Tag Archives: Memphis


I took a quiet walk in the old growth at Overton Park yesterday. It’s the park of my youth, where I spent many days at the playground, the zoo and searching for secret places. Much has changed, but the most important things remain unchanged, thanks to a handful of conservationists and good thinkers.

The leaves are just starting to turn in the Upper Delta, and our colors should be good this year thanks to good rainfall and cool nights. As I walked along the moistened path, my mind raced back fifty years and to the simple joys I had here. I felt grateful to still be here, winding through the oaks, elms, box elder and pawpaw trees, enjoying the fall display and unmistakable quiet. After a couple of near death experiences in recent years, every moment on this side of the dirt means a lot.

Overton is an old park acquired by the city of Memphis in 1901. In those days, it would have been on the eastern edge of the city. Memphis was born at the foot of the Mississippi River and grew eastward from downtown. We almost lost the park in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when “planners” (terrorists) decided to extend a dreadful interstate through the heart of the park. But some clever and energetic nature lovers, including a few with very deep pockets, blocked it and saved the park with a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court. That effort eventually became The Overton Park Conservancy, and they’re still active today fighting the nitwits at the zoo who want to claim additional acreage for parking.

Today, Overton is an urban park deep in the city surrounded by a mix of upscale, historic homes but only a stone’s throw from poverty, hopelessness and high crime. In that sense, it’s not unlike many other urban parks, except this is my native park. This is my community. My home and one that I share with hundreds of non-human species.

Memphis is 65% African American, but the trails, both here and at Shelby Farms slightly east of here, are mostly used by white people. Thanks to institutionalized racism, we’re generally better educated and affluent and therefore have more leisure time. Too many in our African American community, thanks to the failures of Reconstruction and one hundred years of Jim Crow, are struggling just to keep the lights turned on. They often work multiple jobs. Who has time for nature walks when MLGW is getting ready to cut off your lights? Life isn’t equal behind The Magnolia Curtain.

It’s a sad situation as nature, especially wilderness (assuming there’s any real wilderness remaining), has such healing power. In order to really know how the world works, you need time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. To escape the tedium of driving through traffic to work for taskmasters that hold equity you’ll never get your hands on. It seems the great American outdoors is the private playground for those with wealth, great educations and leisure time. It’s the domain of the Patagonia crowd with their Subarus adorned with bike racks and prep school decals. And that’s a shame, because the natural world belongs to all of us. How can a child function successfully in the world if it doesn’t understand how the world actually works?

But Overton is waits, quiet and still, as it has been for the millennia. It waits for all. All it needs is more lovers.


I become attached to places. Some are easy to understand, like my grandmother’s house where we always had Christmas Eve dinner. I drive by it this time of year and reflect on those times, especially the coconut cake and home made custard she’d make for dessert. But other places, like my father’s office building, require some explanation. After all, what sort of kid forms an attachment to an office building?

The building was a high rise in downtown Memphis, and my father was there during a period of prosperity for our family. Most of the time we weren’t particularly prosperous, so I’m sure that has something to do with it. It was a rare, good period for us as a family, and the building stood as a symbol of those years. In fact, all of downtown Memphis reminds of me of those years, from 1966 to 1969. Memphis had a wonderful downtown with shopping and restaurants, a grand Christmas parade on Main and was the place to be.

Then, in the 1970’s, the population shifted eastward, Main Street was turned into a walking mall no one knew what to do with and downtown died.

But in the 60’s, things were so alive. Goldsmith’s downtown department store, another long standing place attachment, was full of shoppers and had the locally well-known Enchanted Forest. The Forest had snowmen, reindeer and penguins all living in a fantasy world of snow and igloos. It twisted and turned beneath a sparkling roof of ice and snow and ended with the line to Santa Claus.

Me and Santa at The Enchanted Forest

Father’s building, at the time known as the First National Bank Building, was tall and silver and had its own version of the Enchanted Forest in the lobby. My dad took me one December day in his gold 1969 Chrysler New Yorker. I was probably seven years old and vividly remember its electric windows and fancy seats. This was real luxury, and I remember feeling much more important and regal in it than I’d felt in our previous car, a Plymouth Valiant.

Once inside the building, he took me over to the Christmas display and then up the elevator to the top floors so I could look out the windows. I was in awe. I thought I could see the whole world from there, despite the building only being 25 floors in height.

The car is long gone, and my father died last year. The building remains. They don’t do the Christmas display anymore, but every time I see that building my mind drifts back to that day when I thought my father and I were kings of the universe.

Father’s Building

Place is important to us, because it plays a major role in defining who we are. The land, its flora and fauna and its culture all shape us. Our stories, traditions and little moments in time. It’s where our memories are made. Places serve as points of recall, of events that can be good or bad. I have some of both. Some places we want to remember. Others we’d soon forget.

I’ve always appreciated good architecture, buildings that are built so they can stand the test of time. I tend to believe most of our architecture today is loathsome, but not because of their modern design. I love the evolution of design. It’s the materials that bother me. These days, we build buildings to maximize profit, so developers put the cheapest materials they can find into a project. The problem is in twenty-five years time they will be uninviting, warped and crumbling eyesores.

Lucky for me, so many places of my youth remain. Goldsmith’s is gone, but the well crafted building that housed it remains and is renovated. Even my parents first apartment building in Midtown Memphis remains, because it was made of brick and quality materials. So does my mother’s childhood home, which was also my childhood home. They’ll all outlive me, as they should.

As for the memories, I suppose their lifespan depends on my ability as a storyteller. If I tell them well, perhaps my children will keep them alive for a few more decades. After that, it becomes a bit dicey. I remember stories my grandmother told me of her father, especially the one about the Bolesheviks stealing his cotton shipment in port. My children know that one. You should, too.

I’ll save it for another time.