Memphis’s long-neglected Tom Lee Park gets an overhaul, and Theaster Gates wants to honor its namesake

Heal the Land

Memphis’s long-neglected Tom Lee Park gets an overhaul, and Theaster Gates wants to honor its namesake

Each section of the new Tom Lee Park will differ from the one preceding it, creating an urban-to-wilderness gradient (© Studio Gang and SCAPE/Courtesy Memphis River Parks Partnership)

Work on a $60 million project to overhaul a long-neglected stretch of Memphis, Tennessee’s Mississippi River waterfront is moving swiftly. Begun in 2019, the transformation of the 30-acre Tom Lee Park into a public gathering space and resilient stormwater barrier is unfolding according to a master plan by Chicago’s Studio Gang and landscape and park design by New York’s SCAPE. Now, the redevelopment has gained another notable contributor: artist, educator, and urbanist Theaster Gates.

As announced on October 6, the Chicago-based Gates will contribute a site-specific artwork that celebrates the park’s namesake, a Black river worker who, in 1925, heroically saved 32 people from drowning when the M. E. Norman steamboat capsized on the Mississippi. A Monument to Listening will be split into two installations within a contemplative section of the new park known as the Community Batture. Gates’s pair of bronze sculptures, financed through a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will anchor two new plazas paved with stone and brick. Community programming launched in partnership with Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum and poetry competitions are also planned to engage both sites.

An aerial photo of a long switchback path in Tom Lee park
Construction at Cutbank Bluff is currently underway (Montgomery Martin/Courtesy Memphis River Parks Partnership)

A Monument to Listening is my attempt at leveraging the traditional monument to new potentials,” said Gates after his involvement was made public, “while honoring and celebrating the heroic actions of Tom Lee. I want Tom Lee to be remembered as the human who saw other human lives as equally valuable as—if not more valuable than—his own, and to invite people to visit the site and have the same encounter with their own humanity. This is my small contribution to the possibility of healing.”

The day after, on October 7, Studio Gang and SCAPE publicly presented updated renderings of the final design as well as photos of the ongoing construction. Programming-wise, the park is broken up into four linear segments, including the so-called Active Core, which will hold its playscape (designed by the Danish firm Monstrum) and a 100,000-square-foot central lawn. Next to it will be the aforementioned Community Batture, which will feature a river overlook. A 16,000-square-foot timber pavilion to accommodate everything from concerts to fitness classes will occupy a separate strip of the park, while in the Habitat Terraces, visitors will ascend a treetop walking trail elevated 120 feet from the ground.

A fitness class under a coffered wood pavilion
A fitness class under the timber Civic Canopy (© Studio Gang and SCAPE/Courtesy Memphis River Parks Partnership)

Tom Lee Park’s wending trails will be essential in both integrating the park with the greater city and in allowing patrons to enjoy the riverside views. Luckily, the state is showing the project plenty of love. On October 13, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation awarded $800,000 to help develop a trail along its western edge, along the river—part of a $7.5 million package aimed at creating trails across the state.

“People want to get to the river,” Memphis River Parks Partnership president Carol Coletta told the Daily Memphian. “You can either go to Martyrs Park and right across the bridge, taking the Big River Crossing or you can come north again up on the bluff walk.”