautifully detailed stone English Revival designed by architect James Carmean; another couple in their 50s in a gorgeous flat-roofed glass-walled modern house that kind of disappears into the ravine, and a woman and her two grown children in a bungalow just like ours.
Park Hill is a front-yard kind of neighborhood — people don’t hide behind giant garages and privacy fences. And we don’t have the kind of petty crime that comes with the territory in a lot of older neighborhoods.
Thanks to a group of skittish voters 40-some-odd years ago, we don’t have the vibrant entertainment district, either. There is plenty of retail along JFK, and it’s just as diverse as the neighborhood’s residents: upscale home decor boutiques, bridal shops, a furniture rental place, a Schlotzky’s, an art gallery, a Razorbacks memorabilia store, three gas stations and a tire shop, among others. But residents of the voter precincts that straddle JFK Boulevard from Skyline to Kierre voted themselves dry back in the 1960s rather than face the prospect of a single liquor store opening near JFK and McCain, and because of that — and possibly also because JFK is just not as friendly to pedestrian and slow-moving vehicular traffic as Kavanaugh Boulevard is — Park Hill suffers from a pronounced lack of the kind of restaurants and night spots that make Hillcrest, the Heights and these days Argenta so distinctive. It’s not like you have to drive 40 miles to have a glass of wine with your dinner, though, and Argenta is just a couple of miles down the road, so I don’t consider it a fatal flaw.
That’s another nice thing about Park Hill — it’s close to everything, and there’s almost always a back way to get there that’ll keep you out of the traffic snarls on McCain. North Little Rock has pretty much all the conveniences of Little Rock, just more compact: My house is half a block from one park and two blocks from another, four blocks from good fudge, six blocks from the onramp to I-40/I-30, one mile from Hobby Lobby and Shipley’s, two and a half miles from Barnes and Noble and Argenta Market, and four miles from both downtown Little Rock and Lowe’s. The only place that feels far away is West Little Rock, and now that we have an Indian restaurant north of the river, I can’t find much reason to mind.