Luke Skrable can tell you exactly when and where his life as a community activist began: August 2002, the day he looked out his window and spied the down-on-its-heels recliner on the curb across from his house. He looked at it every day for the next four months.
The owner of a tidy little house just off Baseline Road, Skrable is a man who quickly gets too big for any room when he starts talking about the subject of trash and code enforcement in Southwest Little Rock. By January 2003, when Skrable picked up the phone and started complaining to city officials about the decrepit recliner and the other piles of curbside refuse left for months on his street, his property reappraised for half what it did the day he moved in.
Two years later, Skrable has made himself something of an expert on the city code. His file on the subject, containing details of his countless meetings with city officials, is easily an inch thick. He knows every pile of trash within a 10-block radius of his home and when it appeared — every derelict car, every stack of used tires, leaning shed and lump of soggy building materials. He should: He has taken every city official who’d give him the time of day on a guided tour of the Southwest Little Rock that only the trashman might see.
While Skrable allows that the people who live in Southwest Little Rock bear much of the responsibility for the area’s decline, he believes that slide is something that could be slowed simply by enforcing city code.
“The first thing I learned about the city was, if the city doesn’t smell the odor coming out of the drain, there is no odor,” Skrable said. “I look at it as I am a stepchild of Southwest Little Rock. If you’re in Southwest Little Rock, you’re just like a second-class citizen.”
Skrable might have a point. Even to the untrained eye, every other home in his neighborhood seems to have at least one infraction that would get the homeowner written up if the house was in a more fashionable part of town. Since starting his fight, however, Skrable said that he has received “an education” about how the code is selectively enforced and how many ways the buck can get passed at City Hall. That has included retaliation, he claims. The day after he “had words” with an area code enforcement supervisor, Skrable was cited by code enforcement for too-small house numbers (even though he said more than 30 houses in his neighborhood have no numbers at all), and a bucket that was allegedly “harboring a nest for mosquitoes” — in mid-January.
“You don’t see this out in West Little Rock. You don’t see it out off Hinson Road, you don’t see it in Chenal Valley,” Skrable said. “The rules are there. They just choose when they’re going to do it, who they’re going to do it to and how they’re going to do it … Everybody in city government is picking and choosing what they’re going to enforce.”
In terms of his original problem — why trash sits at the curb for weeks — Skrable has found that a big part of the reason is “the list.” In a perfect world, people who plan on putting large items out at the curb would call a city number — 888-2208 — to get on a list for the next week’s large-item pickup by a Waste Management truck. In Skrable’s neighborhood — due either to a lack of caring or education — it’s a call that often doesn’t get made. The safety net when people don’t call in, however, is that the driver of the large item truck is supposed to radio in unreported piles, which then go on the list for the next week.
“It doesn’t take much to realize where the ball is getting dropped,” Skrable said. “The man in the truck is not calling in the piles that aren’t on his list. Because if he was, the next week, they’d be picked up.”
Riding shotgun with Skrable up and down the streets off Baseline Road, a reporter saw piles of castoff clothes, furniture and household items curbside on every other block. Though the large green cans of trash get picked up like clockwork, Skrable said, the piles beside them often sit — sometimes for months. And after boxes and bags that once held trash sit in the rain and deteriorate, Skrable said their contents become classified as “loose trash,” which falls under the domain of code enforcement. “And where’s code enforcement?” Skrable asks. “Nobody wants to get in the game.”
Barbara Hyatt, neighborhood programs manager for Little Rock, oversees the code enforcement division. She knows Skrable well. “Luke is very much involved and trying very hard to watch and take care of things,” Hyatt said. “He does a good job.” A past recipient of Skrable’s ire, she said solving the problem of blight in Little Rock isn’t as easy as handing out a few code violation tickets. Hyatt disputes Skrable’s claims that the code is enforced differently in Southwest Little Rock.
“There is no selective enforcement. You know: one area gets a better job than another,” Hyatt said. “If it’s a violation, you’re going to get a notice no matter where you live.”
Hyatt said Southwest Little Rock has four alert centers, each with an “alert center facilitator” who can call in code inspectors whenever they see a violation. Last year, her records show that code enforcement handed out 1,119 tickets citywide, for everything from abandoned autos to high grass to graffiti. Many of those violators end up in the city’s environmental court. Established in 1994, the court is able to penalize property owners for code violations.
Acknowledging that even the thousand-odd tickets handed out is a small number when faced with the problems of inner city Little Rock, Hyatt said it is up to citizens to help keep their neighborhoods in good order.
“You’ve got to get involved,” she said. “If you don’t get involved and you allow your street to start running down, and you don’t take any effort to correct and to help neighbors and that sort of thing, it’s going to falter. You’ve got to be involved, and if you don’t it’s everybody’s fault in the neighborhood.”
For Luke Skrable, however, getting involved hasn’t been enough so far (not that that’s going to stop him, he said). Finding the proof — even after two years of complaining to everyone who’ll listen — is still as easy as looking out his window.
“What I have a problem with is paying my taxes and not getting anything in return,” he said. “When you take my money and you don’t deliver the services, I look at it as stealing.”