The 31-acre Tom Lee Park is a reimagined public space just steps away from downtown Memphis, designed by Studio Gang and SCAPE, with a playground by MONSTRUM and an art installation by Theaster Gates. COURTESY CONNOR RYAN

Tom Lee Park Mixes It Up in Memphis

Located on the Mississippi River waterfront, the park is part of a plan to help different classes, communities, and histories commingle. 

A few blocks from the famous strip of Delta blues clubs on Beale Street, a stretch of shoreline redesigned as an alluring civic space for downtown Memphis opened this September. Embedded with multitudes of attractive features to draw residents from all parts of the city and its suburbs, as well as pollinator gardens to support wildlife, it’s the first built project to be directly helmed and developed by Carol Coletta, a formidable decades-long advocate for reinvestment, placemaking, and the civic commons. 

“I want to make cities successful, particularly those that get counted out,” says Coletta, a Memphis native who has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to art and design projects aimed at reviving American cities. “I’m big on people and places that have been roughed up. I think I can relate to it because I was counted out.” 

Memphis is nicknamed Bluff City for its location on a tall outcropping above the Mississippi River. A refuge for migrants from small towns in the Delta region in the early 20th century, it became an important place of economic opportunity and cultural mixing in the Southeast. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, a massive uprising accelerated white flight from the city. The National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the murder, a short walk from the riverfront, treats the balcony as hallowed ground. But much of Memphis’s historic fabric feels spotty. At times denigrated, at times elevated, in many places it remains empty and neglected. The riverfront was among those places.

The three principal figures in the creation of Tom Lee Park (bottom, left to right)—Carol Coletta, Kate Orff, and Jeanne Gang—have long been engaged in thinking deeply about Memphis and the Mississippi River. Coletta and Gang collaborated on a 2017 study of the city’s waterfront that eventually led to the redevelopment of Tom Lee Park, while Orff led a studio with Columbia University students that resulted in a series of proposals and visions for the Mississippi River system in 2021. COURTESY SCAPE & TY COLE
The central structure of the park is the 20,000-square-foot Civic Canopy, which, along with the adjacent river lawn and sunset deck, can host gatherings, sports, and festivals. COURTESY CONNOR RYAN

In 2017 Coletta, then a senior fellow in the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities program and a member of the mayor’s Riverfront Task Force, recommended Studio Gang to develop the Memphis Riverfront Concept, rethinking six miles of shoreline parks—including one that still featured a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis—as a series of vital places for neighboring and upland communities. 

Quickly, without attracting much attention, they removed the Confederate statue in Fourth Bluff Park. A $5 million grant from the Reimagining the Civic Commons project, which Coletta also spearheaded, aimed to turn it into a place where all Memphians could come together to connect with nature and one another. On the next block the renovated Cossitt Library reopened in the spring, and in 2026 the relocated Brooks Museum of Art, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, will follow. For Juneteenth this year, Fourth Bluff Park celebrated Black identity with a gigantic Afro pick sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas.

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“For me the animating question in Memphis is how you lean into your Blackness,” Coletta says. “In a racist America, how do you take your Blackness and turn it into an asset?”

Next on the list was Tom Lee Park, a barren levee topped with a thin layer of topsoil, named after Black local hero Tom Lee, who in 1925 rescued 32 passengers of a capsized sightseeing ferry in his small motorboat. Studio Gang initiated a Youth Design Leadership Program to engage nontraditional stakeholders in thinking about the park’s programs and connecting them with civic leaders. 

The specific desires were not unusual. “The things that they wanted were the things that are in every park, the things that make you want to go to the park for your own reasons: picnic, food, basketball, whatever,” says Studio Gang founder Jeanne Gang. “People have lots of different reasons, but they’re everyday reasons. The park just didn’t have any of that infrastructure for everyday stuff.”

The play equipment in the park, designed by MONSTRUM, references the fauna of the Mississippi River. COURTESY SCAPE & TY COLE

If all that was needed were to add basketball courts and picnic tables, you would not need Studio Gang. But the architects and Coletta argue emphatically that to create great civic places attracting people from all the city’s demographics, these functions need to be elevated, made alluring, using the backdrop of the Mississippi River and its bridges to Arkansas as highlights. “You’ve got to provide hope and a vision of what can be in an alluring way,” Coletta says. “You’ve got to provide allure.” 

Working with landscape architecture collaborator SCAPE, Studio Gang designed a switchback pathway that cuts back and forth down the bluff, making its main entrance accessible from above. A misting multicolored light-and-water feature marks the entry at one end of an existing pavilion’s rolling green roof. Asphalt and wooden paths are interwoven with pollinator gardens, widening at two junctures into lawns left open for the annual barbecue and blues festivals. 

Two dedicated buildings for food and drink vendors evoke the site’s industrial heritage with curving compositions of standing logs. An expansive wood-and-steel-beam pavilion with slits at the top and a mural beneath protects basketball courts and eating and drinking areas from sunlight and rain and frames views of the bridges. Nearby, an extensive, colorful playground by MONSTRUM is made up of custom-designed play equipment referencing native creatures of the Mississippi River. 

“The design is still very important because that’s what draws people to a place,” Gang says. “You need that spark too. A lot of times urban plans sit on the shelf, and if there isn’t something that makes people feel like ‘I really want to have that in my neighborhood,’ or something new and exciting, then it doesn’t seem like it takes.” 

Theaster Gates’s artwork A Monument to Listening consists of 32 honed basalt seats and a polished basalt sculpture, referencing the 32 ferry passengers saved by local hero Tom Lee. The artwork will be activated with site-specific programs by community curators Orpheum Theatre, the BIG We Foundation, and the UrbanArt Commission. COURTESY CONNOR RYAN

One of the ways the park embraces Black Memphis is by celebrating its namesake Tom Lee: Black Chicago-based art star Theaster Gates composed a sculpture of granite blocks cut into the shape of thrones, which are organized into circles for talking, listening, and observing, with a tall throne by the river dedicated to Lee. 

The goal, ultimately, is to make the park into one of those “third places” outside of the home and office where, in a society stratified more than ever by income levels and political ideology, social mixing happens across differences. “That is the goal: to break down the divides that are inherent in places like Chicago and other cities, where there are areas where you don’t feel welcome,” Gang says. “In a city like Memphis that is not used to using the waterfront as a place to go, there’s a huge hurdle to get over.”

Eventually a 450-foot flyway over one end of the park will extend over the wetlands, providing the best bird-watching areas and eye-catching views over the Mississippi. It aims to be an attraction for the whole region. “You need to accept that the magic is in the mixing,” Coletta says. “That’s what the best creative placemaking does. It creates that reason for mixing, that allure, that pull—to mix.” 

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