It's amazing how quickly Tom Lee Park is cleaned up each year after Memphis In May is over.
On Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day and near the end of a month in which the park was trampled and littered by thousands of people at the music festival, barbecue contest, and Sunset Symphony, most of the trash was gone. The tents, fences, and temporary structures had been taken down, and workmen were mowing and edging the bluff along Riverside Drive. The grass will be watered, the sidewalks hosed down, the flower beds spruced up, and with a little rain Tom Lee Park will be good as new in a few weeks — that is, if you don't mind ground that's as hard as concrete.
Now that's service. Unfortunately, it's not standard service for Memphis parks.
In 1993, a small group of Memphians, including Midtown residents, recreation directors at Midtown churches, and the principal of East High School, decided that the underused property west of the school would be a good place for playing fields, a track, and a playground. The impetus was a soccer game between Idlewild and Evergreen church teams that had to be played in Cordova because of a scarcity of fields in Midtown. With the help of Lora Jobe, who was then on the school board, and John Vergos, who was then on the Memphis City Council, the Memphis Park Commission hosted a couple of meetings, drew up some plans, and came up with the East High Sportplex.
There was a four-lane rubberized track, two baseball diamonds with backstops, drinking fountains, a football practice field, an asphalt walking path, an undersized soccer field with two goals, and a playground. Mayor Willie Herenton, who was then in his first term, presided at a modest opening ceremony, and that was that.
The total cost of the improvements was around $1 million. There were no consultants. The design certainly didn't win any awards. There was no economic impact study. If the sportplex attracted any tourists, it was strictly accidental. The only beneficiaries were the students at East High, the little kids who play on the playground, the regulars who use the walking path, and the people who use the fields for pickup games of soccer, baseball, and touch football. The vision of a sports complex for Midtown churches and rec teams proved to be unrealistic, as bigger and better facilities were built in Germantown, Cordova, and DeSoto County. But it was a partial success.
Thirteen years after the East High Sportplex opened, it is no Tom Lee Park. The walking path is covered in spots by broken glass. One of the baseball diamonds doesn't have any bases. Neither has any grass in the infield, and there are no outfield fences. The goals on the soccer field are falling down, and the nets are gone. If someone kicks a ball through the south goal, it is likely to roll all the way to Poplar Avenue. The football field has more sand and bare dirt than grass. Four guys working out on it Monday said they can't ever remember it being watered. There is quite a bit of litter on all the fields.
Maybe it shows what happens when you build a public facility next to a poor neighborhood. People drink beer in the park and throw their trash on the ground and become apathetic. Except we don't say that about Tom Lee Park, where people come to the music festival and drink beer and throw their trash on the ground. We don't expect the patrons to come back the next day and clean the place up. The workers hired by Memphis In May and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) do it for them. So the park and Mud Island and Riverside Drive look nice, which is as it should be.
But public parks and public facilities in other parts of Memphis are getting screwed. They're either tended by volunteers and the Memphis Park Commission or they're not tended at all. There's no fully staffed and separately budgeted RDC to watch over them. There's no $29 million project like Beale Street Landing to draw attention and public funds to them. There's no board of directors to write letters to the newspaper at the first sign of criticism. There's no catchy program with a shoestring budget and a name like Empty Nets or Stolen Bases or Green Fields to see that regular maintenance is done.
And that's a shame.