Friday, May 6, 2016

Turning a Corner On The People’s Green

As my knowledge of Memphis deepens, so does my opinion. So here goes, I’m jumpin’ in - it was inevitable that I would eventually drive a stake in the ground with my own personal take on something that is of concern to many people, including myself.

I am talking of course about the battle between Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo over the Greensward, the open public green space that is the beating and bleeding heart of Overton Park.

If my website and blog are doing the trick, then you are new-er to Memphis, a Memphis advocate, a believer in Memphis, or all of the above. However you categorize yourself, understanding the story of Overton Park will provide the proper context for what’s happening now. 

The Memphis Zoo and Overton Park were birthed more or less together in 1906. By a few heave-ho's the park came first. Our historic Overton Park is Memphis’ version of New York’s Central Park, and was designed as such. It’s on the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s a state and city landmark. 

Overton Park Map, 1906 or thereabouts

The zoo came to life right after. 

While the famous Memphian, businessman, and outdoorsman Colonel Robert Galloway was busy helping orchestrate the opening of Overton Park, a Southern black bear named Natch (named for Natchez) was dropped off by a neighbor into the lap of the northwest corner of the new park. Galloway and Natch the attraction and a $1200 donation turned it into a zoo.

The first zoo attraction, the caged black bears
(Historic Images)

In 1906 the Memphis Zoo and its caged bears occupied that small northwest corner of the park’s 342 acres. Today that original plot of maybe an acre has been expanded to a footprint of, according to Wikipedia, over 76 acres, or almost a quarter of the entire park. 

The Overton Park story is not unique in battles fought for the survival of other famous and historic city parks. Chicago’s Grant Park faces generational battles over development, Central Park has waged many battles from 1930’s shanty town “Hoovervilles” to negligence and crime in the 1970’s and 80’s, and Crotona Park in the Bronx was split by the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950’s. Overton Park had its own historic battle in 1971 over the fight to stop Interstate 40 from being built through the park’s center, and another lesser-known fight just a few years ago to keep the Greensward from being developed for use as a storm-water retention basin.

And now the Zoo.  

An early-70's map of Overton Park with the proposed I-40
route superimposed over the image. Notice the size of the
zoo in the upper-left, northwest corner of the park.

The zoo is both a huge Memphis success story and now the park’s unfortunate adversary. The zoo continued its success through the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and continued to expand. The zoo was something Memphians in the ’70’s could be proud of, especially after the trauma of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the demolition of Beale St. and demise of downtown, and the migration to the suburbs into the ’80’s. 

With the zoo’s success came expansion. And then automobiles. The once vibrant Memphis trolley system had long given way to people in their cars, and with the increased parking needs into the 70’s the zoo began encroaching onto the park’s only wide-open green space, the Greensward, using it for overflow parking. 

This arrangement seemed just fine in the 70’s and 80’s, because many people in those days had the perception that the park wasn’t all safe. Long-time midtowners tell me the park “had its diversity, sure, but mostly it was safe.” But I’ve read and heard other people say it was a drug haven, dirty, and a place for random crime and as a pickup place for “those people, the gays.” Meanwhile the zoo and its parking lot seemed to be a safe haven for suburbanites from East Memphis, Germantown, and growing suburbs like those in Cordova or SouthHaven. 

But today is not the 70’s. Today, after year’s of work by the former Memphis Park Commission and now the Overton Park Conservancy, the park is as safe as ever. The historic old-growth forest is vibrant and a refuge from the city for walking, jogging and biking, the eastern part of the park is filled with picnickers on spring and summer weekends, and families have a safe playground and for their kids and “bark” park for their four-legged family members. It has its 9-hole public golf course, the historic Brooks Museum, the Levitt Shell where Elvis held his first public performance, a veteran’s plaza and memorial, and little Rainbow Lake.

The Greensward, the way it should stay

And the Greensward. It’s used for picnics and birthdays, rugby and soccer games, occasional festivals like this weekend’s Latino Fest, or for a little frisbee or playing catch. It is indeed like Central Park’s great Sheep Meadow, an open do-what-you-want space, and for some, their only real backyard.

And the zoo wants it. 

The historic Greensward, as the Zoo prefers it
(from The Commercial Appeal)

I’ve done my fair share of research, and it’s head-spinning the fights that have been waged in just the last 8-10 years alone for this precious stretch of historically-landmarked lawn. 2008, ’10, ’12, ’14, this year - even years seem ripe for fighting - all have featured fights in the press, in city council chambers, on the lawn itself, over this treasure of acreage meant to be kept open. In it’s original design, Overton Park’s Greensward should not be tampered with. Like the old-growth forest and classic framework of the park within the city, the Greensward is the centerpiece of the park’s history and legacy.

And the zoo seems to be silently lobbying to take it.

Unlike the very public battles that are being waged to Save the Greensward, or to Stop Hurting Overton Park, the suggested and feasible alternatives to parking on the grass (there are many), or petitions on or the moneys being raised for legal fees to fight this use of public land in courts, the zoo has been noticeably silent through much of this. With minor exceptions and through issued statements - not public discourse - the zoo has stayed behind closed doors on this issue. 

Which lends to the belief shared by many that the zoo - and namely the villain in this fight, zoo president Chuck Brady - has the city and future zoo development securely in their back pockets. I’ve talked to many residents. I’ve jumped into the many FaceBook discussions. I’ve read opinions and articles in the Flyer, Smart City Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis Daily News. I’ve been to city council meetings. I’ve read comments from those who have said that the land is “underutilized.” (Huh? Why, because someone isn’t paying to use it?)

All these signs point to one disturbing observation: Brady and the Zoo are on a path toward taking the Greensward. 

All the trends throughout the years support this. There have been petitions and protests and noise and stand-in’s and banners and re-directing traffic and bumper stickers and lawsuits filed. But there is only one constant, and that is zoo expansion. First chunks of land in the northern part of the park, then huge swaths of the old-growth forest, and now the Greensward.

Part of the old-growth forest after being chopped down
for more zoo growth. (

Zoo-claimed forest in green (
If the zoo took the Greensward, center, there would be
no open greenspace left in the park.

The zoo supposedly has a 10-year plan they won’t publicize. Future expansion into a foot-print that currently belongs to the park. And the zoo has donors. Big ticket donors. Donors who can influence campaigns. And a city council on its side whose majority is either complacent in letting the zoo have its way, or is outright activist in pushing through motions that override a mediation process designed to find a solution to not just the zoo’s parking issues, but to the entire park’s parking overflow problem. 
And I keep coming back to the same thought: Zoo, Greensward. And more.

I said once that Memphis is moving forward, progressing and developing while honoring its history, and it’s doing all that despite itself. “Itself” seems to be those silent but powerful movers and shakers who shape the future of cities, sometimes in the wrong direction. While the rest of us rejoice in the development of Broad Avenue, Crosstown Arts, Soulsville USA, Overton Park, Cooper-Young, Downtown and South Main, there are factions who seem intent on pushing the city in another direction. While many of us marvel at the repurposing of the old warehouses around South Main and the re-use of historic buildings Downtown, there are those who would just as well tear them down.

I haven’t figured out the why's yet - well experience tells me exactly why, but I'll save that for another time. Overton Park is a land-mark, not a car-mark. It’s a haven for people and families and the great outdoors, not underutilized empty space waiting to be developed or paved over by more corporate zoo interests.

And I won't be falling for the "there are more important things than some park lawn to worry about in this city" arguments that I've heard. Everyone must do their part to fight for the present and futures of their own neighborhoods. You fight the fight you are equipped to fight.

And so my discoveries continue.


  1. Very good read! A few quibbles from the grammar police...Southaven has only one H. But you're new, I'll give you that.
    Welcome to Memphis!

    1. Thanks Karen. I'm very happy to be here!
      The grammar police are on vacation when it comes to blogs. As long as readers keep reading, I'm happy. Thank you for reading and commenting! I'll note the H in Southaven.

  2. Great in depth view of the history of Overton Park and the Zoo!

    This struggle is definitely symbolic of the struggle between the traditional leadership and grass roots (i.e. people passionate about loving Memphis). Hopefully from all this mess a healthy collaborative partnership between the grassroots and existing leadership continues to emerge.

    The course that this process has taken is very revealing of, as you mentioned, how the powers that be are accustomed to running this city through our elected officials. Memphis is on the verge of a renaissance and this power structure is the last vestige that must be deconstructed in order for this city to continue on its current transforming course.

    Perhaps we are only one election cycle away from electing city officials that will serve as grassroots catalysts rather then obstructionists.