Yes, this is Memphis. And plenty of Memphians who live in old parts of the city never, ever go to Shelby Farms, which is outside the Interstate loop. And Memphis has more master plans than blues bars these days, what with the riverfront, Pyramid, Mid-South Fairgrounds, Graceland, zoo, airport aerotropolis, and Shelby Farms. And government doesn't have any extra money, or so they say.
But Shelby Farms has a conservancy of people who seem to know what they are doing and really want to get it right. There is $50 million in public and private money available. The road issue is finally resolved and construction is well underway. And Shelby Farms is more than 4,000 acres, which is five times the size of Central Park in New York City. If anything, it is too big. And there are no Pyramids or old buildings to adapt or tear down. And a river runs through it. And Mayor Herenton is sitting this one out.
Three design firms are bidding to become the master designer. The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy will pick a designer but not necessarily a design. The designer can pick and choose. As consultant Alex Garvin said, the goal is to turn an ordinary park into something extraordinary.
So by all means go to the main branch of the public library and see what the three design candidates have in mind. Their imagination defies summarizing. And visit the Shelby Farms website.
Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions you probably won't see any time soon.
The Willingham Express. Named for former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham, who once talked for 56 straight hours about the missing MATA bus station at FedExForum's parking garage, this park shuttle totes visitors and their bikes for free, 10 hours a day, from points around the city. To get it started, MATA provides the services of five of the 4,978 buses in its parking lot on North Watkins. To pay for it, the Madison Avenue trolley line is closed, and its three regular passengers are each given new cars instead.
The Welch Driving Range and Pitch-and-Putt. Named for developer Jackie Welch, who proposed selling off part of Shelby Farms along Germantown Parkway and putting in, among other things, a driving range to raise money to improve the rest of the park. The proposal received exactly one enthusiastic response -- mine. I hereby donate 50 used golf balls to the cause. And, priced right, I would bet that a driving range would draw more customers than any other feature in a park which looks, after all, like a golf course.
White Boy's House of Games. Features in-line skating, skateboarding, BMX course, paddle tennis, and NASCAR worship to the musical accompaniment of Memphis party bands of the Sixties.
The Great Memphis Yard Sale and Swap Shop. The problem with high-end designers is that they are high-end designers. Their work would be improved by spending a few weekend afternoons visiting yard sales in Frayser, Whitehaven, Cordova, Midtown, and Germantown. If this recession keeps up, the bargains will be unbelievable.
Sierra Club Hug-a-Tree. Featuring an actual tree transplanted from Overton Park's Old Forest for the zoo expansion. Wrap your arms around this baby and you'll be green in no time. Add-on to the one million new trees one designer has already proposed. A million is an abstraction; 1,000,001 is a real number.
Whac-A-Tree. Inspired by the popular game Whac-A-Mole, customers line up for a chance to take an ax or chainsaw to an actual tree while a member of the Sierra Club hurls verbal abuse.
MPD Free Bike Exchange. This one's for everyone in Memphis who has ever had a bike stolen, which is to say everyone in Memphis. The bikes are free, and the supply is regularly supplemented by the Memphis Police Department's impound lot. The catch is that they are painted dorky colors and have big-booty seats and sissy handlebars. Steal that? Damn, might as well bring it back or dump it in Patriot Lake, which is cleansed periodically of bikes, ala the Amsterdam canals.
Baby-Bass Pro Lake. Face it, The Pyramid is too hard to adapt. But Bass Pro polishes its tarnished image in Memphis by stocking new lakes and donating lures and worms to any fisherman under the age of 12 or over the age of 65.
Memphis Homebuilders Street-Soccer Complex. In honor of the Mexican laborers who built 98 percent of the homes in Shelby County in the last 15 years, this is no Mike Rose Fields. The fields are irregular size with patches of bare ground, uniforms and mothers are banned, and the official language is Spanish. If you can't speak it, you can't play. Best quesadillas in Memphis at the concession stand.
Design-On-A-Dime Gardens. One dime gets you and three of your friends land rights to a tenth of an acre garden plot. Free mulch, seeds, and use of tools. HGTV meets American Idol when park visitors pick the gardens of the year and winners get a free round-trip plane ticket to the famous garden of their choice.
Joeys Hard Luck Hardcourts. Named for Memphis Tiger Joey Dorsey, these outdoor courts have windscreens, lights, and decent nets. Several times a year, members of the Tiger basketball team show up for a free-throw shooting contest against all comers. Three out of ten usually takes it.
Bloggers Paint-Ball Pit. Hosted by blogger Thaddeus Mathews, players are divided into teams according to which group they hate the most -- blacks, whites, liberals, or Willie Herenton. No blood no foul. Masks mandatory to assure anonymity. Limited to first 5,000 entrants. Sponsored by The Med and the Memphis Funeral Directors Association.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."