The last time I visited the Memphis Zoo was the first "Fake Spring" day of 2015. Fake Spring is the term I use for those late-winter, 70-degree teases everyone savors because they signal the impending change of seasons, though there's also a 50/50 chance an ice-nado or some other freakish weather event is about to roll through town within a few days.
It was a Sunday afternoon. My friend and I weren't the only ones eager to get outside for a glimpse at the majestic animal kingdom in our own backyards, as we were joined by practically every family in the tri-state area.
After I paid my five bucks and circled the lot a few times, I wound up having to park on the grass. My friend, who is not from the area, couldn't believe cars were allowed to park there.
"This is not ideal," I thought. The ground was still squishy from a recent rain. I hated to think of what the vehicles were doing to the grass and soil, and my hatchback isn't exactly built for off-roading.
Had I known, I probably would have found a free spot on the street and walked the extra distance. The mosquitoes weren't out yet, and I have two working legs.
Until last week, "this is not ideal" was about as strong as my opinion ever got on the matter of the parking situation at the Zoo. I saw room for compromise. "We're so popular, no one can find a parking space" seems like a good problem to have, one that all parties involved should, ideally, be eager to solve together. I read a handful of options for a permanent solution, and I assumed we citizens could sit back and watch the two sides work it out for the sake of the community.
How, after 25 years of living in Memphis, could I be so naïve? Working out a reasonable solution that benefits everyone — that's crazy talk. When has it ever been that simple?
The latest battle in the war over the Overton Park Greensward ("Treegate," if you must) is too petty to ignore. Did anyone at the Memphis Zoo envision a scenario in which cutting down — excuse me, removing — 27 trees would result in anything other than a public relations imbroglio? Who signed off on that? Did they think no one would notice? And then, to double down by accusing the conservancy of maliciously planting the trees? Surely at this point the intention must be to alienate the entire city. It's the only possible explanation. That's one way to eliminate the need for overflow parking, I suppose.
I understand the challenge the Zoo is facing. They're trying to get people through the gates. They keep renovating, hosting events, and adding exhibits and attractions to provide us a reason to come back, and it's working. The facilities have come a long way since my elementary school field trips. Ya Ya's fertility struggles aside, the Memphis Zoo has the distinction of housing one-sixth of the United States' giant panda population. The Teton Trek exhibit is magnificent. The polar bears are super cool (har, har). Success hasn't come without cost, though.
Parking wasn't as much of a concern in 1906, when the Overton Park Zoo was founded, but now the Zoo is literally backed into a corner. And 45 years after citizens fought to keep I-40 out of the heart of the city, Overton Park is still fighting to keep the cars out.
It may no longer be in the name, but the Memphis Zoo is a part of Overton Park, for better or worse. Trees are not a "nuisance to patrons." They're a feature of parks, in case our friends at the Zoo forgot that "park" is not short for "parking lot." Removing trees and destroying grass are actions that aren't just un-neighborly — they're incompatible with the mission of conservation, whether the space in question is used 60 days a year or 365.
Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo share a common goal of bringing joy to local families. It's time to remember that and start acting like adults.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing strategist.