The Pettaway neighborhood, tucked between Scott Street on the west, Interstate 30 on the east, 15th Street on the north and Roosevelt Road on the south, is an architecture catalog in life-sized 3D. New brick Georgian-style homes and ultra-modern houses framed in Cor-ten steel and corrugated metal mingle with turn-of-the-century cottages and homes created from multiple shipping containers joined into a single unit. There’s even a “tiny house,” a 270-square-foot home behind a wooden farm fence.
The eclectic nature of the neighborhood bordering the Mansion/MacArthur Park historic districts gleefully shouts, “We don’t need to follow no stinking design rules!”
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There was a time, some 30 years ago, when the Pettaway neighborhood shouted something more along the lines of “Stay out!” But no longer. Today, it’s a place in which new residents are finding community, a neighborhood a future homeowner calls “fun and funky.”
It is also increasingly integrated, with an influx of mostly middle-class white families lured by the newly hip South Main business district known as SoMa. Residents and developers are conscious of the threat of gentrification, that their investment will alter the affordability of living there, but are saying they’re determined to keep Pettaway pluralistic.
Pettaway was once known more for a notorious street gang from the 1990s than its eclectic architecture. The 21st Street Posse adopted its name from a thoroughfare that bisects the neighborhood; a house on the street figured in the 1994 HBO feature “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock.”
The neighborhood, once referred to as East Broadway (an inadequate name in a geographical sense since it is east of Main Street), was blighted with empty lots, flood-prone areas and absentee ownership.
Yet longtime residents, tired of living in fear and amid drug deals, would not give in to the gangs: In 1994, they created a neighborhood association, dumped the East Broadway tag and adopted Pettaway as the area’s name. The name honors influential mid-20th century Baptist minister Dr. Charles Pettaway, who lived on East 21st Street; the city acquired land from his estate in 1970 to create Pettaway Park on 21st and 22nd streets between Commerce and Bragg streets.
Two years after the neighborhood association formed, the city built the East Little Rock Alert Center at 500 E. 21st St. across the street from the park, establishing a resource for the neighborhood and a meeting space for its association.
Since that time, Pettaway has begun to breathe again. Gang activity has abated. The Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corp. added 19 homes to the area between 2003 and 2013. More than a dozen homes have been built in the past six years and at least eight houses are under construction from Daisy Gatson Bates Drive on the north to the 1900 block of Cumberland on the south. Much of the block bordered by 20th and 21st streets north and south and Rock and Commerce streets east and west has been prepared for development by a corporation named Lorax, named after the titular character in Dr. Seuss’ 1971 book. He’s the one who says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
When this reporter mentioned the 21st Street Posse to Denise Jones Ennett, 41, who lives at Bragg and 16th streets, she gave out a loud laugh and exclaimed “Ah, my God!” It had been years since she’d heard mention of the gang, though it was because of it that her parents made her walk straight from school to her home — the very house she lives in today — every day. Eventually, her parents, fed up with vandalism and break-ins, moved west of Main to Gaines Street and leased the house on East 16th.
After a move and marriage in Oklahoma City, Ennett returned to Little Rock in 2010 with her husband, Cecil, and rented the house on East 16th Street from her parents. In 2016, the Ennetts bought the home and embarked on a restoration project. The slate-blue Colonial Revival home, built in 1907 by Gustave Kleinschmidt, is now on the National Historic Register.
Kleinschmidt not only built his house, but 32 others in the neighborhood, creating — contemporaneous with the southward expansion of businesses on Main Street — a working-class neighborhood in the previously only lightly settled area. Only six of the homes Kleinschmidt built remain; the rest fell victim to Interstates 30 and 630, fires, dereliction and the disastrous 1999 tornado that heavily damaged 55 homes east of Broadway, 27 of them beyond repair.
In 2010, Denise Ennett said, much of Pettaway “looked like somebody just forgot about it. There were a lot of empty lots. It was just, like, forgotten.”
But the Pettaway area was very much on the mind of the nonprofit downtown CDC, which was founded by area residents in 1992 to increase access to housing, promote economic development and work against neighborhood deterioration: As the Pettaway Neighborhood Association was being formed, the CDC opened the Mahlon Martin apartments, 45 units in rehabbed buildings at 1917-1923 S. Main St.
Between 2002 and 2013, the downtown CDC built or remodeled 15 affordable and four market-rate homes. It worked with the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, federal HOME grants and local banks to offer homes to first-time home-buyers.
The new homes included traditional styles as well as three contemporary-style modular homes designed by fourth- and fifth-year students in the University of Arkansas School of Architecture’s Design Build program. In 2012, the downtown CDC built the city’s first two container homes, residences created from shipping containers and promising excellent insulation and storm protection.
The modular homes — including a cantilever dwelling whose second floor extends several feet over the ground floor — weren’t Pettaway’s first contemporary residences. Page Wilson of Paul Page Dwellings had begun building metal-framed homes in 2006, including five on South Rock Street and two on East 15th Street. In a recent interview, downtown CDC chairman Adam Fogleman called Wilson the “unsung hero” of the Pettaway area. “Page Wilson kind of led the charge in a lot of ways,” Fogleman said, “shedding light on what was possible.” Since 2006, Wilson has built or been associated with 17 new homes in the area, working with a number of designers, including Herron Horton Architects Inc. and gus design coop’s David Anderson.
In 2014, a new builder arrived on the scene. Mike Orndorff, the Lorax LLC incorporator, and his wife, Alexandra Marshall, built a home at 609 E. 16th St.
“We loved the Hillcrest area,” Orndorff, 36, said, but “our budget was $170,000 and the cheapest lot we could find was $170,000.” Their lot in Pettaway, like many lots then on the market in Pettaway, was vacant. It cost $15,000. They bought it after meeting downtown residents at a Quapaw Quarter Garden Club fiesta. That the house next door, at 613 E. 16 St. — the home of Kwadjo Boaitey and Karama Neal, a market-rate rehab by the downtown CDC — had been redone and the Ennetts were beginning their renovations of their home at 621 E. 16th “gave us some confidence,” Orndorff said.
Orndorff, who’d built homes in Saline County, began to tackle properties downtown. He built one at the southeast corner of East 16th Street and Park Lane, and sold it through Facebook. Then he built three more, including two in the 1900 block of Scott Street. But the Capital Zoning District Commission shut down the Scott Street projects — the street falls in the Governor’s Mansion District and required CZDC permits. “I was a little naive as to what I was getting into,” Orndorff said. Then, once he completed the houses, he couldn’t sell them. His $60,000 trackhoe was stolen from the building site on Scott Street. It was traumatic, and Orndorff and Marshall said they had to “re-evaluate.”
“But we were determined. It was just headwinds,” Orndorff said.
The wind has since started blowing the builder’s way. Three houses he built on Cumberland Street in 2018 — including one he built for the downtown CDC — sold before they were completed. “It was almost like a tipping point,” Alexandra Marshall said. “The dominoes started to fall.”
Orndorff has now built 16 houses and is building four more in the Pettaway area, ranging in price from $99,000 to $285,000. The smallest is “The Tiny Home” Airbnb the Orndorff-Marshall family owns at 1615 Park Lane; the largest are two-story traditional homes going up cater-cornered from his own on East 16th. He will vary from the traditional design he calls “Hillcrest style” for a house he’s building at the northwest corner of East 17th Street and Bragg streets. It will be a modern house with a steeply sloping roof fitted with solar panels. “It’s going to have a ‘she shed,’ too,” he said during a tour of the neighborhood he gave to a reporter.
A new brick wall at the corner of 17th and Bragg is inset — as are all Orndorff constructions — with engraved concrete signs. A sign near the corner says, “Welcome to Pettaway,” and is followed by the Lorax quote about caring. Farther down the street an inset says, “Always do what you are afraid to do. — Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
A year ago, Orndorff sent a Facebook message to this reporter about what he called the “Pettaway Baby Boom.” Three children have been born within just a few houses of one another on East 16th Street: Mike and Alex have a 9-month-old son, Boden; Adam and Jill Fogleman, who are moving into their second Pettaway home, across from the Ennetts on Bragg and 16th, have a 1-year-old son, Jude; and Jessica and Clayton Keith, who live at 1514 Park, around the corner from the Orndorff-Marshall family, have a 1-year-old daughter, Lucy Kate.
Nothing says neighborhood like children. And, Denise Ennett added, nothing says neighborhood like houses.
Orndorff has purchased 13 more lots in Pettaway; he hopes to start construction on three more houses before the end of the year.
Orndorff continues to have problems with theft — he had a trailer stolen from a construction site recently. A wheelbarrow stolen from the Foglemans down the street was used to cart off some of Orndorff’s tools. But property theft, he, Denise Ennett and others pointed out, occurs in every neighborhood.
“You do see people driving slowly down the street, looking,” Ennett said.
But one of those people may have been this reporter, who began a slow tour of the neighborhood starting at Daisy Gatson Bates Drive and Rock Street. (Daisy Bates, previously 14th Street, is in the MacArthur Park Historic District, so it’s not officially Pettaway, but it, too, is seeing new construction: a 2,453-square-foot new Craftsman was built in 2018 at 401 Daisy Bates and a second is under construction next door.)
The 1400 block of Rock Street (which is in the Central City Overlay district and requires city planning oversight on construction) is a good example of the Pettaway look: At 1410 Rock, a 3,200-square-foot house built in 1904 has been remodeled by Tim Hankins Construction; he’s asking $400,000 for the property, which includes a guest house. Hankins said it was the blossoming of SoMa and its “hipsters” that prompted him to begin working south of I-630. Next door, at 1414 Rock and 1418 Rock, are two slender contemporaries built more than 100 years after the 1904 house by Paul Page Dwellings (Page Wilson).
Dave O’Brien, an artist, interventional radiologist and one of the founders of bike polo in Little Rock, has lived for a couple of years at 1611 Rock St. in a house designed by Herron Horton Architects and built by Paul Page Dwellings. The lot had been cleared after the 1999 tornado. O’Brien moved to Pettaway from Stifft Station; he was attracted to the neighborhood because it was outside the historic districts and he could build what he wanted, he said. His next-door neighbors, John and Caroline Gairhan, bought their lot — also left vacant by the tornado — two years ago; Mike Orndorff was the builder for their 3,417-square-foot brick home, which features solar panels, completed in 2018.
The Gairhans, who moved to Little Rock from Cabot, wanted to live “where we could walk to dinner, be closer to medical stuff,” John Gairhan, who is chief information officer for a tech startup, said. He ticked off other close-by establishments that served neighborhood needs: Edwards Food Giant, Walgreens … Loblolly Creamery. The Gairhans, who have two Springer Spaniel puppies, also like the fact that there is a veterinarian in SoMa.
“It was just a ton of people moving in here, all different types of people,” Gairhan said, and the couple decided it was right for them. One of their puppies, Ruthie, is named for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps an indication of where the former Cabot residents fall on the progressive scale.
It was new business on Main Street that prompted Gustave Kleinschmidt to start residential construction in the neighborhood at the turn of the century. Twenty-first century development in Pettaway owes its new life to the rejuvenation of South Main, as well. Community Bakery at 12th and Main has provided the gluten for the street in more ways than one: It moved from North Little Rock to the 1400 block of Main Street in 1952 and it’s been in steady operation since. (Owner Joe Fox bought the bakery in 1983). Midtown Billiards brought people to the street in the 1970s; Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing (now on Wright Avenue) opened in the late 1980s.
When Anita Davis bought half the 1400 block of Main in 2006, SoMa’s revitalization took off like a rocket. She created the Bernice Garden, which features changing sculpture and hosts farmer’s and vintage goods markets. Every storefront on the street has been transformed: Regina’s Place Adult Movies, La Changes and Lenderman Paint Co. in the 1300 block of Main are gone; M2 Gallery, the Oxford American magazine, South on Main and Raduno restaurants and Sweet Home Furnishings are there now. The Carpet Giant (and its beloved giant Viking) in the 1400 block is history; Nayles Medical Clinic, the Bernice Garden, Boulevard Bread Co., Moxy Mercantile, Loblolly and The Green Corner Store line the street now. The Sweden Creme drive-in has given way to The Root Cafe at 1500 Main; next door is Davis’ iconoclastic Esse Purse Museum.
Valerie Wingert opened South Main Creative at 1600 Main three years ago, and since then, she said, “I’ve met so many wonderful friends who live in the neighborhood, and they say, ‘Yes, we need you here.’ ” She and her husband, Steve Evans, are moving from midtown to a house they’re building at 1907 Cumberland St., just a few blocks away.
Also new to the neighborhood: A mixed-use development under construction on the west side of the 1400 block of Main across from Loblolly Creamery and The Green Corner Store will feature apartments and retail spaces. A block north on Scott Street, the Villa Vues at SoMa, across from the 1881 Villa Marre residence, will make 35 apartments available soon.
Rents at the two new residential projects will be at a level that only middle-class folk will be able to afford, which raises the spectre of gentrification, even if it’s slightly removed from the heart of Pettaway. The Main Street project has already greatly inconvenienced residents who can’t afford or don’t have the room for washers and dryers: It razed the only local laundromat.
Gentrification can mean the rejuvenation of a dying neighborhood with the infusion of new capital. But it has deleterious effects: As property values increase because of new home building, rents can go up. Property owners of lesser means may be tempted to sell their lots and move elsewhere.
With the exception of the Villa Vues, what’s happening in Pettaway now is infill: New construction is on vacant lots, rather than clearing away old homes purchased cheaply to make way for new, more expensive properties.
But Pettaway residents and developers — including Fogleman, who in anticipation of future development has bought lots south of East 21st Street — are wary. They don’t want outside developers to swoop in and drive up the cost of living in Pettaway. They don’t want to see streets lined with cookie-cutter homes, and they don’t want longtime residents tempted to sell their lots. When a man told Orndorff he might sell his property to take advantage of the new interest in the neighborhood, Orndorff said he told him, “No, no, no, you need to stay.”
Gentrification is not a word Wingert would apply to Pettaway: “That’s not what’s happening. It’s infill, families moving in and choosing to be there because they love diversity.”
Valarie Abrams, who bought one of Little Rock’s first container homes, at 421 E. 21st St., and is the neighborhood association’s treasurer, thinks what’s happening in Pettaway “is all for the good.” The neighborhood association meetings “are getting bigger and bigger,” she said. The new residents are “younger and full of ideas and excited for the future and progressive.”
Still, Orndorff acknowledged that though his renters (he rents houses he builds unless they sell immediately) include African-American and Hispanic families, all but one of the houses he’s sold have been to middle-class white families. In 2012, more than 45 percent of Pettaway residents were low-income; in 2010, 75 percent of the population of Pettaway was black.
Fogleman, who is also a lawyer in the Pulaski County Judge’s Office, said the downtown CDC is committed to seeing Pettaway retain its economic and cultural diversity. The nonprofit’s 11-member board, which includes residents and former residents of the neighborhood, decided in a recent “introspective” meeting that it needed to address gentrification with affordable housing “to maintain economic inclusion,” Fogleman said.
The nonprofit doesn’t have a pot of money from which to develop homes. In the early part of the aughts, the city provided block grants to help the CDC build and sell homes, and there was some private investment. Some properties brought in a small amount of money; others came up short. “It’s been mostly a wash,” CDC board member Joe Fox said.
In 2012, using a Community Development Block Grant and National Endowment for the Humanities funds, the University of Arkansas Community Design Center designed a master plan for the neighborhood and South Main. The “Pettaway Neighborhood Revitalization: Manual for a Complete Neighborhood” suggested such things as a “pocket neighborhood” on DLRCDC-owned adjacent lots facing Rock Street between 17th and 19th streets and a “housing court” that would slow traffic on the 17th Street thoroughfare. It envisioned a “hydric greenway” in a low area between Cumberland and Rock that would channel runoff into a landscaped stream, and a “Bragg Green Street” that would turn the empty lots north of East 14th Street into an arboretum and line Bragg, where Rockefeller Elementary School is located, with trees.
The CDC owns 12 undeveloped lots (some of them 25 feet wide, designed for shotgun homes). They are a mix of purchased lots and lots donated to the nonprofit by the state Land Commissioner because of property tax forfeiture. About half of the lots fall in the area proposed by the CDC for a pocket neighborhood. The CDC has obtained quiet title on the lots, but getting title insurance on donated lots takes time and Fogleman said the pocket neighborhood, in whatever form it takes, is at least three years off.
CDC board member Jay Barth said the nonprofit’s role goes beyond maintaining demographic diversity. Making sure there are amenities — like a new laundromat — “that the market’s not going to take care of” to benefit low- and moderate-income residents is important, too.
Meanwhile, Fogleman is worried that outside investors could buy and build in Pettaway “instead of partnering with local builders who have their heart and soul on the ground in the neighborhood. … I don’t have a problem with builders making money, but I want them to be sympathetic to what’s there.”