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VOL. 130 | NO. 197 | Friday, October 9, 2015

Groups Want More Memphians to Discover River’s Front Yard

By Bill Dries

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Once upon a time it was called the “promenade.” In 1828, two years after the city of Memphis was incorporated, the city’s founders and their successors put it in writing.

The statement – signed by the men who owned 5,000 acres where the Wolf and Mississippi rivers meet – read: “In relation to the piece of ground laid off and called the Promenade, said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now and forever will be that the same should be public ground for use only as the word imports.”

The scenery on the bluff-top edge, between Union and Adams avenues, has changed much since then. But the promenade still offers one of the best views of the riverfront, and its given name is making a comeback with a month of October activities that so far have included a tailgate party and yoga.

“This is a teaser to create enthusiasm – a precursor,” said city Parks and Neighborhoods Division director Janet Hooks, whose division includes the Memphis Public Library and Information Center.

The promenade runs from Union to The Pyramid but the section between Union and Adams is the focus for this month’s series of events. A section of the promenade makes up the Cossitt Library’s backyard, which also links up to another piece behind the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

From the law school, a pedestrian bridge over the slope of Court Avenue between Front Street and Riverside Drive connects to Memphis Park, formerly Confederate Park.

That’s where Hooks and library director Keenon McCloy have started what is a different kind of “previtalization” with the law school and the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team.

It can be a loud tailgate party like the one held Friday, Oct. 2, for the University of Memphis football team’s road game at South Florida. Or it could be the yoga class earlier this week.

The definition of a public use for the promenade has been stretched to include two parking garages, a city park, a fire station, the library and the law school, which in its original 19th century incarnation was the U.S. Customs House.

“It’s been obscure,” Hooks said of the promenade. “You knew something was up here.”

In the last 30 years there have been several tentative proposals for high-rise buildings on the promenade land. The past discussions have also questioned whether the Cossitt, Memphis’ first public library, and the fire station, which is also headquarters for the Memphis Fire Department, should move elsewhere.

Some wooden chairs and tables from the Tennessee Brewery previtalization events have moved to the promenade. And the law school has extended Wi-Fi coverage to the area on a permanent basis for use by students and the public.

The law school also is offering the use of its beer permit for other October events.

Several old gnarled trees in the back of the library, at 33 S. Front St., shade those beneath their branches and frame the view of the river. The other discovery behind the library is the remaining part of its original red sandstone structure that once included a turret and castle-like front before the modern box front was added in the late 1950s.

A border of pineapples carved into the sandstone is one of several architectural features awaiting discovery.

As city crews worked on the library’s part of the promenade, landscapers at the law school were adding more greenery to the building’s rear, which previously was a loading dock when the building was a U.S. Postal Service facility.

A gate that once separated the promenade’s two parts is gone.

“We envision having a cafe,” Hooks said of the Cossitt’s possible role beyond the activities this month. “This is a real opportunity to activate a space that people can enjoy a lot of ways.”

McCloy envisions a lantern festival and some permanent lighting to create “a path of light.”

Other uses could include something as simple as an “outdoor reading room” for library patrons – a concept that McCloy describes as “operating the branch on the outside.”

The expense to the city has been minimal. Hooks described it as “sweat equity.”

And minimal is exactly what Friends for Our Riverfront president Virginia McLean says is called for when it comes to the promenade. Her group consistently has been the most vocal critic of private development along the river.

“It’s exactly the kind of public use Friends for Our Riverfront has been advocating for the past 14 years,” McLean said. “We have such good bare bones and with just a little tweaking, some TLC, maintenance and invitation to citizens to use it, Memphis could have one of the best waterfronts anywhere.”

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