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A Letter to the Memphis City Council

The council gets an “F” for its performance on the Greensward decision.

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To the Memphis City Council: What I witnessed in council chambers last week is the kind of behavior that makes the public mistrustful and apathetic toward their government. You pretended to listen to us, but then did what the moneyed interest (the Memphis Zoo) dictated and voted to give them the Overton Park Greensward. (Before the meeting, I saw zoo CEO Chuck Brady walk up to a councilman and give him a shoulder squeeze. That spoke volumes.) 

Introducing this drastic resolution and voting on it the same day was meant to keep the public in the dark. But much to your disappointment, we found out and showed up to voice our opposition.

Despite pretending to consider parking options, mediation, an expert study, and hearing dozens of informed pleas, despite your duty to all Memphians to preserve free, wholesome recreational space, the council demonstrated that it was all a charade orchestrated by the zoo and its council supporters: a landgrab, pure and simple.

Clearly, the zoo and its council supporters never intended to find a mutually agreeable solution to the parking problem. Handing over the Greensward was put forth as an convenient "resolution" to the issue. It's not.

We have a great zoo, but their leadership is 100 percent wrong-headed in its efforts to devour the beautiful and historic park that is their home. Overton Park is so historically significant that it's featured in the upcoming PBS documentary 10 Parks that Changed America. So now we're going to park cars on its primary public space?

After approximately 25 park advocates spoke, the last two slots (with extended time) were given to the only zoo advocates present, Barbara Holt-Ware and a Rev. Brown. Both of them, in a blow to Memphis race relations, bizarrely insisted that parking on the Greensward was something only bigots could oppose.

Next, Councilman Berlin Boyd and City Attorney Allan Wade chastised the citizen attendees, painting us as indifferent to unrelated issues simply because we rallied to prevent this landgrab from sneaking through council. Public comments were closed at that point, so no one in the audience could address the errors and oversights in these accusations. Racism is still a problem in Memphis, but, in this case, it was a red herring, meant to divert attention from solving the real issue. Wade  finally "summarized" the resolution in biased terms worthy of Fox News.

Ironically, the upper-income white people associated with the zoo board and its representatives on city council are the ones benefiting most from manipulating those who played the race card. If any of those favoring parking on the Greensward actually cared about creating zoo access for low-income people, they'd work toward fixing our public transportation system. As it is now, good luck finding a bus that will take you to the zoo.

It's time to take zoo parking and expansions to satellite locations and create a Memphis Zoo system. Post-debacle spin from the council and zoo advocates is still painting park supporters as uninformed, when it's been the Overton Park Conservancy that's been bending over backwards to cooperate and provide noninvasive solutions to the problem.

It takes a long time to fix the big problems you accused us of not caring about. But maybe if you try, you can resolve them as fast as you "resolved" the park issue on Tuesday — in under eight hours without bothering the public with the pesky details.

The lack of on-topic council discussion preceding the vote revealed that you are unfamiliar with the value of free, urban greenspace, as is made clear in the Alta study, which is nearly finished and commissioned for the benefit of the city, the zoo, and Overton Park. Your refusal to discuss the issue thoroughly also highlighted the fact that the council members, whose constituents filled the chamber Tuesday, are not answering to the people who elected them, but to political pressure and big money.

In closing: Cheers to Councilman Martavius Jones, the lone "No" vote, and to Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, who ultimately voted "Yes," but only after trying to give the public more time to review the resolution. And jeers to Chairman Kemp Conrad for "trying to move this thing along" by refusing pleas from Jones, Robinson, and Memphis citizens for more time. 

This isn't over.

Mary Norman is a noted Memphis artist and Overton Park lover.

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