Five years in the making, the new 31-acre Tom Lee Park opens along the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis on Sunday, September 3, 2023, Labor Day Weekend. The riverfront park is an ecological success story and a model for next century place-making coming out of what is now the nation’s largest Black-majority population city.

A day-long celebration on Sunday, September 3rd includes an ecumenical blessing, ribbon cutting, the historic black college band, picnics, community sings, park tours, basketball, learning activities, stilt walkers, fireworks and special “only-in-Memphis” live music.

For those who want to experience Black history and culture, the new park is only a short walk away from the historic entertainment district on Beale Street, National Civil Rights Museum, and the historic civil rights landmark, the Clayborn Temple.

Visitors will surely want to stop by Cozy Corner, whose 85-year-old chef, Desiree Robinson, has just been named the first woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

“Tom Lee Park could only be in Memphis,” Carol Coletta, President and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership, said. “It’s a place for park life, welcoming to one and all and made vibrant by its diversity, while contributing to the resiliency of the river corridor.”

Once in the park, a visitor can stay all day, fortified by charcuterie plates, specialty coffee and cocktails from small batch roaster Vice & Virtue and creative park fare served by Paper Plate Pavilion. Both vendors are Memphis-grown minority operators. 

Park Details

View of Tom Lee Park, Memphis, TN, June 2023.
View of Tom Lee Park, Memphis, TN, June 2023. Courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership. Photo: Connor Ryan

The park’s master planner and architect is Studio Gang. Its landscape architect and park designer is SCAPE.

At the heart of the $61 million urban riverfront park is the Sunset Canopy. This soaring timber pavilion shelters a brightly patterned basketball court designed by the Memphis-reared, New York City-based artist James Little. The pavilion will host all kinds of events, from concerts and performances to yoga classes and cocktails.

Supported by six bundled steel columns, the structure’s great wood beams are constructed with glulam, which has a much lower carbon footprint than traditional reinforced concrete or steel. Above them, louvered roof monitors, also made of wood, provide shade from the hot sun and protection from rain. A visitor will be able to look up through the louvered Canopy to catch glimpses of the sky and enjoy the changing, filtered patterns of sunlight and shadow cast onto the colors of the flooring below.

The Sunset Canopy is dedicated to the memory of the late Tyre Nichols.

A giant wooden otter is steps away as part of a river-themed playground with climbable river animals, designed by the Denmark-based Monstrum in collaboration with SCAPE. Also nearby, fitness stations serve as an outdoor gym with bars, pull ups and leg presses; Astro turf spots for stretching; and an obstacle course of poles, climbing nets and post jumps.

At the south end of the park, young citizen scientists can drop in at the Buckman Classroom, an open-air learning space, or visit the Pollinator Lab, a wooden platform nested in a stand of pawpaw trees. SCAPE has developed a curriculum tailored to the ecological features of the Memphis riverfront.

A Monument to Listening

“A Monument to Listening,” a monumental work of art by the internationally known artist Theaster Gates, invites visitors from all walks of life a chance to gather together. Twenty-eight hand-honed basalt sculptures in a circular configuration in the eastern portion of the park, with another four installed facing the river at the water’s edge, pay homage to the African American laborer and hero Tom Lee, who singlehandedly rescued 32 people from the Mississippi River nearly a century ago.

Lee was honored for his heroism in the ‘50s when the City named a smaller part of the downtown riverfront in his memory.

At the Grand Opening on Labor Day Sunday, Gates and his musical group, the Black Monks, will perform improvisational pieces that weave together the richness of Black music, the spiritual practices of the Black church, and Eastern ascetic traditions.

Author