Park It Here
The Overton Park Conservancy is the newest caretaker for the city's 11-year-old oasis.
Volunteers replant formal gardens at Overton Park
photographs by Melissa McMasters | Overton Park Conservancy
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In November of last year, Memphis celebrated Overton Park’s 111th birthday. On 347 acres of land known as Lea Woods, in what was then considered the northeastern part of Memphis, George Kessler of Kansas City, Missouri, designed a park that was to be connected to downtown via parkways and would eventually be swallowed whole by the city, burning bright in the belly as an oasis among asphalt, concrete, cars and steel.
A month after that auspicious birthday, the Overton Park Conservancy celebrated its one-year anniversary. The Memphis Park Commission was dissolved by the Herenton administration in 2000 and folded into city government. In December 2011, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to allow the Conservancy to take over the management of the 184 acres of public parkland including the Greensward, Rainbow Lake, the formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area, and the East Parkway picnic area. Though the entities share grounds and work together, OPC has no authority over the Levitt Shell, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art, Memphis Zoo, or the Overton Park Golf Course. The agreement between the city of Memphis and OPC is a 10-year contract.
“The Park Commission are assured of the fact that they can accomplish but little unless supported by a strong, favorable public sentiment,” wrote Judge L.B. McFarland, the first chairman of the fledgling Memphis Park Commission, in 1900. “The people must encourage and help the Commission and the administration in this work if they want a beautiful city.”
It was with this very sentiment that the newly created Overton Park Conservancy undertook a survey in 2011 to find what citizens wanted from their park. “The first five-year capital project list, and the major improvements that needed to be made in terms of operations, emerged out of the results of that survey,” says Tina Sullivan, executive director of the conservancy. “That list has been what we’ve worked from.”
In terms of improving the day-to-day park experience, Sullivan says and all seem to agree that the first year has been a resounding success. “People wanted a cleaner park, they wanted the litter picked up, the grass cut, and they wanted restrooms,” she says. “So one of the first things we did was hire contractors to cut the grass on a regular schedule, take the trash out … and we have renovated the restrooms near Rainbow Lake. People are really happy about that.”
Beginning an organization of this sort is a daunting task, yet the conservancy, with the help of others, was “off to the races,” says George Cates, a board member who led the conservancy on an interim basis in the beginning. There are more than a hundred such conservancies in the country, Cates adds, and the leaders of Overton Park weren’t shy about asking for help, specifically from those of Forest Park in St. Louis and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. “They just opened their books to us. Anything they could tell us and coach us with, they did,” Cates says. “We had a database, if you will, to draw on so we didn’t have to go out and invent the wheel.”
While things such as cleanliness are noticed at street level, it is the big splash that gets people excited citywide. When standing on the second tee box of the municipal golf course within the park, one may now hear the happy yapping of dogs coming from the new dog park. With sponsorship from Hollywood Feed, one of the first major projects was building the Overton Park Dog Bark in June last year. “Overton Bark has been very popular; it’s brought new people to the park, and they’re very excited about it,” Sullivan says.