Last Updated on September 10, 2023
Five years in the making, Memphis’s spectacular reimagined riverfront along the Mississippi River came to life on Labor Day Weekend 2023. Tom Lee 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.
Over the weekend, more than 10,000 Memphians came to get a first look at undulating hills planted with native plants, expansive lawns, and 1,000 trees where once there had been only fifty. Among the attractions awaiting them were the central Sunset Canopy, along with two other timber pavilions, a playground inhabited by giant, climbable river critters, and a major work of public art by the internationally-known artist Theaster Gates.
For more than seven hours, it was all dribbled basketballs, climbing of giant wooden river critters, volleyball, yoga, hula-hoops, miniature golf, dancing, and more.
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.
The $61 million riverfront park was designed by two of the nation’s most renowned design firms, Studio Gang of Chicago and SCAPE of New York City.
Its centerpiece is the Sunset Canopy, a soaring timber pavilion named in the memory of the late Tyre Nichols, its ground surface a one-of-a-kind technicolor basketball court by the New York-based, Memphis-raised painter James Little, produced by Project Backboard.
“A Monument to Listening,” a massive work of art by Gates, invites visitors from all walks of life a chance to gather together and remember the Black river worker and hero, who singlehandedly rescued 32 people from the Mississippi River nearly a century ago.
“Tom Lee Park could only be in Memphis,” President and CEO Carol Coletta, 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.”
In remarks to the media on 9-0-1 day (901 being the Memphis area code), Friday, September 1, a representative of Memphis contractor Montgomery Martin estimated that the new park had required nearly 80,000 labor hours, 100,000 yards of dirt, and enough concrete to pour over 100,000 sq ft of pathways, as well as the planting of over 1,000 trees, 30,000 shrubs, and nearly 30,000 yards of sod.
As he recounted long nights, weekends and holidays when as many as a hundred workers were on site at the same time, slogging through rain, snow, freezing cold, and record heat, the contractor ended by saying, “All the hard work is on display. It was all worth it.”
MEMPHIS RIVER PARKS PARTNERSHIP
Memphis River Parks Partnership is a nonprofit (501c3) organization that stewards the riverfront on behalf of the people of Memphis. The Partnership manages, maintains, operates and activates five connected riverfront park districts of 250 acres of parkland as well as multiple rental and performance facilities.