Monday, February 6, 2012

The Rebirth of Argenta

Downtown North Little Rock, 1990s
I've been talking about downtown North Little Rock for a while, so how about the story of its rise from death.

See, in the 1990s, NLR's downtown, just across the river from Little Rock, was laced with crime and decay. What was once a place for the town's many industrial and railroad workers to live and shop had become a dried-up slum, a place for people to slink through the darkness and murder or be murdered.

The houses looked like this.
The lords of this shunned land bought up the houses and turned them into slums. The businesses had long since fled to the suburbs, and the only holdouts were the city government, who every day fled before the sun sank. Main Street had become one-way, a funnel back across the river to civilization. It was just the way to get home. In the 1970s through 1990s, half of the district was scooped up and thrown away with the trash. Most of the houses around downtown were marked as "unsalvageable" by urban renewal.

And this.
So what happened?

Argenta. It was the old name for North Little Rock. A few of the still-surviving buildings and businesses on Main Street bore this name, like Argenta Drugs. But it wasn't widely known. Sandra Taylor Smith of the North Little Rock History Commission surveyed about 300 buildings in the district (sometimes traveling with cops for safety), then requested the National Register of Historic Places to list the downtown as a historic district.

At first, she was laughed at. Historic districts were the rich neighborhoods, the prosperous ones, not blue collar cities. But the National Park Service was impressed with what it saw, and the listing went through.

The strip of crumbling buildings became the "Argenta Arts District." From then on, a team of dedicated homeowners and entrepreneurs surged into the city and changed it. The homes were repaired, art galleries and restaurants moved in, and Main Street was made two-way again.

Above and below: The same two houses from the previous pictures.

Now, Argenta is a desirable place to live. There's stuff going on all the time. But there's still work to be done.

As you walk north, evidence of North Little Rock's ruined past become evident. There are still abandoned storefronts and decrepit neighborhoods.


A walk over the Main Street Viaduct and you can see some surviving evidence of North Little Rock's industrial past, too.

The concrete barriers of the viaduct, typical for 1920s and 1930s highway bridges

Old houses near the railroad

Where the railroad ends

Discarded tracks
There's work to be done. But for once I'm optimistic.


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