Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: Overton Park and how the good guys finally won

By Published: November 27, 2018 4:17 PM CT

With a new master plan for Overton Park in the works – the first in 30 years – what better time than now for Brooks Lamb’s new University of Tennessee Press book “Overton Park: A People’s History” to appear in Memphis bookstores?

I am one of the 76 (!) people Lamb thanks in the book’s acknowledgements section. If that constitutes a conflict of interest, so be it.

I prefer to think of it as a confluence of interest. I provided minor assistance to Lamb when he was a student at Rhodes College from 2013 to 2017 because I knew that anything he wrote about the park would be worth reading.

Overton Park enjoys pride of place in the saga of the Nelson family’s move from Nashville to Memphis. In the mid-1980s, we adopted both of our sons through an agency whose regional office was here. That meant frequent visits to Memphis, which in turn meant falling in love with the city.

Every visit involved a trip to Overton Park.

Lamb describes the ’80s and ’90s as bad times for the park, an era of neglect by the city government when the “park reached what was perhaps its lowest point” since its birth in 1901. It was so bad, he writes, that “new professors at nearby Rhodes College were even warned not to enter the park because, according to campus safety leaders, it just wasn’t safe.”

You couldn’t tell it by the Nelsons. The zoo was pretty good even before it became really great. The nine-hole golf course was beautiful, playable and cheap. The Brooks was the best art museum in the region.

And that’s not even counting Rainbow Lake, the Old Forest, the playground, and right across the street on North Parkway, the architecturally exquisite Rhodes campus, where apparently I never got the stranger-danger memo when I joined the faculty in 1991.

The heart of Lamb’s book and the reason Overton Park hit a late 20th-century slump are one and the same: the city fathers’ commitment to route I-40 through the heart of the park, with support from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the city’s newspapers and the trucking industry.

The rhetoric got a bit, shall we say, heated. Lamb quotes Transport Topics, the trucking industry’s trade journal, as decrying “the spilled innocent blood of those unfortunate individuals killed on overcrowded Memphis streets” in the absence of an interstate. As for opponents of the park route, the fevered editorialist charged, they were as bad as “the rabble-rousing street mob that clamored for the head of Jesus in Jerusalem.”

The so-called street mob was led by Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP), the first of the grassroots organizations that have arisen over the years to defend the 342-acre park’s integrity.

CPOP got nowhere in its effort to sway state and local politicians and bureaucrats. Happily, though, in 1966 Congress passed the Department of Transportation Act. One of the act’s stipulations was that federal money could not be used to build a highway on parkland unless there was no reasonable alternative.

With Charlie Newman of Burch, Porter & Johnson leading the legal charge, CPOP sued to have I-40 rerouted. The case was dismissed by a local federal district court judge. The dismissal was upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1971, by a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court saw things differently. The majority opinion written by Justice Thurgood Marshall remanded the case to the district court for a thorough consideration, which in time led to I-40 being moved to the northern edge of the city.

The case was called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, which makes it sound as if Secretary of Transportation John Volpe was the bad guy. In fact, Lamb points out, he was a good guy, so much so that when the state and city persisted in their efforts to route the interstate close to the park, Volpe and several of his successors kept them from doing so.

For as long as the litigation lasted, the city neglected Overton Park, hoping that it would become so run down that its supporters would throw in the towel. But once it became clear the park was here to stay, its champions became enough of a political force that eventually the city decided to make it better.

Lamb’s book is an oral history, which means, for example, that he relies on Newman’s account of the Supreme Court decision rather than quoting and analyzing the decision itself.

He also includes heartwarming first-person stories by multiple supporters of the Memphis Zoo and, especially, its dedicated animal keepers. From the pretty good zoo my family and I visited in the 1980s, the facility became an outstanding one. First came Cat Country; then Primate Canyon, Animals of the Night, and the pandas; and then a host of other improvements, most recently the Zambezi River Hippo Camp.

That said, the zoo looms ominously over Lamb’s account of the park in the 21st century. Without saying so, he hints at its hegemonic ambitions.

In the mid-2000s, the zoo transformed about 17 acres of the Old Forest into Teton Trek. Then came its grab for more parking on the Overton Park Greensward, which for more than a century has been the only large open space in the heavily wooded park.

Once again, the people in Lamb’s “People’s History” stepped up, organizing to protect the greensward. And this time the city came on board. Mayor Jim Strickland negotiated a fair-to-all-parties compromise in July 2016: the zoo forsook all but a “sliver” of the greensward, and on busy days the city opened parking spaces for zoo visitors along North Parkway.

As for the Old Forest, further encroachments were barred by the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation, which officially declared it a state natural area in 2011. “Tennessee’s government,” notes Lamb with satisfaction, “which once worked tirelessly to mow down the forest, now protects it.”

Lamb rues in an epilogue that in the course of his writing his book, two disquieting events occurred. The Brooks Museum of Art began the process of moving Downtown, and the Memphis College of Art announced it soon will close its doors.

Nevertheless, Lamb is optimistic about the future of Overton Park. In general, he observes, change has been the only constant in the park’s history. It has faced and overcome challenges before, and that makes him confident that it will do so again

Specifically, Lamb points to the combination of citizen activism by Park Friends and a revived CPOP and the emergence of the Overton Park Conservancy, whose creation was honchoed by George Cates. The conservancy is currently in the eighth year of a 10-year city contract to manage most of the non-zoo acreage in the park.

By its nature, citizen activism is episodic. Potential activists have multiple causes to choose from. That’s why it’s so valuable to have the conservancy as well, full-time and, one hopes, here to stay for another 10 years and beyond.

Regarding the new master plan, there will be opportunities for the public to be heard through the community engagement process the conservancy intends to offer as part of the plan’s development.

It’s early days, but matters such as reclaiming the park’s 13 southeastern acres, currently used by the city’s General Services Division, are high on the list of priorities.

In the meantime, you can see, hear and meet Brooks Lamb – and buy the book if you want – when he appears at Rhodes on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 6 p.m. in Buckman Hall’s Blount Auditorium. His talk is titled: “The Stewards of Overton Park: A History of a Place and Its People.”

Here’s a promise from someone who knows him: Come and you won’t regret it.


Overton Park Overton Park Conservancy Brooks Lamb

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