This is the Arkansas Delta, which roughly covers the eastern third of the state and is home to some of the world’s best soil, deposited over thousands of years by the Mississippi River.
For all the aplomb the fall drives of Northwest Arkansas receive, a Delta drive on a spring morning is the best road tour Arkansas has to offer. Taking the curves of U.S. 49 on the last Monday of March, I head southeast from Brinkley through the countryside, past hulking farm machinery turning over the fields, preparing for a summer crop of corn, cotton and soybeans. Cruise set slightly above the speed limit. Driver’s side window down. Bob Dylan and The Band shuffling through “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
My destination is Helena-West Helena. The two cities are one, connected by a hyphen and a 2006 consolidation, but still different. Different ZIP codes, to be sure, but geographically speaking, too.
West Helena is of the flatness of the Arkansas Delta. Helena is tucked between the kudzu-draped bluffs of the last fold of Crowley’s Ridge and the mighty Mississippi. Oakland Avenue twists between the two, connecting Helena east and west.
My tour guide in Helena-West Helena is the combined municipality’s city attorney, Chalk Mitchell. We’ve agreed to meet at 11 a.m. at his Cherry Street law office, but I arrive early, interested in surveying downtown Helena.
As I pull into my parking spot on a Cherry Street that is just coming alive for the week, KFFA-FM, 103.1—the FM side of the famed station that broadcasts King Biscuit Time, the longest-running daily American radio show, on KFFA-AM, 1360—gives the midmorning crop report.
“May bean is up 6 1/2. … May cotton is up,” I learn, and more crops and numbers unfold over the radio waves.
The Nicholas Hotel, the three-story brick structure I park in front of, is empty, but plastered on its windows are posters from Main Street Helena proclaiming: “This building is not empty. It is full of opportunity. Imagine your business in downtown Helena.”
To walk Cherry Street, the main business drag in Helena, is to walk the past, when Helena was a bustling river city. Even the Mississippi Blues Trail marker found on Cherry Street notes that Helena was “once known as a ‘wide-open’ hot spot for music, gambling and nightlife.”
The juke joints and other late-night attractions are gone, but one can imagine the past and what the future might hold. Opportunity lives in these buildings, even the ones with weather-faded wooden boards covering their windows.
A new century has brought new possibilities. Start with the KIPP Delta Public Schools, for instance. Founded in Helena in 2002, the charter school now serves roughly 1,400 students at five campuses in Helena-West Helena and Blytheville. The school will open a sixth campus in Forrest City this summer.
KIPP nearly fills up a city block on Cherry Street, and children from the KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy, playing along the river’s bluff during a morning recess, fill the downtown area with laughs and screams.
The air hums with potential.
As I walk across Cherry Street toward Chalk Mitchell’s office, he arrives shortly before 11 a.m. in a Ford F-150.
“We’ve been here, I guess, not a hundred years, but we are working on it,” he says. “I have some roots, and I don’t plan on giving them up. When I move from Helena again, they’ll take me away in a box.”
The 66-year-old Mitchell is a gifted storyteller. He offers his personal history in 30 minutes, making it seem like five.
He’s a Morehouse College, Georgetown University and Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate, and a U.S. Army veteran, whose career in federal government includes a tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney in Little Rock and another stint as an assistant U.S. attorney in Denver.
Mitchell returned to Helena in 1997. He knew he would.
“I always wanted to come back to Arkansas,” he says. “I think it’s always been in my spirits. I consider this place as having given me my start. I feel a debt to this community.”
On his return, Mitchell started repaying that debt. City attorney, sure, and a private-practice law office, but he’s a board member for KIPP, the King Biscuit Blues Festival and more. He’s a former member of the Main Street Helena board.
“Hopefully, in the 18 years I’ve been back, in some small way, I’ve shown that you can return,” he says. “That you can go home again. That in some small way, you can make a contribution.”
Our first stop is Delta Gypsy, a few doors down from Mitchell’s office. Gloria Higginbotham runs the tidy little gift shop, red brick with flowers out front. It’s been open for seven years and offers items from jewelry and pottery to scarves and body lotion.
Higginbotham grew up in Marvell, just up the road from Helena-West Helena, but possesses strong Helena-West Helena ties, including memories of cruising Cherry Street during her high school years—an experience she likens to American Graffiti—when she and her friends would “almost make the cars run hot because you never got to second gear.”
“If you wanted a 5-carat diamond, you didn’t have to go to Memphis or Little Rock,” she says. “You could get it here. If you wanted the finest of clothes, we had it. It was a very affluent downtown. I did not realize you could look at the buildings in a small town and see how elaborate they are to know the wealth of your town. We really had an extraordinary downtown.”
He’s mainly referring to the King Biscuit Blues Festival—celebrating its 30th anniversary this October—which annually floods downtown Helena with blues fans. But the city’s connection to the genre spans generations. The music was born in the early 20th century in the fields scattered around the Delta, and has been celebrated on King Biscuit Time since the 1940s.
Mitchell talks of the blues, the festival and Helena as we walk Cherry Street. The main festival stage, used for other events throughout the year, anchors one end of the street, at the opposite end of Cherry Street from Ernest Moore Viquesney’s sculpture The Spirit of the American Doughboy, a pressed copper sculpture designed to honor veterans of World War I.
When asked to name his favorite musical artist, Mitchell admits he’s biased—it’s Red Holloway, the jazz saxophonist from Helena. But Mitchell is also a fan of Bobby Rush and Taj Mahal, who is headlining this year’s festival.
“You judge artists by how friendly they are,” he says. “Some of them are not very friendly. They really don’t want to be bothered but get paid, perform and go home. But Taj is a real friendly guy.”
We stop in at the King Biscuit Blues Festival office, which is in a renovated building on Phillips Street, a side street off Cherry that has been nicknamed Biscuit Row and is filled with rehabilitated buildings. Old becoming new again.
The office’s walls are covered in posters from the festival’s previous 29 years, and the attendees pictured are a who’s who of the blues, everyone from North Mississippi hill country bluesman T-Model Ford to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Buddy Guy. But Mitchell is quick to point out that the blues is not just a relic of the past. He mentions Marcus Cartwright, a 20-something native of the Arkansas Delta who is making a name for himself and playing his part in keeping the blues alive.
We walk past the Delta Cultural Center, a museum opened in 1990 dedicated to the history of the Arkansas Delta, where weekdays, starting at 12:15 p.m., “Sunshine” Sonny Payne broadcasts King Biscuit Time. Payne is live on the air as we walk by, as he has been since 1951.
Chintan Desai came to Helena-West Helena not for the blues but for KIPP. A California native, he’s now manager for community partnerships for Teach For America-Arkansas, the state chapter of the national teacher corps that brings educators to low-income communities.
Since Teach for America first started in 1992 with a few dozen teachers in the Arkansas Delta, the corps has expanded. Now it is a mainstay, spread out across the Delta, with hundreds of teachers reaching thousands of children.
Desai works out of Teach for America’s Hunt Education Center on Missouri Street, at the southern end of Cherry Street. A community hub, as it calls itself, the center—just opened in December—is in a former furniture store and is the first purchased building in the history of Teach for America, says Desai, a University of California-Davis graduate.
The center offers residents and visitors a spot for socializing and holding meetings, and rotates artwork on its walls, promoting student artwork one month and community artists the next.
“We purchased it here in Helena because we saw the opportunity and because of the long-standing relationship we have with this town,” he says. “It’s a place we felt very comfortable and proud to put down roots in.”
After lunch at El Rio Lindo, a Mexican restaurant on Cherry Street, Mitchell directs us toward KIPP’s central office. He wants to introduce me to Scott Shirey, the executive director of the charter school.
Shirey is out, but Matt Colburn, chief operating officer, aptly fills in.
Colburn gives an update on where the school stands at present. By the fall, enrollment is expected to be around 1,500, which is extraordinary, given that they started with fewer than 100 in 2006. But what is truly extraordinary about this central-office visit is the building that it inhabits. It’s an old warehouse. “Reclaimed,” as Mitchell calls it. The beams across the ceiling are as wide as couches. The wooden floors are scuffed from decades of manual laborers walking over it, but still sturdy.
As Mitchell says, they don’t build them like they used to. Colburn nods in agreement. “It takes a lot of courage on the part of the community to keep these buildings,” he says.
And that’s the lesson here. Add a little courage to opportunity, and you get what Cherry Street is aiming for. Possibilities start popping up. Potential becomes tangible.
That’s what Mitchell sees as he walks his city.
“I see Helena as having a lot of opportunity,” he says. “I compare it to the phoenix. I think it will rise again. I just pray it will be during my lifetime.”