Even though three members of the seven-person editorial staff of the Arkansas Times, including me, reside in the Capitol View/Stifft Station neighborhood, initially there was talk of unceremoniously lumping the neighborhood in with Hillcrest. People do that all the time, in my experience, and I don’t like it one bit.
I’ve lived south of Markham for eight years now, in a little white house with a red door on Maple Street. Our house is all of 1,000 square feet and change, just enough for me, my wife, my son, his tuba, and a 26-pound black cat. I love my home, and I love my neighborhood. Because of that I’m always ready to scrap whenever I hear somebody call it Hillcrest South.
The housing stock in Capitol View/Stifft Station is close to the same as it is up in Hillcrest. There are hills down south of Markham too, including one at Maple and Plateau that’s a killer when you’re walking for exercise or pleasure. The people here tend to be just as friendly as they are up in Hillcrest as well.
But — there’s always a “but” when you’re talking about why you love something more than somebody else loves their own thing they love — there’s a whole different vibe down in Capitol View and Stifft Station: more free-flowing, more artsy, more diverse, less put together. Can you imagine, for instance, a joint like Whitewater Tavern tucked away in Hillcrest? How about the line of street-art — including a portrait of Johnny Cash, resplendent in heaven — that adorns the front of The Oyster Bar? I can’t.
That vibe probably has a lot to do with the fact that Stifft Station/Capitol View is generally not as well-to-do as Hillcrest. Maybe I’m hanging with the wrong crowd, but most of the 30-somethings I know couldn’t buy a house in Hillcrest without selling a kidney on the black market, so they came south a bit, where the neighborhood was a little more dicey and the houses were cheaper. The bad aspects of gentrification aside, it has allowed a whole group of younger folk, like me, to have a house with character while grabbing their little slice of the American Dream. A neighborhood fabric has been re-knit in the process.
The Capitol View and Stifft Station neighborhoods came about in a long span of rapid, early 20th century growth on what was then the Little Rock’s far western edge. Stifft’s Addition, conceived by prominent jeweler Charles Stifft, came first. The neighborhood, built for easy access to the major streetcar stop and a string of shops (including Stifft’s jewelry store) where Markham and Kavanaugh split, was proposed to the city in 1898, though most of the first batch of houses there were built between 1905 and 1930.
The boundaries of the Capitol View and Stifft Station neighborhoods have blurred together over the years, even in the minds of many of the people who live there, but Stifft Station is a little farther out — still boxed in north and south by I-630 and Markham, though bounded by Pine in the west, and Woodrow Street in the east. The houses in Stifft Station are a bit newer vintage as well, with the majority of homes there built between 1920 and 1940.
My little house is one of those: small, but sturdy; every inside wall made of sheetrock over shiplap pine. The boards in the walls are thick and deep red-orange. The rafters in the attic are coarse, and sap-smelling in the heat of summer. They really knew how to build a house back in those days.
I say that I love my neighborhood, and I mean it. Sometimes I drive through Stifft Station and Capitol View just for the pleasure of it. There are a thousand little marvels in any neighborhood if you’ll slow down long enough to see them.
Behind The Oyster Bar, for example, the short driveway that leads up to the loading dock is paved with oyster shells — hundreds of them — tossed out the back door years ago after their inhabitants had gone on to that great oyster bed in the sky. They look like round, bleached-white stones, until you bend down and pry one out of the dirt. Only then do you catch a hint of mother of pearl and realize that you are standing on shell.
Nearby, in the parking lot behind Pizza D’Action, heaps of glass have been swept to the edge of the pavement by the rain: shards of beer bottles, red arrowheads of broken taillight lens. In the far corner of the lot is a neat pile of shattered glass, probably from a car window or three. My guess is that nobody put it there. More than likely, that’s just where Mother Nature put it, washed down over the years.
Just around the corner and up the alley, in the fenced yard behind the refinishing shop that fronts Markham, the hull of a Depression-era panel truck hunkers in the weeds, windowless, its deliveries all done.
On the corner of Brown and Seventh streets, buried back in Capitol View, is a community garden. It’s clear that a lot of love and care have been expended on that acre. In the summertime, it’s common to see women in their big straw hats tending the raised beds or pushing wheelbarrows through. On an afternoon in November, it’s quiet. Only a single bed of turnips and kale prove it’s a place where things grow, but summer is everywhere: picnic tables, a barn with a porch, neat piles of compost and mulch, a pink wheelbarrow, a yellow shed. Smack in the middle of one bed sits a red lawn chair. It’s easy to imagine some gardener sitting there in hat and gloves, willing her prizes out of the earth.
Next door to the garden is Lamar Porter Boys’ Club Athletic Field — small and white, the yard out front cobbled with sandstone. Built in 1936 by the WPA and bearing a plaque from The National Register of Historic Places, the details of the little gatehouse under the bleachers are pleasingly crisp and Art Deco, crowned with twin flagpoles. Once Ray Winder Field falls to the dozers, Lamar Porter will be the oldest baseball stadium in the city. It’s hard to imagine a more classic place to play the classic game.
It’s locked up tight on a Tuesday afternoon when I stop by, but I peer in through the expanded mesh that covers the windows and walk the perimeter fence. Situated under a high roof to shade fans from the sun, the bleachers are painted the same color as the rich, green infield. The grass there looks so deep and thick and manicured, even in fall, that it makes you want to lie down in it and sleep. The pitcher’s mound rests under a round rubber cover, the baselines dark with recent rain.
Standing there with my fingers hooked in the chain link, imagining the smell of popcorn and the sounds of the infield (“heybattabattabattaswingbatta”), I realize that — even as long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood — I’ve never sat in those bleachers. Never mind, I think. Lamar Porter Field will still be in the neighborhood next summer, and so will I.