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Urban Jungles



The "Belvedere Triangle" is not as famous or as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle, but it may soon exist in stories and legends only. The Belvedere Triangle is a small tract of land at Belvedere and Madison that the city acquired in 1904, presumably after the construction of Madison Avenue. truction

The tiny triangle, barely large enough for one stone bench and several graceful trees, is one of more than 20 parks the City Council is considering selling.

Last week, the City Council parks committee took a virtual tour of 12 North Memphis park properties that are candidates for sale, the second phase of a project to divest unneeded park land. Several years ago, when members of the City Council joined the mayor and administration staffers on a bus tour of 10 park properties in South Memphis, they found someone's horses grazing on city land.

"We were looking for parcels and vacant pieces of property that will never be made into a park. They're a drain on the system because we have to mow and maintain them," said parks committee chair Scott McCormick.

Some of the identified property may be sold; other parcels may be transferred to nearby governmental entities, such as the Memphis City Schools (MCS).

In addition to the Belvedere Triangle, the city has identified a 20-acre park virtually hidden between Frayser and Raleigh, a recently closed street separated from Overton Park by a fence, and old soccer fields off James Road.

"We maintain it, but it's not used," parks services director Cynthia Buchanan said of the James Road property. "There are other soccer fields in the area."

Nearby Litty Park, a landlocked 21 acres, is also on the list. As is Highland Park, near Fairmont and the Memphis National Cemetery, which has no amenities and is encircled by homes that back up to it.

"All you can see are backyard fences," Buchanan said. "That's the worst thing you can do. You put houses around it, but you don't have any eyes on the park. ... We recommend it be surplused."

The Memphis branch of the Sierra Club sent the council a letter asking for a public hearing on the possible sales, and council members are amenable.

Naomi Van Tol is the local Sierra Club's conservation chair. "Before they go to a vote, we feel like there needs to be more public input," Van Tol said. "The neighborhoods need to have a chance to give their view of the parks. ... This land was bought with our tax dollars and intended to provide recreation to taxpayers."

Van Tol said the group is concerned with all the parks on the list but specifically cited Gragg Park on Jackson. The seven-acre park backs up to a junkyard, but it also abuts land slated to be part of the Wolf River Greenway. As such, it might make a nice companion green space.

"You're never going to get that land back if you sell it," said Van Tol.

Even though the council is talking about specific park property, the underlying discussion — what makes a successful park and what a park contributes to the community — is just as important.

Take Jackson Park, an eight-acre area of land next to Jackson Elementary School. It has no automobile access and, though it used to be used for ball fields, now sits vacant. Nearby houses back up to it, and the park is often used by pedestrians as a cut-through to Jackson Avenue.

The city could do a number of things with the park. Buchanan suggested transferring it to MCS or selling some of the land to build houses that would face the park.

Council member E.C. Jones pointed out that the city could add amenities and create more of a park atmosphere. "You're not going to have a picnic on a vacant lot," he said.

Jones also challenged the idea that a park has to be on a well-traveled street. "To say everything has to be on a Walnut Grove or a Riverside Drive where everyone can see it, neighborhood parks don't have to be that way."

I have to agree. Parks — especially those with non-specific uses — need to be watched to prevent crime, but those eyes can come from homeowners as easily as drive-thru park users. In fact, nearby homeowners and businesses could be more effective at preventing crime because they have a lasting stake in the park's character.

The fact that Jackson Park is currently used by pedestrians — even as a short-cut — suggests it is convenient to the neighborhood and could be successful with additional amenities and a residential area that faced into the park.

On the other hand, even small pocket parks on main thoroughfares can provide a respite for weary drivers.

"I may not stop," said council member Madeleine Cooper Taylor. "I may drive by, but they offer a visual resting place."

Councilman Joe Brown agreed: "Even a small strip gives people a sense of relaxation."

Sometimes, it seems, even a park like the Belvedere Triangle can help residents lose themselves. It would be a shame to see that disappear.

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