It’s strange to hear people talk about history in West Little Rock, a place that seems to have sprung up, polished and prefabricated, in the past 25 years or so. During a recent press conference at the Pankey Community Center at 13700 Cantrell Road, however, history — even ugly history — was on display as around 30 lifelong residents of the tiny, historically African-American community spoke out against plans to put a Little Rock Police Department Substation in the building that had once been planned as a community center, but which has been boarded up for years after funding ran out.
The community of Pankey was founded by Josephine Pankey, an African-American woman who bought land in what was then the wilderness far to the west of the city in 1907. According to residents who spoke at the press conference, Pankey lived in Little Rock until 1927, but decided to decamp to the country following the death of John Carter, a black man lynched in downtown Little Rock after the murder of a 12-year-old white girl. A mob that approached 5,000 people watched as Carter was hung, shot and dragged through the streets before his body was set ablaze at Ninth Street and Broadway, with vigilantes tearing wood from black homes and businesses to keep the pyre going.
Seeking refuge after the lynching, Pankey uprooted and moved to the woods, offering land on the cheap to any black family who wanted to join her. She donated still more land for a school, churches, parks and other community focal points. Little Rock, however, crept steadily west. Today, the Pankey community is surrounded by high-end apartment complexes and strip malls, and sits across the street from a supermarket.
Venture down into Pankey itself, however, and it looks more like an impoverished Delta hamlet instead of part of the high-end area of a major metropolitan city. Two bridges over a creek there have been out for years. When it rains, water floods a park and flushes rocks across one street so deep that it’s impassible. Residents say they usually have to get a resident’s backhoe to clear the rocks. Many of the homes in Pankey still depend on trucked-in propane for heat, and trees growing up around powerlines put the community’s electricity at risk every time it storms.
As traffic poured past Pankey on Cantrell, resident Barbara Douglas, who is heading the effort to fight a police substation there, outlined her concerns, focusing on the November 2013 agreement between the city of Little Rock and the Pankey Community Improvement Association Inc. — a group that Douglas claims does not represent the residents of Pankey. It consisted of “people who have not lived here, [or] never lived here,” she said.
In the agreement, the city agrees to rent the building for 25 years, with the possibility of a 25-year extension. The agreed rent for the first five years will be $13 per square foot, jumping to $13.50 per square foot each year after that. Of the 6,415 square feet in the building, 3,815 square feet will be used as a police substation, while 2,600 will be used as a community center. As stipulated in the agreement, the city will allow “controlled access” to the community center for 10 Pankey residents at a time, with those 10 required to be identified to the city by name, address and date of birth before they are issued access cards that allow them to enter the building. Police officers, meanwhile, will have “access to the entire structure, including the Community Center, if available and not booked by the Association, for Law enforcement purposes.” The city says that it will seek permission before using the Pankey Community Center area or equipment “whenever possible.”
Douglas, who married into the community over 50 years ago, still owns property across the street from the proposed substation. She says she believes the neglect she sees in the Pankey community is part of a plan to lower property values and drive out residents so the land there can be bought cheaply for development.
“When the bridge is out, the park is flooding, and you’re smelling other peoples’ sewage,” she said, “what would you want to do with your family and your children? That’s not an accident. That’s intentional.”
Douglas said Pankey isn’t a high crime area and doesn’t need a permanent police presence nearby. She said that the substation will only increase traffic in the area and will possibly require the installation of a traffic light, which will force the city to take land from residents along the highway.
City Director Brad Cazort, whose Ward 4 includes Pankey, said that since he’s been on the board, Pankey has been trying to build a community center. “They basically had two factions: one group that owned the land and one group that wanted to build the building,” he said. “They got some money and they tried, and it sat dormant for a long time, because they couldn’t finish it.”
Cazort said that when voters approved money for a police substation in West Little Rock, the unused building in Pankey was a logical place for it. Until recently, he said, he had heard only excitement at the news of getting a substation there. Currently, the closest police station to West Little Rock is near Baptist Health Medical Center on Kanis Road.
“All of this talk lately that I’ve read in the paper about being upset with the police being there, that’s brand new,” Cazort said. “I’ve never heard it from anybody before. It surprises me, because if the city wasn’t coming there and doing this, there would be no community center at all.” Putting the substation there with an attached community center, Cazort says, is a way to kill two birds with one stone. Despite the opposition, he said, “it’s going to be there, because the city needs a police substation out west, and Pankey needs a community center.”
As for why Pankey’s infrastructure seems to be sorely lacking when compared to the surrounding area, including the flooding issues and the bridges out, Cazort says that there is money for improvements but nobody in Pankey has ever asked for infrastructure funding.
“There are issues there like there are in any part of town,” he said, “but we’ve gone through two cycles now of infrastructure requests from everybody in all seven wards. We’ve got infrastructure money from the sales tax, but we need recommendations on how to spend it. We’ve never gotten a recommendation from anybody in Pankey about things they’d like to see improved there. … I’m not saying they don’t need it, but they haven’t asked for it. They haven’t come up and said, ‘These are high-priority projects.’ “