Urban Renewal and the Dreamland Ballroom

As in many cities of segregated America, Little Rock Arkansas had a thriving African-American community. The West 9th Street neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown was filled with black-owned businesses and professional offices. The Dreamland Ballroom headlined acts such as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Etta James, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner et cetera. Urban renewal came to the neighborhood in the 1950s. It came with a vengeance after the integration of Central High School made news around the world.

Originally termed “slum clearance,” the more genteel label “urban renewal” saw the eviction of black families and their relocation to housing projects further east. The Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) had authority to purchase –requiring homeowners to sell at assessed price – and demolish swaths of “blighted” areas. The LRHA director went on record that, “the city of Little Rock through its various agencies including the housing authority systematically worked to continue segregation” through its slum clearance and public housing projects. The city built two new high schools: Horace Mann High in the mostly black eastern part of Little Rock, and Hall High in the white western edge. Construction in the 1960s of Interstates 630 and 430 solidified the de facto boundary between white and black Little Rock.

Fast forward to 1991. Kerry McCoy, founder and owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner, was looking for a new headquarters for her company. The Taborian Hall, built in 1918 by an African-American contractor for the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, had stood derelict on West 9th for decades; it even lacked a roof when McCoy purchased it. In addition to the lodge, the building in its  glory days housed the USO, the Gem Pharmacy, medical and dentist offices and the Dreamland Ballroom. The flag business has thrived and Kerry McCoy has steadily progressed with making the Dreamland a viable operation. (You can schedule your wedding reception there.)

While full-scale gentrification has yet to come to the West 9th district, the neighborhood’s changes and Dreamland’s resuscitation was the subject of a PBS documentary.

 

 

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