Change is constant in newly published Overton Park history

By Published: December 18, 2018 4:00 AM CT

Brooks Lamb was making final edits on his book about Overton Park when he found out the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art was planning a move out of the park to Downtown Memphis.

“I was kind of shell-shocked,” Lamb said of the news, which was followed by an announcement the Memphis College of Art, another park institution, would graduate its last class in 2020.

But just as quickly, Lamb realized the changes fit in with a constant part of the narrative of his book “Overton Park: A People’s History.”

“The one constant theme in the park’s history, at least in regard to its landscape and how it has served the people, is change,” Lamb said on a new Daily Memphian politics podcast.

“Another constant theme is how people have come to become stewards of the park. But that change aspect is really important,” said the Rhodes College alumni, who worked at the Overton Park Conservancy. “So, while it is scary … I think we can find hope for the future of Overton Park and the present of the park by examining its past and seeing how it has evolved with the times and seeing that even if something leaves or something comes in, people find a way to cultivate a new sense of affection for a place that leads to enhanced stewardship and new generations creating new relationships with the park.”

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Lamb, currently conservation projects manager for rural lands at The Land Trust of Tennessee, relied on interviews with those who have used and fought for the park’s future to detail its post-World War II history. But he begins with a detailed history of the park’s founding at the turn of the 20th century.

There was an immediate conflict over original plans for the park and the attractions and institutions that came later, starting with the 9-hole city golf course that opened in 1906, five years after Overton Park was founded.

“The Overton Park that we know today, one that has art museums and schools and zoos and all of these other things, would certainly never have been envisioned by George Kesler, who designed the park,” Lamb said. “It was initially designed as a place just to connect with nature – to, as some have said, escape the chaos of the city. But almost as soon as it was founded it has been in contention with these other entities coming in and wanting to serve citizens in different ways.”

Kesler and others opposed the golf course and the Memphis Zoo, which followed close behind. And Lamb writes that those favoring those institutions were soon overtaken by other forces that viewed the park differently. 

“None of those different institutions within the park are competing with each other for the purpose of pure competition,” Lamb said. “It’s all about how different people see the best way to serve the citizens of Memphis. We certainly still see it today. And as the park continues to grow, the one constant theme of the park’s history is change. I imagine we will continue to see these things being in conflict with one another.”

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These conflicts are seen in the same passion citizens exhibited in battling local and state government plans for an interstate that would run through the park. A 1971 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling ultimately stopped the interstate.

But Lamb’s history of the park points out the interpretation of the ruling and the standards it set for such projects continued well after the ruling. And if not for vigilance by Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, the interstate might still have found its way through the park. Even though it didn’t, plans for the roadway led to the demolition of 408 homes, 84 duplexes, 266 apartments, 44 businesses, five churches and a city fire station all around Overton Park.

“In reality, it ran from the mid-1950s when this idea was first introduced until almost into the 1980s,” Lamb said of the arc of the controversy. “Perhaps one of the most powerful lessons of the book is that it really took a group of people who were devoted to being stewards of this place in order to protect it. And when I say stewards, sometimes that conjures up the image of the professional ecologist or a professional environmentalist. But when I say stewards, I mean people who have spent time in the park and grew up there.”

Lamb, a 2016 Truman Scholar, wrote the park history with the assistance of a Bonner Scholarship and a fellowship from the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies.


Overton Park Brooks Lamb Daily Memphian Politics podcast
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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