Tom Lee Park Memphis Makeover: Unveiling the Stunning Riverfront Transformation!

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Tom Lee Park Memphis Makeover: Unveiling the Stunning Riverfront Transformation!

Tom Lee Park is a beautiful 31-acre park in Memphis located on Riverside Drive along the mighty Mississippi River. But don’t be fooled. The park pays tribute to one figure who stands out amongst many in Memphis’s rich history.

When I visited Memphis last summer, I knew I would enjoy the city’s rich musical culture and nightlife, but I didn’t expect this lovely green space. I didn’t expect it to be so close to downtown Memphis (home of the National Civil Rights Museum). At a quick 4-minute ride by car, the park is easily accessible and the perfect place for a brisk walk or a picnic in the park.

But the story of Tom Lee, a local hero, is the most compelling story about this beautiful green space. From its humble beginnings to a recent remodel, Tom Lee Park Memphis has become a symbol of community and resilience and the perfect spot to embrace the heart of Memphis. Let’s embark on a journey through time and celebrate the legacy that makes this park a true treasure on the riverfront.

Tom Lee: A Hero’s Tale

Background of Tom Lee

As I have grown older, I have begun to love the stories of our American history differently than in my youth, including the good, the bad, and the sometimes very ugly. These history stories tell so much about humanity in all its forms. Tom Lee’s story is very good in our complicated American history.

In the early 20th century, Tom Lee, a 39-year-old black man and river worker, lived a quiet life as a Memphis resident. On May 8, 1925, he found himself in a situation that would forever etch his name in the annals of Memphis history.

An image of Tom Lee, after who Tom Lee Park Memphis was named
Photo credit:  https://historic-memphis.com/biographies/tom-lee/tom-lee.jpg

A Heroic Act on the Mississippi River

On that fateful day, a terrible accident occurred on the Mississippi River. Tom Lee had just finished dropping his boss off downriver and was returning to Memphis on the small, wooden motorboat he affectionately called Zev. What happened next changed many lives, but not least of all, Tom Lee himself.

The M.E. Norman, a steamboat less than a year old, was traveling the same course as the Zev and carrying passengers for the first time. The current was too much for the Norman on this day, and it capsized near Memphis, leaving many passengers and crew members stranded in the turbulent waters, many wearing heavy clothing of the time, which made swimming near impossible. 

Mr. Lee, who had never learned to swim, watched as the boat listed to the side and eventually dumped passengers and crew into the cold and quickly moving current. Despite the strong currents and what must’ve been an overwhelming sense of fear, he jumped into action, repeatedly going back into the rushing river with the Zev, collecting the panicked people by the small boatload and carrying them to the local sandbar, only to head back in again and again. All told, he saved the lives of 32 people that day.

Tom Lee’s Impact on the Community

Tom Lee’s selfless heroism thrust him into the spotlight long before social media or even daily TV news shows existed. It didn’t take long before he was lauded as a local hero, receiving tributes and gifts from all over the country. He was offered a more secure and much safer job as a sanitation worker, and the Engineers Club went a step further by raising funds to purchase Mr. Lee a new home in north Memphis. President Calvin Coolidge even celebrated Lee at the White House.

Tom Lee’s actions rendered him a legend and a symbol of heroism and compassion in Memphis. His actions showcased the city’s true spirit, where neighbors look out for one another, no matter the circumstances.

Evolution of Tom Lee Park Memphis

Early Days and Establishment

When Lee died from cancer in 1952, the city memorialized him by dedicating Astor Park as Tom Lee Park in 1954. Later, in 1991, the Corps of Engineers expanded the park to the current size we see today.

In addition to naming the waterfront park for Tom Lee, city fathers erected a 30-foot memorial pillar in the park, complete with an inscription and a tribute to the “Very Worthy Negro,” which is offensive under the best of circumstances, despite its original intent.

Tom Lee Park Through the Years

When damaged by forces of nature in 2003, a much more moving permanent installation replaced the original memorial pillar with the offensive tribute. The new installation is a sculpture that depicts Lee as he helps a struggling swimmer onto the Zev.

The view of the sculpture from the victim's feet.
“Sculpture by Wyoming sculptor David Alan Clarke”
A closeup of the hands in the Tom Lee Sculpture - covered in raindrops.
“Sculpture by Wyoming sculptor David Alan Clarke”
A view of the statue from the perspective of the victim's hand, showing Tom Lee's face
“Sculpture by Wyoming sculptor David Alan Clarke”
The entire sculpture depicting Tom Lee rescuing drowning victims.
“Sculpture by Wyoming sculptor David Alan Clarke”

The upgraded monument sits in the centerpiece of an illuminated plaza dedicated to Lee, a much more fitting tribute to this man and his humble bravery.

Over the years, the main draw to the park has been the renowned Memphis in May International Festival, held annually. Besides this annual event, Tom Lee Park has been a primarily overlooked public space since its inception in 1936. The park was rudimentary in its purpose, with flat, green space and some trees. It is lovely but without a specific purpose and easy access.

The Remodel: A Community Experience

Community Engagement and Involvement

Memphis’s title, River City, doesn’t mean much if it isn’t leveraging its proximity to the Mississippi River. Memphis has always had deep connections to the river, but as time has passed, the role of the river in Memphis’ culture and daily life has changed. Tom Lee Park Memphis is one of the city’s greatest river-front assets, so a few years ago, a new plan began to unfold for this vastly undervalued resource.

In 2017, the City of Memphis, under the leadership of Mayor Strickland and the Memphis River Parks Partnership, assembled a task force to begin re-imagining the space and how it could bring Memphis residents to the riverfront. Four thousand people of Memphis partnered with Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice headquartered in Chicago, to begin creating the new Memphis Riverfront Concept that would include nearby River Garden, Fourth Bluff Park, and the River Line – a five-mile pedestrian and bike trail connecting them to Tom Lee Park.

Designers began drawing up plans for Tom Lee Park in 2019 and included input from local teen members of the Youth Design Leadership program. In March 2020, as the nation was suddenly in the grip of Covid, plans were unveiled. I can think of nothing more inspirational during these days than the hope of a new community space designed by the community—a sign of hope for when the world would return to normal just a few years later.

Michigan Road Trips banner image with pink background and navy and white words, including an image of Michigan

But a national pandemic didn’t slow down the $61 million project. Construction began in December 2020 with a target open date of September 2023. When I visited in August of 2023, the park was nearing completion and opened as scheduled just a few weeks later on Labor Day Weekend.

I couldn’t get in to see it, but I did sneak a peek from a nearby overlook. I knew I’d have to get back to see the finished project, and I was not disappointed!

a view of Tom Lee Park from a nearby hill
On my first visit to Memphis, the park was still closed, but I got a peek from a nearby hill.

Overview of the recent remodel

The revamped park is like a breath of fresh air, although rain poured down the entire day when I returned for my second visit to explore it! What’s a photographer to do? I stopped in at the nearby Bass Pro Shop Pyramid, picked up a heavy-duty rain poncho, and set out for the park anyway! Although it was wet and cold, I could still appreciate the beauty of the new, improved park.

The very wet Hip Grandma poses with Park Ranger Nicole.
I made a new friend. Meet Lead Park Ranger Nicole. Nicole gave me a wonderful tour of the park, even though we were both drenched by the end.
a group of people staying dry inside the rental hut at Tom Lee Park.
This group of uber-friendly Rangers were happy to answer my questions, and even shared a piece of pizza with this cold, wet traveler!

They’ve transformed the expansive lawns into a haven of native ecosystems, added spots for recreation and bird watching, and created winding paths inspired by the river. Picture this: 1,000 new trees, public art that sparks joy, playful areas for all ages, and a cool shade canopy for events. This park is just waiting to be explored!

Community Reactions and Feedback

The community that rallied behind the plans has received the park with welcome arms. Many have applauded the nods to nature, the open spaces, and the attention to detail in ensuring the park is beautiful and functional.

As with any significant project in today’s world, some have concerns about the safety of the new park, especially given the city’s history with crime. A lovely park is worth nothing if it is unsafe for visiting families. But this detail did not fly under the radar, either. The new park incorporates overnight security, a lighting system for increased visibility, and security cameras. Of course, good behavior goes a long way in today’s world. Everyone will benefit if those using the park do their part in keeping it clean and friendly.

Exploring Tom Lee Park Today

Features and amenities

The new, improved park includes four distinct spaces, each serving a unique purpose. Let’s take a look at those spaces.

Civic Gateway

The Civic Gateway is on the park’s North end, easily accessible from Beale St. and Vance Ave. Within the Civic Gateway, you can find the Lynne Jordan Turley Plaza, home of the Whirl sculpture. The Carlisle Cutbank Bluff is an ADA-accessible pathway that connects downtown Memphis with the river and is home to more than 50,000 native plants.

Park planning thought of everything, including a misting fountain in the AutoZone Plaza. This fountain is best enjoyed in low light, so you can appreciate the onboard color-changing lights. But before you settle in for the view of the fountain, treat yourself to a cone from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Finally, Visionary Grove pays tribute to those who donated to the rebuilding of Tom Lee Park Memphis and is nestled within a shaded grove of trees, another great option for enjoying that cone.

Active Core

The Active Core of Tom Lee Park Memphis is aptly named as it is always bustling with activity and the perfect place for those who want to get busy enjoying the park. With too many features to list individually, I’ll focus on some of my favorites here. 

The playground is a child’s dream. Bring your kids, or enjoy watching the crowd of happy kids climb, slide, and swing among the many animal-designed play structures based on animals who inhabit the Mighty Mississippi.

River animals are the basis for a children's playground
a giant yellow salamander slide
two children in rain gear splash in a puddle.
two children in rain gear splash in a puddle.
two children in rain gear splash in a puddle.
Turns out kids can find fun in the park even when it’s pouring down rain!

A poignant reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in today’s culture, the park now features a canopy in honor of Tyre Nichols, a Memphis resident who died violently by police in a traffic stop in January 2023. This dedication celebrates Tyre’s memory and enriches the park with the memory of someone who made a lasting impact.

Large plaques declare the space as a memorium to Tyre Nichols.
The Tyre Nichols basketball counrt
The canopy that covers the Tyre Nichols Courts is a work of art.

The 15,000+ square foot multi-use canopy is perfect for the community to enjoy yoga, concerts, or a friendly basketball game. Don’t miss the fantastic mural by James Little on the canopy’s surface.

Look for a putting green, the fitness zone, complete with outdoor gym equipment and a training area, then relax on the First Horizon River Lounge, overlooking the Mississippi. The Hanover Welcome Center has equipment you can borrow from the staff park ranger.

a putting green with the Mississippi River and a bridge in the background.

And if you’re hungry for more than just that ice cream, you’ll have no trouble finding a bite to eat at the Paper Plate Pavilion.

Community Batture

Nestled within the park, the Community Batture is a verdant, wooded area providing a serene setting for socializing and enjoying time with friends. Here, you’ll find Heroes Plaza, featuring David Allan Clark’s sculpture of Tom Lee blending into the breathtaking natural surroundings. Adjacent to it stands A Monument to Listening, a fresh interpretation of Lee’s legacy crafted by Theaster Gates.

a plaque that explains the meaning of the Monument to Listening in Tom Lee Park.
Shiny black simplistic seats arranged chaotically on a cement pad.

Bring a book and relax in one of the hammocks hanging in a grove of trees along the edge of the river in what is aptly called Hammock Grove. The Prospect is an impressive stone staircase overlooking a lawn perfect for events. And for those who crave a family-friendly picnic space, look no further than the elevated Picnic Deck, complete with long wooden picnic tables, ready for the next family reunion or party!

a mesh hammock hangs between wood poles.
a wooded section of park containing a hammock slung between two wooden posts.

Habitat Terrace

Finally, a summary of the park’s features would not be complete without giving some attention to the Habitat Terraces, the perfect place for kids and adults to immerse themselves within the ecosystem of the Mighty Mississippi with multiple hands-on experiences. You’ll even find an on-site classroom created for outdoor education, a sound garden cozied up near the Rhodes Pollinator Lab, and a wooden deck filled with lovely pollinator plantings.

Outdoor classroom at Tom Lee Park with a plaque labeling this as the Rhodes Pollinator Lab

The Crossroads of Civil Rights History

Memphis stands at the crossroads of Civil Rights history due to several pivotal events in history, including the sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is commemorated through the interactive displays in the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Memphis is a central hub in the ongoing fight for justice and racial equality.

The transformation of Tom Lee Park carries the promise of challenging ingrained racial stereotypes and perceptions. The newly redesigned park symbolizes a shared space for community activities, gatherings, recreation, and celebration – transcending racial divides.

multi-colored background with the words "let's be friends" printed on top with "click here to join the facebook group"

By fostering inclusivity, Tom Lee Park Memphis becomes a testament to the city’s commitment to unity, echoing the resilience and progress depicted in the Civil Rights Museum. This evolution of public spaces holds the potential to reshape narratives, promoting equity and a more harmonious vision for Memphis, its diverse community, and all who visit.

“There are so many stereotypes based in racism, but when people see families together, and they see dads involved with their kids, you see those little kids, and they are so beautiful,” says Carol Coletta, President and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership. “You realize Memphis can be so strong if we can make a decision to leave no one behind. I believe this park will be the place where people can joyfully enjoy space together.” (New Tom Lee Park Will Be a Nature Game Changer for Memphis Neighborhood, Tonyaa J. Weathersbee, finding Nature News)

Wrapping it All Up

The new Tom Lee Park was well worth the wait, and I’m so glad I took the time to stop back and explore it in its finished state. The updated park provides a picturesque green oasis, recreational opportunities, and a tribute to Tom Lee, all against the backdrop of the stunning Mississippi River. More than just a park, it stands as a tribute to the enduring legacy of a true Memphis hero.

A downtown Saturday is transformed with many options available at the new riverfront, from playtime with the kids at the best playground in town to fitness classes under the Sunset Canopy or simply relaxing with a book in a hammock and wrapping up the day with a beautiful sunset. Tom Lee Park Memphis now caters to both grand events and everyday meaningful moments.

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PIN image for an article about the Tom Lee Park Renovation including an image of the Tom Lee Sculpture.