Not Through Here

March 3rd, 2011

When I told a friend of mine what I was writing about this week, he had 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, silly protestors don't know what they're talking about, who are these people 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.

As published in The Daily News, March 4, 2011, and in The Memphis News, March 5-6, 2011.

Overton Park I40 Marker


He'd been down there all alone for hours, his flashlight bouncing off the vaulted ceiling and green-tinted walls far beneath the city, following the course of the old Gayoso Bayou now captured in a gigantic storm drain. You think about history down there. And battery life. You see things few have seen. And you see "no signal" on your cell phone. You realize that no one knows where you are. And that includes you.

That's when Jimmy Ogle, as he tells it, found a ladder and climbed back into this century.

Many of you have been kind enough to compliment me on my Memphis knowledge, trivial and otherwise. Jimmy Ogle will forget more about Memphis before he goes to bed tonight than I'll ever know. He generously shares it on his walking tours, and with anyone he thinks might want to know. And I always want to know more of what Jimmy knows.

This week, he emailed me to remind me that this is the week in 1971 when a few extarordinary, dedicated Memphians stopped the federal government cold. This is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens To Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation.

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. Except, this time, 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 and midtown. 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 east and west edges of the park without ever seriously considering anything else. The Supreme Court determined that the government didn't exercise prudence in judgment nor seek feasible alternatives to the use of public land just because it was cheaper.

They forgot it belonged to us.

Anona, Charlie and the Citizens To Preserve Overton Park reminded them. Jimmy is a member of that group today, and Charlie Newman still practices law.

If you run into Charlie at The Little Tea Shop where he's more of a staple than the cornbread sticks, you might just say thanks. You'll be looking at proof that right can beat might.

I'm a Memphian, and we don't much like big government, federal or state, directing local traffic.


Susan Jennings: Once again, Dan, a great story. I walk in Overton Park every day that it's daylight by 5:30. At least once a week I thank God for those "little" people who saved this park that I love and I say a prayer for all of us trying to save the Old Forest today. THANKS for the tribute to those who inspire us all to take on the windmills. And all the best to you. Long may you rant! Susan

Rikki: I still have and cherish my "Save Overton Park" t-shirt (actually it's my second one -- I wore the first one out). To my recollection, despite this decision this remained a controversy until Jimmy Carter took office and killed the idea completely. Bless his heart.

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