Since 1982, I have lived in Midtown, always within five blocks of Overton Park. I walk or bike it at least once a week and drive past it nearly every day. My children went to school at Snowden, across the street from it.
Which leads me to say this: In 34 years Overton Park has never looked better, and that goes for every part of it and the main approaches from east and west. The park is one of the best public attractions in Memphis, thanks to the efforts of activists, donors and volunteers, city government, the zoo board, and the Overton Park Conservancy. It is way more than the greensward controversy that has gotten so much recent attention. History suggests that this too shall pass.
It is conventional wisdom today that stopping the interstate from going through 3.8 miles of Midtown was a good idea, but 40 years ago some very public-minded influential Memphians thought the highway should be finished, including banker Ron Terry, developer Jack Belz, Memphis City Beautiful, the Memphis City Council, trucking companies, the newspapers, and the NAACP. No one can say what might have been if Memphis had followed the lead of other cities bisected by interstate highways.
But we should be able to agree that, over time, Memphis made the best of it.
When I moved to Memphis, one year after the Federal Highway Administration officially killed the road, Overton Park and Midtown looked very different. Sam Cooper Boulevard (the name was rarely used) was a dismal entryway from East Memphis. You crossed railroad tracks, cursed the trains that made you late, and took blighted Broad Street or Summer Avenue to get to East Parkway, where you could cut through a corner of the park to get to North Parkway. Now you take a nicely landscaped boulevard to East Parkway and see the bike path and park entrance marked by an eye-catching bike sculpture. On Broad Street there are dozens of new businesses.
West of the park, back then, there was a wide swath of empty land where houses were razed to make way for the aborted interstate. Today you’ll find infill housing built to historic guidelines and hundreds of new Midtown families and homeowners.
You could drive your car day and night through the Old Forest, which was a trysting place. Walking through it with children was not a great idea unless you wanted to give them a lecture on sex education as well as trees and plants. A Memphis Park Commission-proposed “People Day” led to an eventual ban on cars and the cleaned-up trails for people walking, jogging, or riding bikes. For a while after that, cruising shifted to the other side of the park, but that, too, went away thanks to some subtle changes in policy and road design.
The park playgrounds were pretty crummy. My daughter’s elementary school class found a body in the one on East Parkway on a field trip. And the one by Rainbow Lake and its parking lot was mainly popular with single men sitting in cars. Rainbow Lake itself was a mud hole. That playground is now one of the best in town, and Rainbow Lake got a makeover.
The Overton Park Shell was shut down and might have been destroyed but for a “Save Our Shell” campaign. Happily, it succeeded and the Levitt Shell is home to free concerts and getting even better.
The zoo was ordinary, at best, with a nondescript main entrance and animals in cages and concrete pools. Thanks to donors, visitors can now see pandas, big cats, elk, wolves, sea lions, and exotic birds in realistic replicas of native environments.
The Memphis College of Art, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Veterans Plaza, the gardens — all of them are nicer, much nicer, than they were 30 years ago. The public and private sectors can share the credit for all of this.
The greensward is only part of the park, and the park is only part of a city with much bigger problems of blight, crime, property taxes, and schools. Viewed in historical perspective, Overton Park is one of the best success stories Memphis has.