Archive for July, 2017

Grady Manning and Southwest Hotels Inc.

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Monday’s sale of the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs marked the end of hotel ownership for Southwest Hotels Inc., which once had a large portfolio of famous hotels in this region of the country.

The company, founded by H. Grady Manning, once owned the Arlington Hotel and the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs; the Marion, Grady Manning, Albert Pike and Lafayette in downtown Little Rock; and hotels in Memphis, Vicksburg and Kansas City.

Grady Manning was born in March 1892 in rural Scott County, attended a business college in Fort Smith and began working in the dining room of a Fort Smith hotel to help pay the cost of his education.

“Discovering he enjoyed working in the hotel business, he moved to Hot Springs, where he took a job at the Eastman Hotel,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With the town’s thermal waters said to offer medical benefits, Hot Springs became known as the Spa City and was one of the premier resort destinations in the country during the early 20th century. Many of its visitors were affluent travelers who had taken the waters at the leading spas of Europe and expected superior service at lodgings in Hot Springs.

“Manning traveled to Niagara Falls, Canada, where he was employed as a clerk at the Queen Royal Hotel, which was said to be one of Canada’s most exclusive. Manning became renowned for his outstanding service and courtesy, a reputation that followed him when he returned to his home state of Arkansas.

“In 1917, he became assistant manager of the Marion Hotel in Little Rock. The hotel was named for the wife of its founder, Herman Kahn, who built the Marion in 1905. At eight stories high, it was the tallest building in Arkansas until 1911. In 1919, Manning became manager of the Basin Park Hotel in Eureka Springs, a popular summer resort. His success there led to his being named manager of the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith. In the prosperity of the 1920s, Manning formed Southwest Hotels Inc, which then sought ownership of a number of landmark hotels. Manning married Ruth Seaman around this same time.”

Herman Kahn, the Marion Hotel founder, had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been the driving force behind many of the developments in downtown Little Rock in recent decades. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G Kahn, were heavily involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

The 500-room Marion Hotel, designed by architect George Mann, had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The Marion billed itself as the Meeting Place of Arkansas. Indeed many of the state’s top organizations held their conventions at the Marion. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a huge, mounted alligator gar. Well-known visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers. The Marion sometimes was referred to as the real state Capitol since legislators congregated there during legislative sessions, cutting after-hour deals and forging compromises.

Writer Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel “Independence Day,” once lived in Room 600 of the Marion. Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. Beginning in 1952, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford’s grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the hotel manager.

“It created for me a nice sense of comfort because I knew everybody,” Ford said in a 2013 interview with the Arkansas Times. “Everybody was family — all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front-office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out, people I would never see again. I could lie in my bed, and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station. Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely.”

Southwest Hotels owned the Marion in its final decades. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished along with the Grady Manning Hotel (also owned by Southwest Hotels at the time) on Feb. 17, 1980, to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center. Little Rock television stations provided live coverage of the implosion of the two hotels on a cold Sunday morning.

The Grady Manning Hotel had opened in 1930 as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and originally was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee.

The Lafayette Hotel in downtown Little Rock opened in 1925 and closed in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums.

Little Rock was experiencing solid growth during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.

The Lafayette opened on Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.5o per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.

The Great Depression hurt the hotel industry, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage due to an influx of soldiers at Camp Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on Aug. 23, 1941. Southwest reduced the number of guest rooms from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street.

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The interior of the hotel was completely repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that period working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925 so he was familiar with the hotel.

After the renovation by Southwest Hotels, the Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

There was yet another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates were made. The interior decor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. The Lafayette closed as a hotel on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described it as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

The Albert Pike, meanwhile, operated as a hotel from 1929-71 when Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought it for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences built in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell. Dewell, in turn, sold it to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Italian-Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California at the time. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative inside tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The hotel is among Little Rock’s last remaining major examples of this type of architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be one of the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.” The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Officials of the Farrell Hotel Co. decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, writer and Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In Hot Springs, railroad executive Samuel Fordyce joined forces with Samuel Stitt and William Gaines to build the first Arlington Hotel as the area around the springs gained in popularity.

“The original hotel was located across Fountain Street from the current Arlington, a site that’s now a public park,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first location was unique in that it was the only hotel property on the original Hot Springs National Reservation land. In 1893, to keep up with other nearby hotels such as the Eastman, Majestic and Park, the Arlington was razed and rebuilt on the same site with a more elegant design, a larger guest capacity and updated amenities.

“On April 5, 1923, an employee of the hotel noticed smoke coming from an electrical panel. Authorities were notified as a fire slowly began to spread. William Pinkerton, the founder of the famous security service and a guest at the hotel at the time, was so certain that the fire would be controlled that he sat on the veranda and smoked a cigar rather than retrieve his belongings, all of which he eventually lost to the fire that leveled the building.

“The owners had been discussing building an addition across Fountain Street. The plans for this now became plans for rebuilding the entire hotel on that site, thus removing it from reservation property. On Nov. 28, 1924, the third and current version of the Arlington Hotel was completed. Designed by George R. Mann, primary architect of the state Capitol, the building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style.”

Southwest Hotels purchased the Arlington in 1954.

What became the Majestic was built in 1882 on the site of the old Hiram Whittington House. It was known as the Avenue Hotel at the time. The name was changed to the Majestic in 1888. A yellow-brick building was added in 1892. The original hotel was razed in 1902 and a brick building with 150 rooms was added. A new restaurant known as The Dutch Treat was also added with a replica of a windmill over the door.

“In the prosperity of the 1920s, greater numbers of average Americans could visit the Majestic Hotel,” Hendricks writes. “In addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox stayed at the hotel for spring training and fitness programs. … During this era, the legendary Babe Ruth frequented the Majestic. The in-house thermal baths at the Majestic also appealed to notorious 1920s underworld figures who did not have to leave the hotel for their spa therapy.

“The year 1926 saw the addition of the eight-story annex (a red-brick building to the west of the yellow-brick building), which later housed the Grady Manning Dining Room. … Southwest Hotels purchased the Majestic in 1929. … In the 1940s, the U.S. Army used the Majestic to house World War II-era soldiers. On Dec. 15, 1945, the hotel reopened to civilians. It attracted celebrities such as actor Alan Ladd, comedian Phyllis Diller and orchestra leader Guy Lombardo.

“After Hawaii became a state in 1959, all things Hawaiian became popular. The Majestic opened the Lanai Tower in 1963. The Lanai suites were said to boast the first modern sliding-glass doors. The suites surrounded a waterfall and tropical-themed pool. With the completion of the Lanai Tower, the Majestic became an eclectic mix of architectural styles — traditional red brick, the yellow-brick building and the tropical-themed Lanai suites. As was the case with most of downtown Hot Springs, business at the Majestic steadily declined through the 1980s due to a combination of highway rerouting, medical advances that made spa bathing outdated and the cessation of illegal gambling in the city.”

Southwest Hotels closed the Majestic in 2006. The yellow-brick building burned in a huge fire in February 2014. The remainder of the hotel, which was boarded up and deteriorating badly, was torn down last year.

H. Grady Manning was only 47 when he died in Hot Springs on Sept. 4, 1939. He reportedly drowned. The Little Rock City Council passed a resolution saying that Manning would “always be remembered as a man of the highest integrity and devotion toward the welfare of his community, the state and the nation.”

His widow continued to operate Southwest Hotels before passing the company on to the couple’s only child, Joy Manning Scott, who died in June 2014. She grew up in her family’s hotels and later married Morin Scott, living in Austin, Texas. The couple was married for 55 years.

Control of the company passed to Monty Scott, the son of Joy and Morin Scott.

Monty Scott, who was born at Austin in 1949, worked for a time at the investment firm Goldman Sachs and in the oil and gas industry before joining Southwest Hotels. He died unexpectedly in January 2016. Soon afterward the Scott family began entertaining offers for the Arlington, the last hotel under the auspices of a company that once had owned 10 hotels.

 

 

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The Arlington: Relief and anxiety

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

My initial reaction, like that of a lot of Arkansans, was relief when I heard Monday that the sale of the Arlington Hotel had been finalized.

The Arlington is the most iconic privately owned structure in our state. For decades, those of us who love this Southern grande dame watched with sadness as she became a shell of her former self.

We dreamed of a day when a new owner would step in and restore her.

We dreamed of a day when those in surrounding states once more would flock to the hotel, knowing that it was THE place to stay in Arkansas.

We dreamed of a day when those of us close enough to make day trips to Hot Springs would go to the Arlington just for the food.

We dreamed of a day when statewide associations again would make it the headquarters hotel for their conventions.

We dreamed of a day when its bathhouse would rival any spa in America.

We dreamed of a day when the place to see and be seen in Arkansas would be the lobby of the renovated Arlington Hotel.

We dreamed of a day when the Arlington veranda would be described as Arkansas’ front porch, a civilized place to sit in a comfortable chair under a spinning ceiling fan while having a well-made drink.

So we cheered when we heard that the last remaining hotel in the once formidable Southwest Hotels portfolio had been sold. Perhaps the day we had dreamed of wasn’t far away.

Soon, however, relief turned to anxiety.

We worried that so little is known about the new owner, Al Rajabi of San Antonio. He recently renovated what had been the Clarion (and the Hilton before that) into the Four Points by Sheraton on South University Avenue in Little Rock. But this isn’t a chain hotel catering to folks with relatives in nearby hospitals. This is the Arlington, a hotel that should be mentioned in the same breath as other old Southern resorts such as the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Homestead in Virginia.

We worried when we were told that Rajabi had owned 30 hotels through the years. That’s because no list of those hotels was provided.

We worried that an announcement that had been in the works for weeks gave no details whatsoever about renovation plans.

We worried that Rajabi would not answer questions from the media, directing people instead to a news release that contained precious few details.

We worried that the company that bought the hotel, Sky Capital Group LP, was only formed in April.

We worried that the news release said Sky Capital was the owner and operator of the Four Points in Little Rock even though the owner of record is Windsor Capital LLP, of which Rajabi is a partner.

For all we know, these questions will be answered in the days to come.

Please forgive us for having doubts, Mr. Rajabi, but we’ve been fooled so many times through the years in Hot Springs.

Southwest allowed the Majestic Hotel to deteriorate as the Arlington has done. Two subsequent owners made promises but did nothing. That old gal finally burned.

Several  developers promised to redevelop the Velda Rose. It still sits empty today.

South down Central Avenue, we were told that the Royale Vista Inn finally would be redeveloped. Scaffolding went up, but nothing was ever completed.

What has been the trademark of Hot Springs in recent decades? More than hot baths and thoroughbred racing, unfortunately, it has been landlords who have allowed their properties to deteriorate, milking every dime out of them and putting little back in.

You will excuse us, Mr. Rajabi, for being skeptical. You see, we’ve seen too many people fail to deliver on their promises in our beloved Spa City.

Your online biography says you graduated from UCLA in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, so maybe you can understand the anxiety on the part of this societal segment known as Arkansans.

Prove us wrong, Mr. Rajabi.

Please prove us wrong.

Renovate the rooms, reducing the number while increasing the size.

After refreshing the beautiful Venetian Dining Room (so much potential there), bring in a big-name chef who will be an attraction in his/her own right.

Mixology is all the rage these days, so hire some hip, young bartenders who will have millennials driving all the way from Little Rock for a drink.

Transform the bathhouse into a spa that people as far away as Dallas will want to visit.

Fill the veranda with furniture in Dorothy Draper pastels and add an outside bar.

Fill your basement with high-end boutiques.

Transform the neighboring Wade Building into a place for high-dollar suites.

Mr. Rajabi, as I stated at the outset, the Arlington isn’t just another hotel, at least for those of us born and raised in this state. I’ll say it again: It’s the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas.

With this purchase comes certain obligations to the 3 million people of Arkansas.

We wish you well, Mr. Rajabi.

Please don’t disappoint us.

 

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The great disasters

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

You really can’t understand Arkansas without understanding the effect the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937 had on this state.

Those events combined to create an image of Arkansas as a place you wanted to move away from rather than move to.

That exodus lasted long past these three landmark natural disasters. In fact, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

This has without a doubt been a bad year as far as flooding in east Arkansas. April rains were common in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and that water flowed south, inundating almost 980,000 acres of farmland at an estimated cost of $175 million.

Extension agents reported damage to row crops in 21 of the state’s 75 counties.

The counties impacted the most in terms of acres flooded were Poinsett (194,900), Greene (138,000), Prairie (125,000), Lawrence (80,000) and Randolph (60,000).

As bad as this year’s spring floods were, they pale in comparison to what occurred in 1927 and 1937.

Those events changed our state forever. Combined with the 1930-31 drought, the mechanization of agriculture and the Great Migration of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, we’ve seen the inexorable decline of the Arkansas Delta, which once was the richest area of the state with the most powerful political players.

The 1927 flood covered almost 6,600 square miles in Arkansas with 36 of 75 counties affected.

Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In Arkansas, more people were affected by the floodwaters (more than 350,000), more farmland inundated (more than 2 million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of 154 total) and more families received relief (41,243) than any other state. In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas surpassed all other affected states.”

The September 1927 issue of National Geographic described the scene in Arkansas City. The streets were dry at noon one day. By 2 p.m., according to the magazine, “mules were drowning on Main Street faster than people could unhitch them from wagons.”

Hendricks describes what was going on across east Arkansas this way: “Water poured in and had nowhere to go. Homes and stores stood for months in six to 30 feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. Rich Arkansas farmland was covered with sand, coated in mud or simply washed away, still bearing shoots from spring planting.”

She contends that the 1927 flood had its origins in both nature and man. She explains: “In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy. Heavy machinery enabled the construction of a vast system of levees to hold back rivers that tended to overrun their banks. Drainage projects opened up new, low-lying lands that had once been forests but had been left bare by the timber industry.

“Feeling protected from flooding by the levees, farmers borrowed money with easy credit from banks booming with the record levels of the stock market. They expanded their fields to low-lying areas on their own property or moved to new lands that were fertile from centuries of seasonal flooding. They felt safe behind the levees and secure in selling their crops to new markets, now accessible by railroad, truck, automobiles and even international shipping. The buy-now-pay-later mindset of the 1920s encouraged people, including farmers of modest means, to purchase washing machines and other labor-saving devices on installment plans. Even nature seemed to be cooperating as the summer of 1926 brought rain instead of drought.

“The spring of 1927, however, saw warm weather and early snow melts in Canada, causing the upper Mississippi to swell. Rain fell in the upper Midwest, sending its full rivers gushing into the already swollen Mississippi. Its destination, the Gulf of Mexico, acted as a stopper when it too became full. Then, in the South, it began to rain.”

The Mississippi backed up into the Arkansas, St. Francis and White rivers.

The White backed up into the Cache, the Little Red and the Black.

The St. Francis backed up into the L’Anguille.

Near its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi in southeast Arkansas, the White even ran backward at one point as Mississippi River water poured in.

“Levees could not hold, with every one between Fort Smith and Little Rock failing under the enormous surge of water,” Hendricks writes.

Almost twice as much farmland was under water in Arkansas as in Louisiana and Mississippi combined.

“Radios broadcast warnings,” Hendricks writes. “Airplanes helped locate survivors clinging to rooftops or tree limbs. Motorboats aided the evacuation, and trains carried people to shelters on high ground. The American Red Cross, as well as fellow citizens, responded quickly with emergency workers arriving by trains, trucks and automobiles. In Arkansas, 50 refugee camps, using Army tents and cots, were hastily built by the Red Cross, with one in Forrest City holding more than 15,000 of the homeless. But victims kept arriving from all around Arkansas — cold, sick and hungry. Some found shelter in public buildings or other makeshift locations. Nearly all found themselves without food, water or dry clothing. The segregated tent cities on high ground could barely hold them all. Disease ran rampant in overcrowded camps. Conditions then worsened.

“With the floodwater having nowhere to go, much of Arkansas remained under water through the spring and summer and into September 1927. Farmers could not plant crops. The carcasses of thousands of dead animals lay rotting in stagnant pools. Mosquitoes found perfect conditions to breed that summer, carrying malaria and typhoid to refugee camps already burdened with dysentery and the threat of smallpox. Emergency workers at the camps were also shocked at the extent of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease brought on by lack of protein.”

John Barry notes in his classic work of nonfiction “Rising Tide” that a struggle that began as man against nature changed to one of “man against man. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.”

Hendricks says that some of those man-against-man collisions occurred in Arkansas: “Planters feared that their sharecroppers, both black and white and mostly in debt, might not return home from the Red Cross camps, leaving them without enough labor to put crops in the fields when the land dried out. This led to a controversial mandate in which sharecroppers, particularly black sharecroppers, were admitted to and released from the camps only under the supervision of their planters. African-Americans needed a pass to enter or leave the Red Cross camps. Some were forced at gunpoint by law enforcement officials to survive on the levees indefinitely in makeshift tents as water rose around them while would-be rescue boats left empty. They were forced by the National Guard with fixed bayonets to work on the levees.”

She says the flood “spurred a mass migration of black sharecroppers who had tired of farming, poverty and debt. Thousands left the plantation as soon as they could, heading north to look for jobs in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Mechanization and corporate farming replaced their labor.”

The misery in Arkansas didn’t end when 1927 ended.

Far from it.

Just as the state was starting to recover from the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Depression began in 1929.

The problems were compounded by the state’s worst drought of the 20th century in 1930-31. That drought affected 23 states. Just as had been the case with the Great Flood, Arkansas bore the brunt of the damage. Rainfall in June and July of 1930 was the lowest on record for those months. Temperatures reached as high as 107 degrees in July and soared as high as 113 degrees in August.

By Aug. 2, 1930, Little Rock had gone 71 days without rain.

Arkansas’ leading cash crop was cotton in all but five counties (Benton, Carroll, Madison, Newton and Washington), and average yield fell from six to two bales per 20 acres. T. Roy Reid of the Agricultural Extension Service noted that of the state’s 75 counties, only Benton County would have “sufficient food for its farm population and livestock feed to tide it over the winter.”

Indeed, there was a food riot in England on Jan 3, 1931, as more than 500 people demanded rations outside a Red Cross office.

Though the drought eased in 1931, it remained serious.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University writes: “Drought-stricken Arkansas became a metaphor for anxieties spawned by the Depression.

“Without crops to sell or gardens to live off of, family food supplies dwindled, with tenant farmers often hit hardest, depending on fishing, hunting and the few surviving garden plants,” John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas’ U.S. senators, Joe T. Robinson and Thaddeus Caraway, outlined a relief program using both state and federal money. Robinson described the drought as having brought ‘almost complete crop failure.’ Between 30 and 50 percent of Arkansas crops were lost. … Delta plantation owners did not want free food given to their tenants, fearing it would disrupt their labor force and destabilize already reduced wages.”

In 1937, there was another huge flood in Arkansas. It inundated 1,037,500 acres of farmland and 756,800 acres of other land. An estimated 40,916 families were affected, and 75 relief camps had to be established in the state. An additional 14 camps were set up at Memphis to serve refugees from Arkansas.

“Arkansas’ floodwaters came from tributary streams no longer able to drain effectively due to the cresting Mississippi River,” Spurgeon writes. “Bayou de View as well as the Black, Cache, L’Anguille, Little Red, Spring, Strawberry, St. Francis, Tyronza and White rivers spilled across agricultural terrain mostly bare of crops that time of year. While the Arkansas River was at flood stage at Van Buren for only one day, the White River exceeded flood stages below Calico Rock, and the St. Francis River had considerable flooding from January into March. The largely rural, agricultural Delta saw the spread of the floodwaters into tenants’ and sharecroppers’ homes and communities already struggling from the effects of drought, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.”

R. S. Hayden, a Methodist preacher at Forrest City, wrote in early February that the city housed “15,000 refugees with more coming, plus 20,000 mules, cows, dogs, cats and chickens.”

“The U.S. Army, Arkansas National Guard and volunteers prepared twice-daily meals for the displaced,” Spurgeon writes. “As floodwaters receded and families returned home, baskets of food were distributed. Law and order were the responsibility of the local authorities supplemented by the National Guard. A principal warehouse at Forrest City was established to collect and move materials to other sites. Recreation programs were instituted for adults and children at camps and centers. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project had a mobile unit that offered a variety show touring Arkansas.”

In 1927, political and economic power in Arkansas were centered in the Delta. The poorest counties were in the Ozarks, where rocky land proved unsuitable for growing cotton. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt were still far in the future.

The shift began with the Great Flood of 1927 and continued with the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

The mechanization of agriculture and the resulting loss of tens of thousands of Delta residents followed.

Now counties that were among the richest in 1927 are among the poorest, and those that were the poorest are the richest.

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Crisis in Little Rock

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Here’s my fear: That Saturday’s gang incident in downtown Little Rock that left 28 people injured was a tipping point for Arkansas’ capital city.

That the city I call home is about to enter into a long period of inexorable population loss and economic decline.

That we’re about to see happen here what happened in Memphis, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

The crisis began in December when a 2-year-old girl, Ramiya Reed, died after being shot while riding in the back seat of a vehicle with her mother. Police believe that event ignited a gang war that has caused violent crime in Little Rock to increase by 24 percent from the same six-month period last year.

The crisis escalated later in December with the murder of Acen King, a 3-year-old boy who was shot while riding in the back seat of his grandmother’s car. That incident received widespread media coverage across the country.

Even though they live in low-crime neighborhoods, Little Rock’s business owners and professionals — the doctors, bankers, lawyers and accountants — must realize that Saturday’s incident wounded the goose that lays their golden egg.

Will the wound ultimately prove fatal?

That depends on how the city and the state respond.

Let’s look at Memphis.

In 1960, the Bluff City had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were only 298,645 people within the 1960 city limits (Memphis had maintained its overall population only through a series of annexations).

DeSoto County in north Mississippi grew rapidly as people fled Memphis.

Regional cities such as Jonesboro in Arkansas, Jackson in Tennessee and Tupelo in Mississippi also grew.

There was a time when residents of northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They read Memphis newspapers. They watched Memphis television stations. They went to Memphis to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by the public perception that Memphis has become a dangerous city, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. Jonesboro has become the true regional center for northeast Arkansas. In 1960, Jonesboro had 21,418 residents. By the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 75,000 people now calling the city home.

Here’s part of what happened to fuel the Jonesboro boom: People in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas turned their backs on Memphis. They now read the Jonesboro newspaper, watch Jonesboro television stations, listen to Jonesboro radio stations, go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

You get the picture.

Let’s also look at Birmingham.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock that year. In fact, Birmingham was about the same size as Atlanta (331,314) at the time. By the 2010 census, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. So Little Rock is now about the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Then there’s the state capital of Mississippi.

In 1980, Jackson had a population of 202,895. Little Rock was at 159,151. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. Little Rock now has 30,000 more residents than a city that was larger by 40,000 people as recently as 1980.

We’ve certainly seen the growth of suburban cities in central Arkansas. But it hasn’t caused Little Rock to lose population — yet.

Conway’s population soared from 9,791 in the 1960 census to 58,908 in the 2010 census. Conway now has more than 65,000 residents.

During that same period, Benton grew from 10,399 to 30,681.

Cabot grew from 1,321 to 23,776.

Bryant grew from 737 to 16,688.

Little Rock also grew steadily (thanks in part to annexations), almost doubling from 107,813 in the 1960 census to about 200,000 residents today.

Is Little Rock growth about to stop while Conway, Cabot, Benton and Bryant continue to grow?

At a time when local television newscasts focus on crime stories — they’re easier to cover and more interesting to the average viewer than stories about government and public policy — people in the Little Rock television market increasingly view the capital city as a place they don’t want to visit.

Perception becomes reality.

Just as people in small towns in northeast Arkansas stopped going to Memphis on a regular basis and began going to Jonesboro instead, at some point those in the Little Rock television market will choose to go to the doctor, shop, eat out and attend events in Conway, Benton, Hot Springs, Russellville or Searcy.

They’ll stop short of the capital city.

So what does Little Rock city government do?

The first thing is to take whatever steps are necessary to fill the dozens of vacant Little Rock Police Department positions.

The Little Rock Board of Directors should declare an emergency and immediately approve across-the-board pay increases and signing bonuses for the LRPD. If it means slashing the budgets of other city departments, so be it. This is a crisis, and crises call for drastic measures.

The city also should hire a nationally recognized expert on dealing with gangs. That sends a message to the rest of the state and the rest of the country that Little Rock is serious about tackling this problem.

In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story back on Dec. 19, Noel Oman reported: “Little Rock is looking at an array of options to more quickly fill the ranks of its depleted police force, including returning to patrol duty the nearly 20 officers now assigned to the city’s airport. … The 500-officer department has more than 60 vacancies, and the number of openings has been growing for the past six years. Having that many openings in the ranks has an effect on police response times and the overall visibility of officers in the city, Little Rock police chief Kenton Buckner has said. He said the vacancies leave fewer officers available to attend outreach events and force police to focus on their primary obligations, such as responding to 911 calls. The problem is more officers are leaving the force, for retirement and other reasons.”

There always will be high crime rates in neighborhoods where there are large numbers of young men raised in poverty in single-parent or no-parent households; young men for whom joblessness, hopelessness and violence have become a way of life. There are societal issues that go much deeper than the crime statistics.

The discussion about long-term solutions is one for another day. The focus now must be on IMMEDIATE steps that can be taken.

Filling the LRPD vacancies is one of those immediate steps.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola told Oman: “We’ve lost 37 officers on average over the last six years and have hired 31 officers on average over the last six years. That’s 36 positions less. That has to change.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

City government owes the people who live in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods this much: Drastic actions. The failure to fill the dozens of empty LRPD slots borders on outright negligence. If anyone should be mad at City Hall, it’s those who live in areas where gunshots are a nightly occurrence.

Doing more to fill the slots also would send this message to the rest of the state: Little Rock is serious about its gang problem.

Little Rock is the center of state government. So that means this is also a state problem.

There are several things the state can do.

The problem is serious enough for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call a special legislative session. Hutchinson, once the country’s youngest U.S. attorney, understands these issues. He must push for laws that make it more difficult to parole felons. An inordinate number of those on parole wind up in Little Rock.

The second thing the state must do is fund at least 30 more parole officers for Pulaski County. The caseload for parole officers in Pulaski County is almost twice that of other counties.

“More and more people are being released without adequate supervision,” one Little Rock civic leader told me. “So even though the law allows parole officers to search a parolee’s house without notice if a search might reveal possession of a gun or other contraband, the parole officers don’t have the time to use this law effectively. If this were aggressively pursued, we would keep some of the guns out of the hands of the wrong people.”

The third thing the state must do is to give more tools to Alcoholic Beverage Control so ABC officers can more easily shut down clubs such as the one where Saturday’s incident occurred.

The clock is ticking.

The time for city government and state government to act is now.

Mayor Stodola is a former county prosecuting attorney.

Gov. Hutchinson is a former federal prosecutor.

It’s imperative that they lead the way before Little Rock goes the way of Memphis, Jackson and Birmingham.

 

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