VOL. 11 | NO. 9 | Saturday, March 3, 2018
Editorial: Overton’s Claim in the 21st Century
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 such use only as the word imports … and it is hereby expressly declared in conformity with such intention, that we, for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground called the Promenade for the purpose above mentioned.”
John Overton, the most active of the “proprietors” who bought land on the banks of the Mississippi River and laid out plans for a city called Memphis, wrote these words in a letter to Mayor Marcus Winchester in September 1828.
Overton had just finished a visit to the fledgling city, which was only nine years old at the time, and was upset to discover a road had been carved into the riverfront property he and the other founders had set aside as a “public promenade.”
Almost 200 years later, no one can find an original document from the city’s 1819 origins that specifies that. All we have is a map of the city’s original plan – how the streets were laid out and a section of riverfront labeled as the “public promenade” south of a “public landing.”
As Overton fumed and the other city founders were consulted, Riverside Drive wasn’t present. Mud Island hadn’t surfaced. The mouth of the Wolf River created an eddy that changed locations and thus changed where flatboats landed.
The city’s riverfront, as it presently exists, does and should belong to the public the way Shelby Farms Park and Overton Park belong to the public.
The difference is there’s no clear concept of what “public ground” means for this key part of the riverfront and no specific mechanism for expressing public consensus about what happens to the promenade over the long term.
Overton’s mandate, first of all, needs to be defined. Who enforces the promenade, and what specifically are they enforcing? Beyond that, a set of guidelines should outline what is allowable in terms of development or the lack thereof.
An agreement with John Overton’s heirs could go a long way to resolving a dilemma that has existed as long as Memphis has. As it stands, the promenade is subject to what amounts to a riverfront veto. That is not in anyone’s best interest.
Over the past four decades, the city and outside groups have conducted more than a dozen studies on the riverfront’s future, but the resulting concept plans have amounted to little more than lofty goals and renderings.
Until these issues are resolved, Memphis can’t develop a comprehensive riverfront plan with any permanence. Without a clear, irrefutable understanding of the promenade, any development north and south of it will be as tentative as the fluctuating interpretations surrounding this key piece of property.
Next year, Memphis will celebrate the bicentennial of its founding. Between now and then, city leaders and the Overton heirs should work toward finding the middle ground we all deserve.