Sprawling Roads to Nowhere

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LONG GONE: Ninth Street in its heyday.

Little Rock    These days planners and speculators would be hard pressed to imagine that they could figure out a way to easily intersect cities with ribbons of concrete dividing rich, poor, black and white, which is not to say there aren’t some still trying, but the public purposes are so obscure and the self-interest so palpable, that it’s simply a degree of difficulty that would stagger even the superrich.  Their imaginations have to build castles in other skies, though the dominance of money as the political currency will predictably lead to other white elephants roaming on their fields of dreams that the rest of us will also inevitably end up having to clean up later.

All of this came to mind recently as I read a fascinating master’s thesis prepared at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that focused on the history of ACORN and our allies efforts to prevent the final construction of the Wilbur Mills expressway in Little Rock over 30 years ago.  The paper focused on the extensive delays in constructing these few miles that would run from downtown to the western suburbs leading to final completion not occurring until 1985.  Originally promoted by business and so-called civic leaders more than 50 years ago, the road was to be the East/West Expressway.  Needing more money, the local Congressman Wilbur Mills, who was also the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was able to pork chop the expressway that became his namesake into the interstate system as a short leg connection between a city bypass I-430 and I-30 running on to Dallas. 

The “what” rather than the “why” was the subject of the paper.  Driving the Wilbur Mills the other day, from front to back, it took me 8 minutes in the early afternoon with a steady traffic flow.  At rush hour in the rain, driving at the posted speed of 60 mph (though few others were of course), the same trip took me 9 minutes.  One of the studies that ACORN won established that the time savings on this expressway would only be 3 or 4 minutes, so frankly, we are talking about a highway dividing the city of Little Rock in half over the fact that a commuter might drive 8 or 9 minutes rather than 11 or 12 minutes. 

A rare story in 2011 in the weekly, Arkansas Times, noted after almost 30 years that, damn, ACORN was right:  the expressway would cause inestimable damage and divide the city permanently on racial and income lines.   The curtain call and the ability to say, “we told you so,” was hardly worth it.  So, why this Wilbur Mills folly?

Civic nothing, this was all about the financial and political dominance of the real estate industry in Little Rock and the way to create huge paydays for speculators and developers buying land 20 miles form the city’s downtown core.  Thirty years ago, the radio station we built, KABF, began broadcasting from the first tower built on Chenal Mountain in rural Pulaski County, more than 20 miles away from our studios near downtown.   Now if you stand in front of our transmitter and look down the valley at the bottom of the mountain there is a community of McMansions and they are strung like diamond baubles on a necklace all the way back to I-430 and the Mills, miles away. 

Some got rich, while the rest of the city is still in rehab on the other side of a moving, high speed, wall of concrete apartheid that is a monument to sprawl and depopulation.  Let’s hope someone somewhere is still working on the part of the paper that covers, “lessons learned.”

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