Take Me to the River 

Memphis has been named a best travel destination, or a variation thereof, several times in recent weeks. The website Travel Lemming called Memphis "the next hot Southern city." Frommer's Travel Guide put Memphis in its "19 Best Places to visit in 2019." The Travel Channel said Memphis was the "hottest Southern Destination of 2019." And TripSavvy, a leading travel site, named Memphis as the best overall travel destination of 2019. Like, in the world. Dang.

They like us. They really like us.

But why? Well, the usual litany gets mentioned in most of these stories: First, there's the Holy Trinity of Beale Street, barbecue, and blues. Then there's the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, Bass Pro Pyramid, the Peabody, the Memphis Zoo, and, of course, all the music attractions: the Stax Museum, Sun Studio, the Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum, the Blues Hall of Fame, etc. Also getting some press lately are Crosstown, South Main, Overton Square, Broad Avenue, and Cooper-Young.

click to enlarge Scale model of the new Tom Lee Park - BRUCE VANWYNGARDEN
  • Bruce VanWyngarden
  • Scale model of the new Tom Lee Park

That's a pretty impressive litany.

But increasingly, these travel stories are also starting to mention the charms of the Mississippi River. Here's Trip Savvy: "The Mississippi River, the second longest river in North America, forms Memphis' western border. ... There are nearly five miles of parks along the river, which are ideal for outdoor recreation. In addition, riverboat cruises, canoe rentals, and other water activities are available. Visitors can also walk along a scale model of the lower Mississippi River on Mud Island ... or cross the Mississippi on the Big River Crossing, a new bridge with walkways and bike trails." They didn't even mention our cool, new bridge lights.

And, as you may have heard or read, our Mississippi riverfront is about to get a major makeover, including a massive re-design of Memphis' front yard — Tom Lee Park. Last year, the Mississippi River Parks Partnership (MRPP) picked Studio Gang, a Chicago-based design firm, and SCAPE, a New York landscape and urban design firm, to lead the redevelopment of the riverfront. This week, they unveiled the plans for Tom Lee Park and set up a nifty scale model of the proposed transformation for public viewing at Beale Street Landing.

I went down to check it out, and, well, it's pretty transformative, to say the least. The now prairie-like expanse of the mile-long park will soon have small hills, trees, pocket parks, connective gravel paths, a sheltered recreational and concert space, water features, three large fields (called "pools" in the plan), and a nature area with a bird-nesting tower.

When the plan was released, skepticism was rampant and it hit the usual notes: Why use outside developers? What's wrong with the park now? The plan is too cluttered. How will Music Fest and the barbecue contest work? And what if we get another flood like 2011, when Tom Lee was a couple feet under water, will it all get washed away?

Good questions, especially the last two. So I posed them to George Abbott, director of external affairs for MRPP. He said the plan for Music Fest is to utilize the three large fields for concert stages, and use the sheltered facility as the Blues Tent. As for the barbecue fest, it appears the likeliest scenario may be to put the teams on Riverside Drive. 

And what if another flood comes? Abbott said the design firm has had experience creating parks with fluctuating water features nearby, and the park is designed with an awareness of the Mississippi's flooding potential. How that stops the river from rising, I'm not sure, but presumably the park-scape is designed to weather it.

I'm from Missouri, so I'm as skeptical as they come (Show me!), but I have to say, this park design is pretty impressive, maybe even spectacular. I think the biggest questions will revolve around Memphis in May events. If we get the usual rains for Music Fest, those gravel paths will get a workout, and the "pools" may live up to their name. That said, I really hope MRPP can pull off this ambitious re-imagining of one our seminal public spaces. Call me Pollyanna, but I'm even kind of excited about it.

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