VOL. 131 | NO. 21 | Friday, January 29, 2016
By Dan Conaway
A HISTORY LESSON TAUGHT, NOT LEARNED.
When I first wrote about attempts to steamroll Overton Park, a friend told me a great story. He was in his parents’ living room one afternoon in the late ’60s listening to his father go on and on about the battle to keep I-40 out of Overton Park ... too late to stop it, who are these silly protestors anyway, yadda yadda ... when they turned on the local news.
As the screen came to life, the newscaster was talking about the protest and they cut to a shot in Overton Park. There in the very front, smack dab in the middle of the protestors, holding her “Stay Out Of My Park” sign high, was his mother.
She won. I wonder if the family still has her sign.
I wrote that column in 2011 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens To Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation – that first week of March 1971, when a few extraordinary, dedicated Memphians stopped the federal government cold.
Just in time for the 45th, I’m doing it again because many in the class aren’t paying attention.
Anona Stoner – my in-laws’ next-door neighbor and, literally, a little old lady in tennis shoes – stopped an entire interstate. She had the help of folks like Dr. Arlo Smith, William Deupree, Sunshine Snyder (love that name), Sarah Hines and others, and they all had Don Quixote lawyer Charlie Newman tilting for them. Against all the wind Washington and many city leaders could blow, they brought this windmill down.
A gargantuan concrete culvert full of traffic didn’t replace 30 irreplaceable acres of old forest and run over public interest. Many of the best memories of a city and those yet to be weren’t lost in the exhaust. Our zoo became world-class, Brooks and the College of Art expanded, the Levitt Shell was saved, and new houses sprang up in the corridor, when all would have been thrown under the trucks.
I-40 did not go through Overton Park.
The feds were so sure they could bully their way through, they destroyed everything in the intended path right up to the edges of the park. The Supreme Court determined that the government didn’t exercise prudence in judgment nor seek feasible alternatives to the use of public land.
They forgot it belonged to us.
Well, déjà vu zoo.
The very zoo that was saved by those citizens is bullying their way into the rest of the park, claiming their success and the power of their board to be greater than the public interest. They’re suing us for the right to put cars on the very land we fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep cars off of 45 years ago.
Most days, Charlie Newman has lunch at the The Little Tea Shop. Somebody go and get him because, unbelievably, we have to do this all over again.
I’m a Memphian, and a writer, and I couldn’t make this up.
Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at email@example.com.