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Priceless, whatever the cost

This story originally appeared in our Spring 2016 newsletter.

Latino Memphis Festival
Hula hooping at the Latino Memphis Festival on May 7

Overton Park is in the spotlight.

Recently, a national audience tuned in to see the park featured in the PBS documentary “Ten Parks That Changed America.” The story of the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” who stopped an interstate from being built through a park resonates decades after the United States Supreme Court ruled in their favor. It’s a testament to the way public space and community help each other to thrive.

In praise of public spaces, city planner and writer William (Holly) Whyte said, “It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost.” Whyte researched human behavior in public spaces and concluded that cities “have a moral responsibility to create physical places that facilitate civic engagement and community interaction.”

In Memphis, Overton Park has served that function for well over 100 years. At Overton Park Conservancy, we have a front-row seat every day to the vital role the park plays in creating community.

On days like May 7, it seems like all of Memphis is coming together right here: to celebrate Brooks Museum’s 100th birthday, to dance and play at the Latino Memphis Festival, to buy original pieces from Memphis College of Art students, to raise money for the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at Café du Memphis, and to see the Memphis Zoo’s hippos in their new home. Nowhere else can you find such a variety of ways to celebrate who we are as a city.

But a great public space like Overton Park doesn’t just happen–it’s created from great investment.

What is a conservancy worth?
Measured purely in dollars, Overton Park Conservancy has been worth $6 million to Overton Park over the last four years. That’s how much we’ve raised from the community and invested into projects like Overton Bark, Rainbow Lake Playground, Bike Gate, and the upcoming Old Forest welcome gateways.

Echo SystemsThe projects are a highly visible symbol of the community’s investment in the park. But it’s the day-to-day management, the feeling that “someone’s home in the park,” where Overton Park Conservancy makes the biggest impact. Here’s a glimpse into the everyday reality of park operations:

  • Once a year, we spread a new layer of mulch safety surfacing in both Rainbow Lake Playground and Overton Bark. Ideally we’d do it twice per year, but the material alone costs $3,000 each time.
  • We use 3,000 dog-waste bags every month (which Hollywood Feed generously donates). Occasionally we have to replace the dispensers themselves because they get knocked over with baseball bats.
  • Sections of our playground fence were recently torn down by vandals and must be replaced. The gate handles at Rainbow Lake Playground and Overton Bark are regularly broken or removed.
  • Landscaping plants at Bike Gate were stolen, and the bollards separating the plaza from the street were knocked down and had to be re-installed.
  • The restrooms are regular targets for vandalism and have to be cleaned and re-stocked multiple times a day during busy seasons. The massive maintenance commitment is why many parks only have port-a-johns.
  • Trash cans fill up quickly when events pick up on weekends, and occasionally vandals dump the contents of the cans all over the ground in the middle of the night. On May 7, our cleaning crew filled three dumpsters and that still didn’t accommodate all the trash from overflowing cans throughout the park.
  • The Conservancy spent weeks developing a modified traffic flow plan for May 7, meeting with partners to make sure the plan worked for everyone, and publicizing the changes and available shuttle service. Plus, our Executive Director Tina Sullivan directed traffic in the park from sunup to sundown!

      These are the realities park managers face every day, everywhere. Our goal is to make sure that issues are resolved before you arrive at the park each day—and if they aren’t, to tell you what we’re doing to fix them.

Next-level park maintenance
While public-private partnerships have become a popular model across the country to reverse the decline of public spaces, Overton Park enjoys a special level of care. At many conservancies, the city retains responsibility for mowing, trash collection, litter pickup, and pavilion rentals. Even with those extra private funds raised by conservancies, city staffs are still stretched thin and can’t visit any particular park more than once a week.

When Overton Park Conservancy began in 2012, we adopted a different model. All those functions that would normally be performed by the City are instead performed by the Conservancy and our contractors. Pavilion rentals are handled by our Visitor Services Coordinators, Rose Baker and Andrew Weda, who assist with everything from scheduling to advice on setup to on-site support.

Ron Teamer and Spencer Whitley, Jr.
Ron Teamer and Spencer Whitley, Jr. of Pinnacle Perpetual Services

A Winning Team
Our park contractors are so much more than that word suggests. Jeff Edelstein and his crew at Echo Systems have been our landscaping professionals since the beginning, and their familiar red-uniformed employees are a reliable presence in the park almost every day. They keep a frequent mowing schedule in the summer months, make sure the landscaping looks beautiful, remove leaves and debris from trails and sidewalks, and so much more.

This year, we began working with Ron Teamer and Pinnacle Perpetual Services to handle restroom cleaning, trash pickup, and litter removal. Ron and his team go above and beyond their job descriptions on a regular basis, and like the Echo crew, they take tremendous pride in their work.

We also have strong relationships with the crews from our partner institutions, the City of Memphis, Memphis City Beautiful, and friends like Wes Hopper of Urban Forestry. Wes is just as likely to engage a visitor on the subject of wildflowers as he is to expertly clear a fallen oak from a trail.

That’s what makes Overton Park so special. Everyone who works in the park is an ambassador, invested in the space and the relationships they’ve built here. They’re always eager to have a conversation.

Farmers market
Rhodes College’s investment in the park includes a farmers market on Thursdays at East Parkway Pavilion.

Investment makes a difference
Students at local universities in the 1990s remember being told not to go to Overton Park because it wasn’t safe. Regardless of actual crime levels, a public space where repairs aren’t made and facilities are neglected creates a perception of blight and danger. People stop visiting, and a space meant to bring people together instead keeps them apart.

Today, Overton Park is thriving. Our university students are involved in the park in every way, from track teams running the trails, to research on the Old Forest’s flora and fauna, to regular university volunteer events. The Greensward is Memphis College of Art’s front yard and has inspired countless works of art. Slowly but surely, the community is re-embracing the Old Forest as the incredible gift it is, rather than an intimidating barrier between two sides of the park.

Your investment matters. While the Overton Park of today faces challenges due to its popularity, there’s no doubt that it once again plays a central role in the life of our community. And that is absolutely priceless.   

Creating the future together
To continue this positive momentum, we need to plan well for the future. With four years of completed projects and experience with day-to-day management, the Conservancy is eager to continue leading the park forward. Your contributions to the Transportation and Traffic Report were invaluable in helping us understand the needs of park users and identify ways to improve your experience. (Read it here.)

Overton Bark
Making new friends at Overton Bark

Now it’s time to look at the big picture. The last Overton Park Master Plan was completed in 1988, and a lot has changed since then. It’s time for our community to come together again and set goals and standards for what we want the park to be. That means working with each park institution and our visitors to set priorities. As we launch the planning process in the coming months, we’ll need your input at every step.

We’re grateful to everyone who has contributed to the fabric of Overton Park, and we can’t wait to work with you to make its future even brighter.

You can help us with our park operations costs by making a donation today.