Urban forest III: Digging up hidden gems and pocket parks in South Memphis

In a previous article, High Ground News explored South Memphis Trees, an effort to build an urban tree farm in South Memphis. In the final piece of this three-part series, we’ll highlight other efforts across the area that, taken in combination, amount to a major overhaul of South Memphis’ green assets and an opportunity to situate South Memphis as the Mid-South’s center for green infrastructure and ecotourism.

Related: "Urban forest II: Growing a green giant in South Memphis"

Residents of South Memphis have a vision for their community and have made their priorities clear. Economic opportunities, improved health, thriving children, and improvements to the physical environment top the list.

While work is underway to increase home ownership, bringing jobs to the area, and improve education outcomes, development of the green infrastructure is seen as equally important to a whole and healthy South Memphis.

South Memphis Trees believes an urban tree farm to be one important piece of the vision, but its partners, along with the City of Memphis, residents, and other area organizations are working in tandem to give residents the beautiful, safe, and accessible neighborhood they’ve collectively envisioned.

Efforts are centering around two main areas — transportation corridors and parks.

Neighborhood youth play the first game of basketball on the new Chandler Park courts in Soulsville. (Rebecca Hutchinson)

Work will begin soon to restore South Parkway’s median from Gaither Street to Mississippi Boulevard. The lush promenade is the defining feature of the parkways but this portion was removed by the city 40 years ago. The Shelby County Office of Planning and Development has worked with residents for over a year to fulfill their vision for walkability and beautification.

Plant the Parkways promises to add additional greenery to the newly restored South Parkway as well as North and East parkways.

Plans are underway for several intersection improvements in the area, including crosswalks, art, and greenery. The Works Inc. and The Kresge Foundation, primary partners in the South Memphis initiative, are working closely with the city to implement the improvements around scheduled road maintenance for maximum impact.

Planning for the first mile of the South Memphis Greenline is also in full swing. Once completed, it will extend from Majorie Street to Trigg Avenue, providing an avenue for both recreation and commuting.

With improvements to transportation corridors helping residents and visitors traverse the neighborhood, a focus on parks gives them a place to meet, relax and play.

Promoting and improving parks increases how often people exercise, reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure. They also serve as a gathering space and create a sense of place for communities.

“Imagine green space as some would do the arts. People celebrate the arts because of the genuine beauty and the way that makes them feel … It goes beyond the environmental benefits,” said Marlon Foster, executive director of Knowledge Quest, the nonprofit that manages Greenleaf Learning Farm, another major piece of South Memphis’ green infrastructure.

“We can reach those areas of development — psyche and moral and love for Memphis and around place. When you think of it that way, you really get multiple wins,” Foster added.

For children, the self-guided and unstructured playtime of the park improves not only physical health and coordination but critical thinking and communication skills, social development, and an adventuring spirit.

Related: "Urban forest I: Push to plant 4M trees in Memphis promises natural health benefits"

Parks and green spaces are also an issue of equity. Majority-white neighborhoods tend to have significantly more park space than majority-minority communities. One study in L.A. found that white neighborhoods have 31.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people compared to just 1.7 acres in majority-Black neighborhoods.

“Green space can begin to manifest some parity when it comes to quality of life,” said Foster.

In South Memphis, South Side Park got an overhaul a few years ago thanks in large part to ServiceMaster and the Grizzlies Foundation.

Gaston Park also received new curb cuts, paving, and updates to the basketball courts via the city.

More recently, the Grizzlies Foundation helped restore the courts at Chandler Park.

Rebecca Hutchinson, site director with Soulsville USA, describes Chandler as a park with “great use but great disrepair.” Soulsville Charter School and the park-adjacent Cummings School both use the space for recess. Soulville Charter School’s rugby team and a community football team practice there. Community members regularly use the playground and walking trail.

Related: "Soulsville citizens advocate for improvements to Chandler Park"

The Friends of Chandler Park Advocacy Group, spearheaded by long-time South Memphians Caroline Cleveland and Everlena Yarborough, previously partnered with Lehman Roberts to tackled repairs to the park’s walking trail, a top priority among residents.

After that successful first action, they enlisted the help of City Councilman Edmond Ford and together they petitioned the Grizzlies Foundation for support.

“We showed how motivated we were to work in our own neighborhood. It got them very interested,” said Hutchinson, who is also a “proud resident.”

The South Memphis Greenline will cross over South Parkway. (BikePed Memphis)

In October, Grizzlies players, students from Cummings Elementary School, students and the president of LeMoyne-Owen College and dozens of other volunteers installed new courts and goals, painted a mural and made landscape improvements.

The transformed a vacant lot across the street into a brand new pocket park, complete with seating and game boards for chess.

The advocacy group is now looking for a partner to purchase and install new playground equipment.

While Chandler Park was in critical need of improvements, Martin Luther King Riverside Park is in critical need of visibility.

“It is a jewel of a park that goes unnoticed. There is no sign on the expressway that says MLK Park. There’s a sign that says Chucalissa that’s miles down the road, but no sign for MLK. I know lifetime Memphians that don’t know it exists,” said Carol Coletta of The Kresge Foundation, a major funder on several South Memphis initiatives.

While it’s situated on the riverfront, it’s disconnected from other riverfront park development efforts like those in Tom Lee Park and the Fourth Bluff efforts.

Stretching from South Parkway to Mallory Avenue, the park features playgrounds and open space, but also boasts a rarely-used public golf course and a virgin forest teeming with wildlife and changes in elevations similar to that of Shelby Forest. It’s ideal for hiking and biking, but it lacks defined trails.

As the park is located next to the Valero Memphis Refinery, passersby may miss the entrance to this hidden gem. Partners hope that new signage will make the park more prominent.

The park is also part of the 3,000 mile, 10-state Mississippi River Trail, giving it potential to draw ecotourists from Minnesota to New Orleans, in addition to locals.

A first step towards awareness is a current proposal to re-establish the connection between the riverfront parks in the Downtown core and MLK Park via on-street signage. The signage would guide bikers and pedestrians through South Memphis neighborhoods and into the park.

A future goal of adding defined trails would draw people to the park’s unique urban forest and connect it to the Big River Crossing.

“[The goal is to] bring daylight to the assets of South Memphis so that people understand this is not an area of the city to be dismissed or ignored, it’s a part of the city that deserves investment,” said Coletta.

The hope is that soon South Memphis will not only get the notice it deserves but will serve as a leader and benchmark for other communities.

Organizations, individuals, and governments the world over will come to learn how a disinvested neighborhood transformed itself into a green oasis with a world-renown tree farm and learning farm, world-class parks, and beautiful streets and trails—the story of a grassroots green giant, flush with flora, capital, and community pride. 

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.