By Austin McLellan
During the past few weeks, Overton Park has changed as drastically as any time in its history. The Park remains as central to the Memphis mind as ever, but it’s a different vibe now. A new order. Safer at Home has vanquished the Park’s nemesis, the automobile, for now. Got some time on your hands? Maybe drop in for a visit. Officially, the Park is open to pedestrians and bikes.
To expand . . .it’s not only the roads through the Park that lay quiet now, strewn with twigs and leaves. The College of Art is closed, probably forever. The Brooks Museum is dark. The Levitt Shell is silent. The zoo is locked up, the greensward unmolested. Over on Parkway, a solitary homeless man occupies the big pavilion. The grills, picnic tables, and playground are off limits. The scooters from Explore and Ojo are all lined up ready to go, wiped down and disinfected daily according to both providers’ websites. But there didn’t appear to be any takers. The entire Park operation as we know it has ground to a halt. It’s been abandoned, briefly, to take care of itself.
But it could be that Overton is doing all right, its three hundred forty-two acres as unedited now and free of interpretation as any time in the past hundred years. Of course, the place isn’t exactly empty. In fact, attendance has been strong. With vehicles prohibited, the people have seized the roads, and they are walking, running, and biking all over the place. They’re traipsing along the golf cart paths, stopping for a distanced chat right in the crosswalks, and smoking in the woods. That lush rise on the 6th hole is just another hill to explore, especially when cool shade awaits on the other side. See that stone bridge right before the green . . . let’s go cross it! And so on.
In the fairways are picnics. I saw two nice couples seated on blankets around a cooler of craft beer and plates of barbeque. Others had fried chicken and tacos. A bottle of wine was opened over at the Shell, which was empty as a pie pan but one could imagine a show, or remember one, so why not? Yoga and sunbathing broke out at Rainbow Lake. A few golfers practiced chip shots onto the greens.
I’m sure there’s rules against such outrages, but Park people are having it their way now. Still, the grounds are not crowded. While the majority appear to have some familiarity with exercise, one also sees visitors who plainly never come to the Park, folks who rarely go outdoors at all. It’s impossible to say how this is so obvious, but something about their dress or walk or attitude speaks of the great indoors. They are here now, usually led around without enthusiasm by a family member.
The big thing (that’s not big at all) is the curious quietness that’s settled down in Overton Park. Or is it simply unfamiliar? What does one say about a quality not quite there? The experience calls to mind the silence cast by the big eclipse in 2017, where nature was muffled and one felt oddly humbled if not a little freaked out. The dog park is closed too, canceling that noise track. It all adds up to a peacefulness maybe last heard in the Park a century ago. Right? If a Memphian stood amid the forest in 1920, this calm would fill his ears.
If you miss the urban din (as I do sometimes), do not come to the Park now. Sure, one still has racket from Poplar and Parkway, but the volume is down and real auditory white space is available if you listen. Or rather stop trying to listen.
I know people have to drive their cars all up into Overton. But is it crazy to think of banning vehicles here again, even for a day or so, and liberating the Park? To offer a different experience? (I’m sure it could be justified if one of our great entrepreneurs can find it profitable.)
With all this good energy in the Park now amid the pandemic, one might speculate that Overton — all locked up and neglected for the moment — is doing as fine right now as it ever did. If the Mayor’s Safer at Home has you actually dying to escape the home and your ‘loved ones,’ the Park can still take the edge off, in more ways than one. Is that what they call relevance?
Austin McLellan is a writer and native Memphian interested in local issues. His recent novel Twenty Grand, A Love Story, is billed as the “last word in Southern noir.” More at www.austinmclellan.com.