John Kirkscey

John Kirkscey is a community activist, filmmaker and the developer of

Can't see the river for the trees in new designs for Tom Lee Park

By Published: March 20, 2019 5:44 PM CT

In the rush to make something happen after countless plans and prescriptions for the Memphis riverfront, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest — or in this case the river — for the trees.

The newly proposed designs for Tom Lee Park illustrate the problem with hiring — at the omission of visionary locals who know their city — out-of-town design consultants who must prove their commission by coming up with all sorts of paraphernalia for our parks. As a local creative questioned, “Why can’t a park just be a park?”

Additionally, the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) initially seemed to steamroll this process — with no RFPs and little time or tolerance for questioning or dissent, announcing the groundbreaking without much room for review or reflection. It’s no wonder that Memphis in May (MIM) and its supporters felt force-fed and — after all this organization has done for Memphis over the decades — demoted.

Yet MRPP should be applauded for taking the initiative to try and make something significant happen on our riverfront after decades of neglect and ambivalence. It’s not easy being bold, visionary and progressive in this town. MRPP’s stance is that Tom Lee Park’s potential should not be held hostage by Memphis in May’s one-month festival. That’s a valid point. And MRPP has been making an effort to accommodate MIM’s interests, though the two organizations' interests in the park are not really complementary. Hence, the current impasse and attempted work-out.

A simple yet grand solution could be found by stepping back and seeing the forest, rather than getting bogged down in the trees. Rather than keeping the status quo for Memphis in May — or demoting them — let’s promote them! They deserve their own customized festival grounds.

So let’s consider Memphis in May Island (“MIMI”). Mud Island was always a terrible name anyway. Why not turn it into one of the coolest festival playgrounds in the country, not just for MIM but for any showcase experience that wishes to be on an island with magnificent views all around, three amphitheaters (of various sizes), ample grounds for BBQ fest (with electrical hook-ups), plus jogging/biking trails that connect Green Belt Park with Tom Lee Park. To make room for it all, most of the buildings (less the museum building and monorail terminal) on the island formerly known as Mud could be razed. The Riverwalk could even be transferred elsewhere, like to the University of Memphis campus.

Even if it was no longer necessary to accommodate MIM at Tom Lee Park, let’s not block the river for the trees. Less paraphernalia is more. The beauty of this park is the unobstructed expansiveness of it all. It could certainly use some improvements, but keep it simple. Let this park be a park. 

Jeff Speck, the urban guru, once bragged about our uniqueness, pointing out that most river cities have their riverfronts built up with stuff: industry, etc. For the most part, Memphis has nature on both sides: nothing but flood plains on the Arkansas side and the clean green expanses of Tom Lee Park and Green Belt Park lining our side. Why needlessly clutter that up? Nature trumps all. 

Save the contraptions and man-made enhancements for the urban interior. Don’t clutter or block our view of the river with trees, unnecessary structures and large emoji-like park signs that just distract the eye. Embrace that unobstructed expansiveness that is Tom Lee Park, with its panoramic view of Ol' Man River, Arkansas, the bridges and Downtown. That’s the meditation — not the clutter of park paraphernalia trumping all the nature and humanity around us.

Let’s invest the bulk of funds for the riverfront in what’s broken — Mud Island — and be sparing in investing in what’s not broken — Tom Lee Park. See the river, Memphis, not the trees.

 The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at


Memphis River Parks Partnership Memphis In May

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