[Correction Note: This article previously stated that the Gaisman arboretum is certified at the state level. The arboretum is not yet certified. The article has been update.]
Friends and supporters of Gaisman Park came together July 19 for a ribbon cutting and celebration of the city’s newest arboretum.
The party in the park included Mempops popsicles, Friends of Gaisman Park t-shirts, and face painting, which were all free for attendees. The Mighty Souls Brass Band entertained the crowd of around 100 guests and led a short jazz parade around the playground area.
The Mighty Souls brass band led a jazz parade around the playground area of Gaisman Park. (Cole Bradley)
An arboretum is a garden dedicated to trees. Volunteers planted 30 young, native trees and bushes at Gaisman in November 2020, but to earn a certification from the State of Tennessee, they had to be labeled.
The ribbon cutting marked the installation of plaques labeling 31 species with both their common and Latin names, including some of the existing mature trees. They include magnolias, tulip poplar, elm, and cypress.
The tree planting and ribbon cutting was organized by Friends of Gaisman Park with support from Heights CDC, Clean Memphis, Community LIFT, Memphis City Beautiful, Berclair-Graham Heights Neighborhood Watch, the City of Memphis Division of Parks and Neighborhoods, and the Shelby County Commission, in particular Commissioners Michael Whaley and Tami Sawyer.
Chris Collier is the founder of Friends of Gaisman. He’s quick to all give credit to the many individual community members who’ve donated their time and money to the park.
Gaisman sits on roughly 25 acres that includes the Gaisman Community Center. It serves the Berclair, Nutbush, and Heights neighborhoods, which includes Highland Heights, Graham Heights, Mitchell Heights, and parts of Nutbush.
“It’s very important that the community be involved,” said Sheryl Sullivan, president of Berclair-Graham neighborhood watch. “We’ve got to know who we are to help each other out and keep our community clean. We have to do it for ourselves and our kids.”
Sullivan has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years and said she watched the park decline then rise again thanks in large part to Collier.
“It’s just changed so much, and it’s all for the better. I think we have one of the best parks in the city of Memphis,” said Sullivan.
“I make beautiful things for beautiful people in beautiful places,” Collier said to summarize his personal motivations and feelings on the park and his neighbors.
The new Gaisman Park Arboretum has 30 new juvenile trees and shrubs marked by plaques with their Latin and common names. (Cole Bradley)
The Gaisman Park Arboretum is not yet certified by the State of Tennessee, but Collier hopes they'll come in at a level two certification soon. Ratings are based on the number and diversity of tree species. FoGP already has 10
more trees growing in a local nursery and plans to transplant them in November.
“Twenty five species, I think, is the minimum for level one. Being at 31 puts us already on our way to level two,” said Collier.
In Collier’s vision of a future Gaisman, families are picnicking in the shade of the mature trees and school groups come to learn about nature firsthand. He hopes to see people who have relationships with the trees, like kids who grow up with them and come back as adults and meet them as old friends.
“They can say, ‘I can remember when this thing was teeny tiny, and now it’s this big, huge thing,” he said. “One of our volunteers … I think she said it best. She said, ‘Now, when I come to Gaisman, I can say I planted that tree.’ Having that aspect of it is really amazing.”
Christina Crutchfield is a Heights resident and community coordinated for the Heights CDC. She said the park has changed drastically in five years, thanks to the community’s effort.
“This park has been activated in the past five years beyond what most public spaces get to do in a decade. This park has really come alive,” said Crutchfield.
She said the activity has affected the community center as well.
“This place had some activity on the inside, but it was more or less a senior center. It didn’t have a lot of other programming. Now there are self defense classes that happen here, Desayuno Con Libros is meeting here, they have yoga classes here.”
“If you haven’t been in this park in awhile, you need to come to it now,” said Sullivan. “I’ve seen some negative comments made by people who have not been here in years. They’re going back to something that probably happened 10, 15 years ago. This is not the same park.”
A young party goer shows off his Batman face paint and "Batman sword." (Cole Bradley)
Manifesting the Dream
The arboretum is just one part of a larger, community-led effort to revitalize Gaisman Park.
It began with Collier and a mission to pick up the trash in the park. He moved to the neighborhood in 2013, and his
kitchen window looks out onto the south side of the park—a roughly 17-acre field.
He said he was tired of looking at garbage so he took to the park. He’s now spent 8 years picking up trash almost daily. His current estimate is 50 gallons a day.
While he cleaned, he talked to neighbors and park goers. Those conversations grew into FoGP and the larger vision for the park.
Collier and the friends group started hustling support for improvements from government, philanthropies, nonprofits, churches, and anyone else who will listen.
By 2018, they’d secured many of the easier, more cosmetic changes in their unofficial master plan, like colorful benches and bike racks, soccer goals, and flower gardens.
Since then they’ve worked with the City of Memphis to add new safety and accessibility features like curb cuts, a crosswalk with flashers, speed humps, and filling in gaps in the existing walking paths. They also removed old chain link fences that divided the field, which opened it up for what are now frequent soccer and football games.
FoGP wants to see the field turned into a modernized, outdoor multipurpose sports complex.
Two of the newest additions to the park are the popular mini-kick soccer courts, which were sponsored by Target, the City of Memphis, and the U.S. Soccer Foundation. They took the places of one of Gaisman’s underused tennis courts and an old, hoop-less basketball court.
FoGP has also hosted several clean up and volunteer days and used grant funding to purchase a riding lawn mower and a golf cart so Collier, who has spastic paraplegia that makes walking difficult, can maintain the field himself and continue daily trash pickups.
Chris Collier, founder of Friends of Gaisman Park, takes a break from cutting the park's roughly 17-acre field to pose on the organization's new riding lawnmower. (Cole Bradley)
What’s Next for Gaisman?
Next up, FoGP is preparing to update the lights around the parking lot and soccer courts.
Meanwhile, the city has pledged $1.1 million to the park as part of its Accelerate Memphis initiative. The money will go towards improvements to the walking paths, sports fields, and field lighting.
The city has also pledged $8 million for demolition of the current Gaisman Community Center, which is located in the park, and construction on a brand new center.
“I hope that this park will be an example to other communities of what it looks like when you own a public space, and that this will encourage the city that people do want to use public spaces if they are available,” said Crutchfield of the existing and expected changes.
“Hopefully it will inspire more usage of not only this place but other public spaces throughout the city.”