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Living in Two States at Once in Texarkana, Texas-Arkansas - 2003-11-02

Is it possible to be in two places at once? VOA's Ted Landphair says it is - if you're in the southwest city of Texarkana, which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas.

There's one Texarkana community, but two cities: Texarkana, Texas, population 34,000. And Texarkana, Arkansas, with 23,000 people. Rather than twin cities, they're more like Siamese twins, joined at a single, wide street. As you might guess, it's called Stateline Avenue, which runs into the heart of downtown. There, it dead-ends at a historic federal courthouse and post office that's half in Arkansas, half in Texas. They've even drawn the state line down the middle of the post office floor.

Upstairs in the courtroom, the judge's chair is bolted to the floor, so he or she is always sitting in two states. And outside, someone painted a boundary line, where visitors queue up to photograph each other standing in two places at once, with one foot in the Lone Star State of Texas and the other in the Natural State of Arkansas.

If you ask most folks in town, there's only one Texarkana - the historic crossroads city where eight railroads and four U.S. highways once converged.

Yet Texarkana, Texas, has its own mayor, police department, and fire service. So does Texarkana, Arkansas. Each has a big high school, whose sports teams cross the state line several times each year to play the other Texarkana's school. Most of the shopping centers and all the car dealerships are in Texas, and many of the nicest residential neighborhoods are in Arkansas.

But the two cities long ago decided they'd better have only one chamber of commerce to promote the good life in this northeast corner of Texas - or southwest corner of Arkansas if you prefer. Chamber president James Cherry admits that this schizophrenic civic existence can confuse newcomers.

"We do have, thank God, one water department," he says. "They figured that that made sense. I work over on the Texas side about 35 feet [eleven meters]. But when I get up to go get a hamburger across the street at the local Burger King [restaurant], I buy an Arkansas hamburger. You can buy a drink of liquor in Arkansas, but you can't buy a lottery ticket. But you can buy a lottery ticket in Texas, but you can't buy a drink."

Arkansas imposes an income tax, while Texas does not. To make sure everybody doesn't pack up and move across the line into Texas to avoid the tax, the Arkansas legislature in Little Rock passed an exemption. If you're an Arkansan living within the city limits of Texarkana, you pay no state income tax.

Texarkana, Arkansas', mayor, Horace Shipp, is an avid collector of vintage postcards. "Back in 1912 or '15, somewhere through there, there was one of a man in Arkansas and his ass in Texas - a donkey," he says. "And then they would flop the thing over if you didn't prefer it that way. And through the years, it was updated, and there's probably twenty-five different versions."

Mayor Shipp says people in town don't even pay attention when they're crossing from one state into another. At nine o'clock on a Saturday morning, he told me he'd already been over to Texas and back four or five times.

Each Texarkana needs the other, he says. The airport's in Arkansas, and most college and medical facilities are in Texas.

There was a time when Texas and Arkansas laws were so different that criminals could play one side against the other. "Some things were legal on one side of the state line and not legal on the other side. And people who did not mind violating the law would take advantage of that and commit an act and then run to the other side," says Mayor Shipp. "And as long as they could escape across the border there - although it was just a seam in the middle of the street - in many cases, they would not be pursued."

These days, fleeing crooks cannot thumb their noses at their pursuers across the line. The two cities arranged a mutual-aid agreement that allows hot pursuit of lawbreakers from one state to the other.

Investigators from both Texarkana police departments work in the same room in yet another building that's bisected by the state line. They share information on cases and respond together to the scene of major crimes.

There's just one police dispatch center in the building, and a single jail. But prisoners of one Texarkana or the other cannot sneak over to the other side of the jail and claim they are off-limits to authorities. By law when you're in the Texarkana slammer, you're in BOTH Texas and Arkansas.

Still, Mayor Shipp says when cities ask for prisoners to help with clean-up work around town, they have to be careful. One day, he recalls, "we were about to get the prisoners loaded up, and they said, 'Now exactly where are we going?' And I said, 'to the Perot Theater.' They said, 'Can't do that. That's in Texas. If we take them across the line, they do not have to return! We would have to go through an extradition process. So that was the end of that."

Texarkana, Arkansas, police chief Robert Harrison's department carries an extra burden because his is the wet side of town, as it's called, referring to the fact that it's legal to sell liquor, wine, and beer, while the Texas side is dry.

James Bramlett, the mayor of Texarkana, Texas, says people are sometimes amazed that he and Mayor Shipp ride together in parades and get along famously. Once, he says, the organizers of a convention in town deliberately kept the two mayors away from each other on opposite sides of a room, thinking one would be angry that the other had been invited.

"We just both started laughing, you know. We're in this together," says Mayor Bramlett. "Whatever benefits my side is going to benefit the other side. Our kids grow up together. They may go to the same church but different schools - Texas and Arkansas, different neighborhoods. But we all come together in a certain cohesiveness as a community."

Mayor Bramlett says he'll work just as hard to attract a small business that wants to locate on the Arkansas side of town, because many of the new families will live - and all of them will spend money - in Texarkana, Texas, as well.

Once, in the early twentieth century, for the only time in U.S. history, two sitting United States senators lived in the same town at the same time. You guessed it: When Morris Sheppard wasn't home in Texarkana, Texas, and William Kirby back in Texarkana, Arkansas, they were in Washington together, representing Texarkana, USA.