The complicated challenge of preserving Little Rock’s Central High neighborhood

June 3-9, 2024

By Mary Hennigan     


Seated at the table in Paul Dodds’ screened patio in central Little Rock, you can hear the hammering of nearby construction, see the peaks of empty nearby houses, and if you chose to, embark on the three minute walk to Central High School, where in 1957 the Little Rock Nine led its desegregation.


Dodds, 69, had never visited Little Rock when he decided to move to the city from Berlin, Germany, in 2004. His family was sprawled across the country, and with no geographic center luring him a certain way, a friend of his convinced him to give Arkansas a try.


He found his place in the city, and for the last 20 years it’s been Dodds’ mission to rehabilitate dilapidated houses in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District.


He started with his own, a 1924 build bought with the adjacent weedy lot for $13,000. What stood at the corner of West 17th and South Park Street had significant burn damage, some of which Dodds tastefully preserved and remains today. Photographs of the house’s charred past hang framed on the walls of now-tidy rooms.


The condition of Dodds’ home 20 years ago is similar to the current state of many homes in the historic district. Vacant lots littered the neighborhood when Dodds moved to the city, he said, and uninhabited properties continue to have a stark presence.


The neighborhood historic district surrounds Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine desegregated the school in 1957. At the time, the area was considered the city’s first suburb and residents exhibited a mix of social and economic experiences.


The nationwide importance of Central High, along with century-old homes that span architectural styles, qualify the area as one of Little Rock’s 16 historic neighborhoods. The National Park Service also protects the school as a historic landmark, along with the Daisy Bates House, which served as a safe space for the students during the desegregation crisis.


“Central High School was this symbol of integration success,” Dodds said. “Then all around it, you have this collapsing neighborhood, which is a symbol of integration failure.”


Dodds has completed 17 rehabilitations in the neighborhood so far, more than a dozen of which count toward the historic district’s contributing structures.


Standards require at least 51% of the buildings in the historic district be contributing structures, or retain a high degree of architectural integrity to the period of significance — in this case 1870-1961. If the percentage of contributing structures dips lower, the neighborhood loses its distinction and the state and federal tax credits available for people who renovate within the boundaries.


“I don’t have until I’m 90,” he said. “I will have considered myself to have failed if I’m 80 [years old] and I’m just looking at a bunch of vacant lots across the street. … I want to see these houses fixed up with people living in them. I want to see the city repopulated. I don’t want to see it just keep sprawling.”.


A complicated issue


Preserving the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District is largely seen as an investment in Little Rock’s future, but it doesn’t come without its challenges.


Hannah Ratzlaff, Little Rock’s historic preservation officer, said owners in the area who maintain their properties contribute to the “irreplaceable character of the neighborhood for generations to come.” But the area also suffers from absentee owner neglect, she said.


“The city has a serious interest in maintaining the historic status of the district,” Ratzlaff said. “If not solely for the benefit of property owners and their access to state and federal historic tax credits, but also for the preservation and promotion of the district’s cultural heritage.”


In 2023 the city’s Historic District Commission, which Ratzlaff is involved with, proposed an expansion of the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District’s boundaries to obtain more contributing structures. Opposition from neighborhood associations led to a unanimous “no” from the 10-member city council.


Virgil Miller, the Little Rock city director who represents the Central High neighborhood, said he’s cautious when it comes to development in the area. Trust, along with a balance of public-private partnership, are his top priorities.


Residents often reach out to Miller worried about gentrification in their communities. When he considers housing projects in the Central High neighborhood, Miller said economic gentrification is a serious concern.


“When you look at the city, it’s sort of like a quilt,” Miller said. “We’ve got patchworks, and it takes this whole tapestry to make this whole thing work. I want to keep the patches, which are our neighborhoods. … When you start taking away the soul of the neighborhoods, then you don’t have this patchwork anymore.”


Miller said he would consider joining a city task force that worked with residents and developers alike to encourage careful revitalization, starting with frequent dialogue.


“When you don’t have that trust, it impedes development because people will want to know ‘What are you trying to do?’ and ‘What’s your real motivation?’” Miller said.


Denise Leeson, president of the Central High Neighborhood Association, said she’s supportive of development in the area, but she opposed the 2023 district expansion because city staff dismissed the concerns of Black residents.


“This neighborhood is highly populated by African-American families who rightfully distrust government,” Leeson said. “So ‘trust us we’re from the government’ doesn’t go very far here.”


Leeson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2016, said she would like to see city officials work on infill development rather than outward expansions. Working toward “appropriate, quality middle-and-low income housing” should be the objective, Leeson said.


“We’ve got history that’s being erased on a regular basis, every time one of these houses is demoed,” she said.


Sheila Miles, the president of the adjacent Wright Avenue Neighborhood Association who also opposed the expansion in 2023, did not respond to interview requests.


City involvement


A demolition moratorium is not currently in place for the Central High neighborhood, but Kevin Howard, director of the city’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Programs, said his team does not organize a demolition unless the fire department alerts them of an emergency.


“I know that there’s several structures over there that are still standing, that if [they] were in any other area should have come down,” Howard said.


Howard noted some buildings in the area may look sound from the outside, but the interiors are almost completely burnt. While those would typically be torn down, Howard said the city doesn’t touch them because they count toward the historic district’s contributing structures.


City officials, however, can’t stop private owners from tearing down their own structures.


More than 40 houses in the historic district were demolished from 2010-2021, according to a 2022 report from the city of Little Rock. Nearly two dozen of those were contributing structures.


Leeson said the most recent demolition in the neighborhood she knew of happened this week; she said she was unsure of who completed it.


The Department of Housing and Neighborhood Programs’ team sends letters every few years asking homeowners who haven’t made renovation progress to consider donating or selling to the city’s land bank, which offers properties and parcels at a lower price for developers or city use.


“A lot of times these homeowners have so many issues as far as the title, they have so many heirs on the title that it’s hard for them,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of argument that’s done between the actual owners of the property, and they’re reluctant to give them to the city … but that’s what needs to happen.”


Howard said the city will occasionally have enough federal funds available to complete a home rehabilitation of its own, which is then sold to a low-to-moderate income buyer. There are often more issues than money available, however.


“I go to Washington [D.C.] three times a year to fight for the city to receive its money,” Howard said. “That’s why the sales tax [proposal] is important for us, because now the mayor is putting in a component for affordable housing and homelessness that we won’t have to use out of our federal money.”


Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has his sights set on a 1% city sales tax increase for the November election. Along with $10 million earmarked for affordable housing, Scott’s proposal includes revitalizing War Memorial Park, building two sports complexes, investing in public safety through fire station operations, and allocating about $86 million for public infrastructure, among other things. The penny is separated into a ⅝-percent tax for capital improvements that would sunset in 10 years, and a permanent ⅜-percent tax to cover long-term costs.


Howard said the city’s main goal is to ensure houses in the Central High neighborhood are affordable so people with low incomes can become homebuyers. This, Howard said, is a tactic that he said would “eliminate developers coming and creating gentrification.”


Still, Dodds said he thinks the city should be more proactive in its neighborhood management by banning demolitions, enacting daily fines, properly boarding up properties, working to clear titles and completing inspections.


“What I’m looking for is the city to look comprehensively at what powers it has and to focus on protecting the integrity of the neighborhood — the historic district — and use what powers it has,” Dodds said. “They should be looking at encouraging new investment in unsafe and vacant homes, and use whatever they can to do it.”  


This article was edited for length. Read the full story at


Photo Captions:


1. This house was once a contributing structure to the Central High Neighborhood Historic District. Now, Little Rock resident Paul Dodds (seated) is working to restore the building’s historic fabric. Dodds was photographed May 16, 2024. (Mary Hennigan/Arkansas Advocate)


2. Virgil Miller, a Little Rock city director, sits inside Community Bakery in the SoMa neighborhood on May 17, 2024. (Mary Hennigan/Arkansas Advocate)



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