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Until the rebuilding process began in 2015, Tom Lee Park in Memphis, Tenn., was a bare expanse of lawn without much life or much to do.Handout

On a recent sunny Sunday, the people of Memphis, Tenn., found common ground. At the newly reopened Tom Lee Park, hundreds of locals marched behind a brass band down the hillside past the giant otter-shaped climber, past new copses of birch trees and toward the edge of the broad, shimmering Mississippi River.

That is just what the designers of the 31-acre park, architects Studio Gang and landscape architects SCAPE, had been hoping for: a group of people young and old, Black and white, enjoying a grand public space. The revitalized park is part of a larger effort to bring the city’s riverfront back to life and bring new public space to this historic – and historically segregated – city.

“The whole idea of this park is that it’s for everyone,” the architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang said at the opening ceremony, “and it will help transform the city and turn toward the river.” This a meaningful shift for the city, which is most famous for its crucial role in creating the blues, rock and soul, but which lacked a central public gathering space.

On my visit, I saw that this switch was already under way. The day after the opening party, a quick walk down from the entertainment district of Beale Street took me to the riverfront. Tom Lee Park was bustling. Kids were climbing the giant otter and the river-themed playground equipment (by the Danish designers Monstrum). A café, designed by Studio Gang with walls of rough-cut logs, was serving sweet tea. Couples walked the riverfront path; an older gentleman in a fedora sat on one of the comfortable new benches, looking out over the Mississippi.

This is a big change. Like many American and Canadian cities, Memphis turned away from its waterfront during the 20th century. This had been a working riverfront, a hub in the hardwood and cotton industries. Then it went dead. Until the rebuilding process began in 2015, Tom Lee Park was a bare expanse of lawn without much life or much to do. “Now it’s a true park with a lot of variation, shade and beauty,” said Brad Howe, design director at SCAPE. Indeed, the site has more than 1,000 new trees, including 300 oaks, and lush beds of indigenous plants.

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Salamander Playground in Memphis' Tom Lee Park.Tom Harris/Handout

The park’s namesake provides potent symbolism. Tom Lee was a Black river worker who became famous across the U.S. when, in May, 1925, he rescued 32 passengers from an overturned river steamer. The park was named for Lee after he died in 1952.

Now it offers an amenity for locals as well as for outsiders. Most visitors come to Memphis to experience the blues and barbecue. The city has been a hub for Black musicians from across the South for a century. Today, Beale Street still serves up the electric blues that artists such as B.B. King created here in the years after the Second World War; Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall is the central institution. On Saturday night, Beale is closed to cars and the street itself becomes a rolling party.

Across town, the Stax Museum traces the history of that legendary label, whose musicians and producers – Black and white, many of them Memphians who grew up within blocks of each other – created a body of work that resonated across the world. I saw Steve Cropper’s Telecaster and the organ that Booker T. Jones played on Green Onions, along with some of Isaac Hayes’s jumpsuits.

But there is also dark history in this city. Memphis is where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The Lorraine Motel, site of his murder, has been incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum, a highly rated institution that unpacks the history of slavery, Reconstruction and the movement that Dr. King led until his killing.

In this context, creating a new public space has an unmistakable political resonance. Tom Lee Park was remade by a not-for-profit called the Memphis River Parks Partnership. “This really was built to be a park for everyone,” said Carol Coletta, its CEO, “from the design to the art to the programming.”

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Tom Lee, the park's namesake, was a Black river worker who became famous across the U.S. when, in May, 1925, he rescued 32 passengers from an overturned river steamer.Courtesy Memphis Travel/Allen Gi/Handout

An installation by the internationally recognized artist Theaster Gates speaks to that theme – or, rather stands still in service of it. A Monument to Listening places 32 slabs made of black basalt stone in a copse of birch trees. Each represents one of the lives that Lee saved in 1925, and each serves as a seat where visitors can sit and contemplate. A taller slab by the riverside represents Lee himself.

Design and symbolism also come together at the park’s Sunset Canopy – an open-air pavilion dedicated to the memory of Tyre Nichols, a Black Memphian who was beaten to death by police in January, 2023, after a traffic stop. The building’s roof of glue-laminated timber pyramids rests atop a brawny structure that recalls 20th-century lumber cranes. Underneath this broad shelter, protected from the sun, are an array of basketball courts, comfortable seating and a stage for performances. And a pattern of diagonal stripes danced across the ground – a mural by James Little, a prominent abstract painter who was born and raised in Memphis.

“I think you’ll find this spot to be very dynamic,” Gang said. “All sorts of activities can take place there; it’s a place people can reinvent for themselves.”

The author was a guest of Memphis Tourism, which did not review or approve this article.

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