Memphis Greenspace, the nonprofit that bought two Downtown parks and removed the Confederate statues from them last year, is now looking to activate and reinvent the spaces.
After additional Confederate memorabilia was removed from Memphis Park last weekend, Van Turner, director and president of Greenspace, said there are no longer any impediments in the park.
“Let’s recreate the parks and put there what people want,” Turner said. “The slate is clean.”
Over the weekend, proof of the clean slate was evident in Memphis Park, as it housed the city’s inaugural Dîner en Blanc, a pop-up dinner party established in Paris in the late ’80s.
Penelope Huston, vice president of marketing at the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), one of Greenspace’s community partners, said 1,175 people attended the dinner and with the Confederate memorabilia still in the park that type of event “would not have been possible.”
When the organizer of the pop-up dinner came to Memphis looking for an event venue, Huston said “there was no place she wanted to be more” after learning about the history of Memphis Park.
“It made sense to help wipe the slate clean,” Huston said.
In an average week, the park also brings in more than 200 people for DMC-sponsored yoga and pilates classes.
“All this is bringing in thousands of people who haven’t experienced that park before who are now coming into Downtown and engaging with the parks,” Huston said. “Those numbers are important because they would have all been zero before.”
However, things are moving slower in Health Sciences Park where Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife are still buried.
Turner said he hopes that the litigation surrounding the graves and markers will wrap up by the end of the year.
There has already been efforts to do programming in Health Sciences Park, Huston said, but there hasn’t been a lot of community engagement. “We haven’t given up, though.”
Huston said the challenge is getting people back into parks where they previously hadn’t felt welcomed.
“Because people have been out of those spaces for a while, they have to be trained to come back in,” Huston said.
Still, Turner said there is a lot of potential at both park and that Greenspace is working with its community partners — the DMC, Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Memphis River Parks Partnership, Memphis Bloom, and UT Health Sciences — to further activate the parks.
The nonprofit is also open to suggestions about what should be implemented in the parks, Turner said. Feedback can be submitted on the Greenspace website.
Pop-up playgrounds, more seating, and art installations are all possibilities for the future, he said.
As far as memorializing any one person in the parks, which was an idea floated around by activists after the statues were removed, Turner said he thinks they should be temporary, rotating every several months.
“From a creative standpoint, we don’t want to be stuck in the mud, stuck in history, and get caught flat-footed again,” Turner said. “We want the park to be living, breathing, and fluid, while being able to change and reinvent itself.”
Turner said that’s the direction the city should go in as well, as “Memphis needs to reinvent itself and not be stuck in the past.”
“We need to constantly be evolving and reinterpreting what is already here,” Turner said. “That’s how you grow and how you keep people coming back.”