By John Branston

It is easy to bet on a poker hand with high cards, win a football game with good players, sail in fair winds and make a riverfront park look good on a sunny morning in September, but, that said, the new Tom Lee Park looks like a home run.

It combines the architectural principle-turned-cliche of “less is more” with “more” in a tasteful and pleasing way to the body, mind and spirit. Accidental encounters with friendly strangers are frequent. Native plants and trees aplenty accent views of the river and bridges and have a decent chance of survival in frigid winters and summer sizzlers.

Clever safe-but-still-risky playgrounds for the kiddies, court games for the athletic, open spaces and mini-amphitheaters for future buskers, benches for demented fogies to talk to themselves and wave at the deckhands on barges passing silently as smoke – all bracketed between the two bridges and backed by the emerald green bluff and kitschy-meets-classy houses atop.

In brief, somebody knew what they were doing and learned from the past.

The truth compels us to look back as well as ahead. Tom Lee Park 1.0 was plagued by granite-headed leadership, over reliance on the boat dock and cruise boats that didn’t come, and competing interests, mainly Memphis In May. The Pyramid started with two and half strikes against it – weird shape, a war over location, and budget funding that seemed like a lot back then. So did Mud Island River Park with no easy car bridge, an underwhelming museum and monorail, and that name that screamed “Ignore the name, come anyway!” It was a cool place to see a Jimmy Buffett concert in the amphitheater, but Jimmy is dead now, bless him and the Parrot Heads.

The new Tom Lee Park dispatches with the cringeworthy old relics (the monument inscription to “a very worthy Negro”), preserves the best, and politely but firmly shoved aside and apparently imposed its will on Memphis in May, which is still fighting a rearguard action.

A couple of nits must be picked. Bicycles increasingly giant sized and electric powered will mow down a pedestrian or two soon enough and eventually may need their own path.  A fat-tire bike with a stout rider aboard can easily top 350 pounds gross weight. And given the construction on Crump Boulevard and the old bridge on the south end and the limited traffic flow on the north end, an out-of-town visitor may well wind up lost or adrift in the “old” Mud Island Park with its Walmart-size parking lot. Or in Arkansas.

(Just saying, but this Wolverine sees a missed NIL opportunity and a six-figure check in those traffic-cone orange and blue hammocks if they were, instead, maize and blue.)

But these are problems for another day. Get yourself down there and check it out. This is a  park that can bring out the best in us.


(John Branston has been writing about Memphis since 1982 and visiting Tom Lee Park since before it was expanded in the 1980s.)


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