It’s 9 a.m. and Chris Collier is wrapping up a daily ritual — an hour of picking up trash at Gaisman Park. The daily hauls are small, but over the past five years, he and his friends have removed a combined 70,000 gallons of litter.
“In its current state, it’s the cleanest park in Memphis,” he said, gesturing to the 24-acre multipurpose space at the corner of Vaughn and Macon roads.
The roughly six acres at the north end of the park bordering Macon Road feature a large playground, community center, public pool, and tennis courts, but Collier’s kitchen window looks out onto the southern side of the park and a roughly 18-acre field. Originally used for baseball games, it’s crisscrossed by aging chain-link fences and has sat largely unused for decades.
Collier is founder and head of Friends of Gaisman, a group of stakeholders in The Heights and neighboring Berclair who have worked since 2013 to bring much-needed improvements to the communities’ only active city park, located at 4223 Macon Road.
Coach Tori Jones, 27, of Pyramid Athletics speaks to the Vaughn Family at half time of a soccer game at Gaisman Park. (Natalie Eddings)
“[Our] whole purpose is to activate the park,” he said.
Big cleanups can draw as many as 90 residents to this corner of Berclair, and that concentrated, resident-led effort is yielding results and hopefully paving the way for additional investment in the park.
Collier reports neighbors are now returning to Gaisman, drawn in by a new soccer program and physical improvements — connecting and widening walking paths, colorful benches and bike racks, new soccer goals, flower boxes and gardens — but they’re minor wins compared to his grander vision.
It’s in the early stages of transforming Gaisman’s open fields into a bustling, multi-use outdoor sports facility with space for soccer, football, and more set among an arboretum. He estimates it to be a $1 million undertaking.
Christina Crutchfield, a Heights resident and community coordinator with Heights Community Development Corporation, said that when it comes to attracting new business, residents, and big development dollars, the smaller efforts are critical.
Chris Collier reviews his vision for Gaisman Park, which includes sports fields and an arboretum. (Cole Bradley)
“Small investments are everything,” she said. “When you’re doing large investments, you need large investment money, and the first question people with large investment money are going to ask you is what’s already happening.”
Like Collier and Heights CDC, community leaders and organizations throughout the area hope their smaller investments like cleanups and pocket gardens will add up to major improvements in the area’s green infrastructure — like the proposed transformation of Gaisman’s park and a two-mile bike and pedestrian path estimated at $3.5 million.
Organizers hope the Heights Line will open in fall 2020 as the first north-south connector for the Wolf River Greenway’s and Shelby Farms Greenline’s networks of trails and bike lanes.
Why Green Space Matters to The Heights
Clean, safe, and usable green space is important for neighborhoods.
They improve overall physical and mental health, offer a space for community building, and help children
learn to socialize and think critically. Green spaces bring economic growth
and increased property values, protect infrastructure and the environment, and reduce crime.
These benefits make public green spaces especially important in lower-income majority-minority neighborhoods
, like the Heights, working to improve community health and reinvestment. Unfortunately, these communities are shown to have both less
green space than affluent or majority-white communities, and what green spaces they do have access to receive less maintenance and have fewer amenities.
For example, The Heights technically has a few city-owned public parks besides Gaisman — specifically Highland and Jackson parks — but they’re small, often tucked behind churches or houses, and offer virtually no amenities.
Due to fears surrounding legal status, census data is often inaccurate
in areas with large immigrant populations like The Heights, but demographics from the area’s schools like Treadwell Elementary and Kingsbury High
show Black and Latino populations between 30 and 55 percent with white students representing five to 12 percent of the population.
According to Collier, diversity in The Heights goes beyond these three largest groups. He’s met people from across Asia, Europe, the U.S. and representing nearly every major religion.
“When I say the whole world comes to Gaisman, I mean [it].”
Mrs. Judy and Major’s Garden
Judy Conway moved into the neighborhood with her husband, Major, in April 1977.
“It was beautiful,” she recalled. “Yards were manicured, the people cared about their properties ...They had integrity and they took care of each other ...That’s what we need to get back to, taking care of each other.”
The Coleman Street Garden is cared for by its regular volunteers. (Natalie Eddings)
While Collier is working on a 24-acre investment, Conway's focus is a single residential lot at the corner of Coleman Avenue and Tillman Street. What is now a thriving community garden was a blighted property just three years ago.
The house was demolished in 2015 after Conway and her neighbors spent a decade pressuring the city and the property’s absentee landlord. They worked with the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association, Heights CDC, Keller Williams Realty, the City of Memphis and others to clear the lot and installed a community garden complete with a large, cheerful sign that reads, “Mrs. Judy and Major’s Coleman Street Garden.”
Related: "In photos: The gardens of Mitchell Heights"
“I’m so passionate about the garden, and I try to keep it up because I was fussing, fussing so many years to get this property cleaned up,” she said with a laugh.
Since 2015, Conway and her volunteers — primarily her grandchildren — have grown food that any community member can pick and eat. The group has also hosted horticulture classes and cooking demonstrations for neighborhood youth. Conway retired in July and is looking forward to expanding the programming.
“I’m thinking we’re just gonna have to stay with these children, cause that’s our future ... we’re going to have to change our future,” she said.
She’s also expanding her impact to the area surrounding the garden. She and her husband have purchased several properties on the block, including a long-term problem property directly across from the garden on Coleman.
“I got so sick of looking across the street at that house,” she said. “That house was an eyesore and the people who lived there were worse.”
Judy Conway is the primary caretaker of the Coleman Street community garden, though she often has help from her grandchildren and neighbors. (Natalie Eddings)
Conway is a core member of the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association which helps manage the Mitchell Heights Garden and Nursery just a few streets away on Gracewood Road. They’ve started offering horticulture classes there too and just acquired a business license. They’re likely the city’s only Black-owned nursery and hope soon hire employees from the neighborhood.
Related: “Small but mighty: Resident-led development improves Mitchell Heights”
“There are positive people, good people still living in this neighborhood ... that want to make a difference in this neighborhood,” Conway said.
Riding the Line
Heights CDC is leading the effort to convert the median and center lanes of National Street into The Heights Line linear park and bike-ped path. It would run two miles from Broad to Jackson avenues and be the first north-south connector between the Shelby Farms Greenline and Wolf River Greenway systems.
The project is estimated to cost $3.5 million but will bring in far more in terms of economic and community development.
“We’re hoping to create an investment that makes money and will help increase property values like the [Shelby Farms Greenline] did,” said Crutchfield. “We’re hoping to draw investment from outside sources like the greenline did. But we are not that big. We are a project that’s significantly smaller.”
Heights CDC staged a mock Heights Line in October 2017 to demonstrate the possible look and feel of the linear park. (High Ground News)
Heights CDC’s mission includes building and attracting assets that benefit and are accessible to current neighbors, as well as attract new residents.
“[The proposed Heights Line is] going down a city street in the middle of a neighborhood. So our neighbors are our number one concern,” said Crutchfield. “We don’t want to create such an investment that we’re kicking our neighbors out. We want to make sure that this is a place for them. So we have to sit back and think about this a little bit differently.”
After many iterations of design and redesign based on community feedback, including the installation of a mock greenline on National Street in October 2017, Heights CDC is now narrowing in on a final design concept with partner Alta Planning. Once approved by residents and the city, fundraising can begin. Heights CDC hopes a scheduled repaving of National Street in fall 2020 will also mark the installation of The Heights Line.
Related: “The Heights Line pop-up project reinvigorates National Street”
Crutchfield said feedback from residents has been overwhelmingly positive, and while the project is one of the biggest community investments to-date, it’s just one part of the effort.
“We’re stronger together ...Together we make one large organization,” she said.
“It’s [Heights CDC’s] motto, but it’s also the neighborhood’s motto, ‘We rise by lifting others.’ Ever since we adopted that — adopted that strategy, that mindset — that has helped [bring] a lot of investment and a lot of good things.”
The People’s Park
Improvements at Gaisman have been led by residents.
“This is becoming a great treasure, a nice gem, back to the way it used to be, but we have to visualize it in today’s community,” said Collier.
There are several new pocket gardens and parks, like the one at Pope Street and Faxon Avenue, in the area. (Natalie Eddings)
In 2014 just before he formed Friends of Gaisman, Collier noticed that much of the limited use on the south side came from soccer scrimmages between predominantly Latino residents, a population that’s grown by 112 percent in The Heights since 2000 according to a PolicyMap report.
To denote the soccer goals, residents would push two sticks into the ground. That same year Second Baptist Church donated a set of goals, and the response was overwhelming.
“When [the goals] came in, there was an immediate uptick as far as the level of organization in the soccer activities that were happening,” said Collier.
Now the park has several sets of goals and dozens of weekly pickup games and practices from adult and youth teams, including Grahamwood and Wells Station elementary schools. The tennis courts are also used by neighborhood schools, as is an area designated for football.
Husband and wife Nancy and Patricio Gonzalez carry equipment to the Gaisman Community Center at the end of game day. They are the directors and coaches of Illegal Arts Memphis soccer league. (Natalie Eddings)
“Since the soccer program started … we have all these activated areas and it moves at such a pace that there’s almost constant clapping or cheers from every section of the park,” said Collier. “It’s vibrant. It’s exciting.”
A spring IOBY campaign raised $2,800 and almost 90 volunteers installed flower boxes and painted benches, railings, and bike racks in colors significant to the neighborhood, like maroon and gray representing the Kingsbury schools. A $2,500 Community LIFT grant will continue the work next spring.
Most recently, Friends of Gaisman worked with the city to widen and connect the park’s walking trails. They hope next to level the ground and create regulation-sized sports fields with new fencing on either side of a wide, central path. The walkway would feature benches, lighting, and an arboretum for learning, relaxation, and much-needed shade.
“If you build it, they will come … [Those first soccer goals] really got some people focused on getting good things in the park,” Collier said.
Conway agrees that individuals elevating their own little corner of their community is ultimately the best way to inspire a movement.
“It’s important that people learn to take care of and put some investment, some sweat equity into the community,” she said. “If you don’t put some sweat equity into where you live and care about where you live, then this place is going to be a desolate place.”