In the year of its 50th anniversary, a look back at the headlines, development and lingering aftermath of the epic, 1971 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe
By Mark Fleischer
In our collective memory, it was the final act, a Citizen’s victory over the United States Secretary of Transportation, parkland over concrete and exhaust fumes. In truth, it was but a victory at the end of Act II.
“High Court Orders Full Review Of Overton Park Freeway Case”
From the March 3, 1971 Commercial Appeal:
WASHINGTON, March 2 — The United States Supreme Court Tuesday remanded the Overton Park expressway case to Federal District Court in Memphis for a full review.
The decision marked a major victory for Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and other conservationists battling to prevent Interstate 40 from being built through the 342-acre park. It assured that construction would be again delayed, at least until a decision is made by the United States Dist. Judge Bailey Brown in Memphis and, of course, left open the possibility that efforts to run the freeway through the park might be permanently blocked.
/ re-mand / (law) / verb: to return (a case) to a lower court for reconsideration
For the group Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP), the so-called “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” it was indeed a major victory after roughly fourteen years of various public, private and legal battles to stop planners from the building of the expressway through the park. However for CPOP (formed as Committee For The Preservation Of Overton Park in 1957 and organized as CPOP in June of 1964), it was by no means the first hurdle and would not be the final one in stopping the interstate.
Judge Brown, who granted a summary judgement against expressway opponents on the basis of legal documents in the case on Feb. 26, 1970, was directed to make a full review to determine if federal laws were followed in the decision-making process.
“The court may require the administrative officials who participated in the decision to give testimony explaining their action,” the high courts’s 18-page opinion asserted.
If Judge Brown, after review, upholds the route though the park, opponents vow to appeal again. . . . If the judge were to find that the decision to go through the park was improper, planners probably would be forced to come up with an alternative route or to revise construction plans to protect the park.
“feasible and prudent alternative”
Section 4(f) of the Supreme Court decision put forth the following requirements:
After the effective date of this Act, the Secretary (of Transportation) shall not approve any program or project which requires the use of any land from a public park, recreation area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site unless (1) there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of such land, and (2) such program includes all possible planning to minimize harm to such park, recreational area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site resulting from such use.
In the case, “the Court found that the highway officials failed to make such a finding in its decision to route I-40 through Overton Park,” wrote Josh Whitehead in his 2016 Creme de Memph blog post. “This Supreme Court decision is not only significant for its impact on Overton Park and other urban parks throughout the country, but for its setting a standard of review of the federal courts over administrative law and government agencies.”
Alternatives: Over, Under, Around and Through
“In a vain effort to show there were other alternatives, but none that were reasonable or prudent,” Josh Whitehead wrote, “the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) looked at a few alternative routes for I-40 through Midtown.”
The alternatives numbingly continued to play out through the entire agonizing decade of the 1970s. TDOT would present a variety of plans, including a “cut and cover” tunnel plan that gained some popularity among some officials and citizens; another alternative route with an elevated I-40 over North Parkway; and a sunken roadway with an overhead “plaza design” that featured intervals of partially covered greenery and plazas.
In a May 1971 episode of PBS’ second season of Sesame Street, the muppet Grover gives little viewers a bouncy demonstration of the simple prepositions of position and movement with the little ditty “Over, Under, Around and Through.” Grover exhausts himself to the point of collapse in his efforts to go over, go under, go around near and far, and finally, through a set of saloon doors.
Certainly the writers and producers of the Over-Under-Through segment weren’t thinking of Memphis’ Overton Park Expressway when they produced it, but in terms of an accidental prophesy fit for children, it worked.
The ‘too late to tinker’ quote would also become ominously prophetic, and even a kind of over-arching theme. The quote came from a March 1968 Memphis Press-Scimitar editorial (right) and a comment by City Councilman Jerred Blanchard, who concluded after more than ten years of expressway route planning alterations that it had become too late and too expensive to again alter the I-40 route away from the park.
But the tinkering was there from the very beginning, post-World War II, when city expressways were looked upon as a panacea to solving the growing traffic woes of a nation depending more and more on the automobile. And until well after and as a result of the 1971 decision, the tinkering would not only continue, it would become the norm for the entire decade of the 1970s, an almost annual practice of revealing yet another plan to somehow someway somewhere complete the east-west leg of Interstate 40 over, under, around or through the park.
The scope of the Overton Park expressway saga, spanning over twenty-five years, would cover the administrations of six U.S. Presidents, six Secretaries of Transportation and the administrations of nine Memphis mayors. 56 acres of the Evergreen neighborhood would be cleared for the interstate right-of-way directly to the west of the park and would see the destruction of more than 400 houses, 266 apartments, 44 businesses, 5 churches, 1 fire station and about 2,200 residents, many of whom would never return.
The saga would also contribute directly to a steady decline in Overton Park itself, an era of increasing neglect that would take years of recovery. It would cause divisions within the community, pitting city and business leaders, the local news media, the “out east” suburbs and downtown commuters in favor of the expressway against Midtowners and conservationists from all over the city vehemently opposed to it, divisions that exist even today.
The saga leaves a lasting legacy, with multi-generational lessons in urban planning, in how we look at transportation, and how great an influence the automobile was during post-war America and has been thru the 21st Century, even as compared to today’s uses and developments of green spaces, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly corridors.
And it’s a tribute to Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, the grassroots organization of passionate and dedicated Memphians in love with their city and their Midtown park, who doggedly persisted in stopping the interstate at every turn, for over fifteen years against U.S. and Tennessee departments of transportation, the Memphis Chamber and City Council, the Downtown Association, both local newspapers and even many of their fellow Memphians, a true David over Goliath, before applying the final nails in the interstate coffin.
“moving people, not automobiles”
In February 1953, while the Memphis City Engineer William B. Fowler was studying other cities for examples in the possibilities of building expressways in Memphis, a former Memphian living in a St. Louis suburb wrote to The Commercial Appeal warning Memphis that “an expressway isn’t the answer to all traffic ills.”
The writer used as an example the new St. Louis expressway, which is “dumping traffic into a maze of little streets, several miles from downtown St. Louis,” which has “acres of riverfront parking space” that are “never filled, and downtown streets are still jammed.”
The former Memphian suggested that Memphis approach its traffic problem from the view of “moving people, not automobiles.” An effective mass transportation system, running on exclusive rights-of-way, he said, was the only solution. He urged Memphis to investigate the possibilities, “before it builds expensive expressways.”
Next time: 1950 to 1957, the expressway arrives in Memphis.
Related Story: Share your Memphis memories of the Battle for Overton Park
- Read the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe analysis from BallotPedia.
- Read a full brief from Cornell Law School CITIZENS TO PRESERVE OVERTON PARK, INC., et al., v. John A. VOLPE, Secretary, Department of Transportation, et al.
- Read the full syllabus from the Library of Congress and U.S. Reports: Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402 (1971).
- The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar Archives of the Memphis Public Library
- Creme de Memph blogspot
- Images of America: Overton Park. Book by William Bearden
- Overton Park, A People’s History. Book by Brooks Lamb
- Cotton Row to Beale Street. Book by Robert A. Sigafoos
- Memphis and the Paradox of Place. Book by Wanda Rushing
- Overton Park, A Century of Change. Documentary film directed by William Bearden, Bearden Company