Nighttime view of a modern wooden pavilion with geometric roof design, lit from within, at a public park with city lights in the background.
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Tom Lee Park – Memphis, TN

11th Street Bridge Park

A structure with lights at night

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Nearly 100 years ago, a steamer ship carrying 72 passengers capsized in a frigid Mississippi River. African American Memphis resident Tom Lee sprang to action rescuing 32 people out of the frigid waters into his small boat. This act was even more courageous when one learns that Tom Lee could not swim. His legacy lives on in a remarkable new park along the river’s banks.

Tom Lee Park opened to the public Labor Day weekend 2024 – part of six miles of riverfront green spaces managed by the Memphis Parks Partnership led by parks visionary Carol Coletta. Designed by Studio Gang and SCAPE Studio, the park re-connects the public with the Mississippi River, its rich history and with Memphians. I had a chance to tour this amazing gem with park colleagues from Detroit and Buffalo. Here are some of my takeaways as we look to break ground on the 11th Street Bridge Park later this year. 

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Amplifying Local Heroes

The new park recognizes and celebrates the heroic actions of Tom Lee. He was a modest man stating that “I didn’t do any more than anyone else would have done in my place.” A dramatic sculpture of Mr. Lee with an outreached arm saving a drowning passenger is located at the center of the park along the Mississippi River’s banks. In his lifetime, Tom Lee was celebrated at the White House but over the years, his heroic deeds had begun to fade. The park that bears his name has put his legacy back in the spotlight. The park staff recently launched an annual poetry contest inviting high school students to submit work inspired by Lee’s courage, bravery and sense of community.

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Imagination Fueled Play

At the center of Tom Lee Park sit giant wooden river otters (+ baby otter!), sturgeon, caterpillar, and salamander. Designed by Danish playground company Monstrum, children climb in and around these humongous interactive wooden structures pushing themselves to explore and exercise their mind and body. Giant ladders and rope bridges encourage visitors to ascend to the top and slide back down.  These spaces emphasize the power of open-ended play and made me think about the Bridge Park’s Mussel Beach Playspace that will feature huge concrete mollusk shells for children to climb through, driftwood balance beams, and multiple slides exploring and educating visitors about the role of native mussels cleaning the Anacostia River below. 

Active and Quiet Spaces along the River

Tom Lee Park includes active spaces such as the playgrounds and a public basketball court covered with a “Sunset Canopy” – a remarkable 16,000 sq foot timber structure resting on steel columns. The surface of the court features brightly colored geometric designs by artist James Little – a native of Memphis. Hammocks are strung between the steel columns that reminded me of Bridge Park’s Hammock Grove that will feature swingable nets designed by DMV artists honoring community heroes. Just a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of the basketball court offer quiet spaces for reflection or a conversation with a friend.  

Power of Public Art

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One such contemplative space is an art installation by Theaster Gates titled “A Monument to Listening.” The work includes 32 functional sculptures made from basalt which represent the lives that Tom Lee saved. The artist statement encourages visitors to “reach a more human place in relation to your neighbors while seeing yourself reflected in these forms of memory.” The artwork asks the public to imagine a new future for Memphis, and how one might proactively enact change in the world. When the Bridge Park opens in a few short years, our new civic space will major installations including a 50 foot long mural honoring the Nacotchank tribe, a giant lighted sculpture inspired by the Anacostia’s native flora, and Anacostia Sunrise Sunset Portals by mother / daughter duo Martha Jarvis Jackson and Njena Surae Jarvis – 11 metal rings jutting from the ground at the park’s eastern entrance. 

After 8 years of community engagement, fundraising, design and construction, it was thrilling to see Tom Lee Park materialize in Memphis. On the several days I visited, the park overflowed with kids, adults and seniors representing locals and tourists alike. A HUGE congratulations to Carol Coletta and her team for their perseverance and persistence on realizing this powerful new space. We can’t wait to invite them to visit the Bridge Park when open in a few short years.

A group of kids playing on a playground

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The logo for 11th street bridge park.

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