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Samantha Crespo | January, 2019

We talk about a river mighty enough to bring people, their dreams and cultural traditions to the city. But sometimes, the river is just a river: the perfect place to walk, launch a paddle trip or watch the sun set.

Memphis’ first city plan, in fact, sketched out land for public enjoyment. Like most everything in 19th century Memphis, the parcels clung to, or close to, the river: a public landing, promenade and downtown squares. Court Square is one you can still walk through today—maybe surprisingly, considering the chaos that plagued Memphis in the second half of the 19th century. But by the turn of the 20th, Memphis had its charter back and was rebuilding. Nationally, the City Beautiful movement was stirring. The Memphis Park Commission was created in 1900 and in 1901, land was dedicated for our first two parks: Overton and Riverside, known today as Martin Luther King Riverside Park. 

A few years later, a black bear named Natch could be found tethered to a tree in Overton Park. The Park Commission helped fund what would become the Memphis Zoo in 1910, creating a home for Natch and a major amenity for Overton Park. When the Depression brought New Deal labor to Memphis, the zoo got its iconic stone lions and several animal habitats. But the Civilian Conservation Corps also set to work creating new parks for Memphis: T.O. Fuller and Meeman-Shelby Forest. These are parks you can still visit today: T.O. Fuller’s trails lead to the Chucalissa Archaeological Site, a prehistoric village unearthed by CCC laborers digging for the park’s pool; Meeman-Shelby Forest’s trails, some cut by the laborers, rise and fall dramatically over 13,000-plus acres. 

While Memphians had two new green spaces to gather in, the parks exposed a rift in the city: T.O. Fuller, named for an African-American educator, was built by and for African-Americans; Meeman-Shelby, named for a white journalist/environmentalist, was built by and for whites. Our parks were finally desegregated in the 1960s. But by then, another national trend had hit home: Green space was losing ground to “progress.” Overton Park was proposed as the site of a new connector in the nation’s interstate system. A large-scale residential development threatened to erase thousands of undeveloped acres in east Memphis. 

And then Memphis did what it does best: the thing you least expect. One person stood up. Two. Then more. In the case of Overton Park, it took neighbors, a local attorney and more than 10 years of litigation stretching all the way to the Supreme Court. They prevailed in 1971: Interstate 40 took a different path and Overton Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it remains home to the Memphis Zoo, a circa-1912 golf course and the Levitt Shell, that Works Progress Administration project that hosted Elvis’ first paid gig. It’s also home to a new playground, dog park and large-scale public art that invites hikers, bikers and runners into the Old Forest State Natural Area, designated in 2011.  

The triumph of Overton Park inspired grassroots environmentalism across the city. Citizens founded the Wolf River Conservancy to protect land and waterways branching off of the Mississippi—saving a particularly fragile, mystical channel nicknamed “the Ghost” and creating the Wolf River Greenway, a protected path that the organization continues to extend along the Wolf’s banks. Those threatened acres in east Memphis? Advocates established the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, debuted the Shelby Farms Greenline—a 6.5-mile rails-to-trails initiative welcoming people to walk, run and cycle through the heart of the city, added an innovative playground and treetop zip line course and unveiled a $70 million overhaul. By 2016, park-goers were enjoying an enlarged main lake ringed by brand-new amenities: a visitor center, a lawn offering free fitness classes, a boat rental kiosk and launch, picnic pavilions, trails and plantings. 

Entering our bicentennial year then, the conversation has evolved from saving and improving our parklands to better connect them. There was a time (2008) when Memphis was considered one of America’s worst cities for cyclists. The Shelby Farms Greenline helped flip the script, as did local advocates who pushed local officials to add a network of bike lanes throughout the city. In 2012, Bicycling magazine gave Memphis a new distinction: the country’s most improved city for cycling. Since then, the Shelby Farms Greenline has expanded and another rails-to-trails project has linked up: In 2016, a century-old train and automobile bridge was reborn as Big River Crossing. One mile in length, it’s now the longest pedestrian and bike bridge across the Mississippi River—and a popular path for users of the Explore Bike Share system that launched in the city in 2018. 

That brings us back to the river—are you surprised? You might be if you haven’t visited Memphis in a while. From Big River Crossing, folks are connecting to wide riverfront paths using Explore Bike Share (and shared scooters). Outfitters are guiding paddling excursions in the harbor. Kids are running through River Garden, a playful gathering space on the Mississippi. Debuting just before our bicentennial, the park is one piece of a current plan to re-activate our riverfront, where it all began.