Since I moved to Nashville in 1985, Shelby Park has been one of my favorite places to dog walk. The Cumberland is a picturesque river, and in the park you can stroll along it beneath big, old trees, listen to the railroad chug over the trestles, admire the historic proportions of Omohundro waterworks on the west bank and recall it was river and then railroad that made Nashville a city.
In the 1980s, however, I didn’t see many of my fellow East Nashvillians when I soaked up this history. An exception was Steve Neighbors, one of the original Near East revitalizers, who would sit in his car near the river and catch up on paperwork in those pre-laptop days. “Apart from the guys who fish at the lake, people just didn’t use Shelby Park much back then, except for baseball and softball after work, and the picnic shelters on weekends,” Steve recalls. He felt conflicted about the park’s best-kept-secret status. “I wanted more people to recognize what an asset the park is, because I wanted more people to realize that East Nashville is a great neighborhood. On the other hand, I really liked it when I had it to myself. It was just so peaceful.”
Shelby Park is still peaceful on weekdays. But now the anglers share the park with walkers, bikers and bladers, with kids hanging from the jungle gym and rocking back and forth on the swings. The park has seen a lot of changes in the 100 years of its existence. Those years illustrate in miniature evolutions in the whole philosophy of parks — how they should look and function — as well as the rise, ebb and rise again of the city’s early suburbs in general and East Nashville in particular.
The occasion of Shelby Park’s centennial — a birthday bash sponsored by the Friends of Shelby Park & Bottoms is planned for Oct. 13 — provides a good opportunity to look backward at some snapshots of the past as well as forward to the park of the future.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE AMUSEMENT PARK
Shelby Park, like the Nashville park system in general, had its origins in the suburban migration of the latter years of the 19th century, according to Leland Johnson’s The Parks of Nashville. Deteriorating living conditions in downtown prompted the migration. The business district expanded into previously residential areas. Soft coal for power and heat blackened the air and the lack of sanitary water delivered disease. Those with the funds for the fare — primarily the middle classes; the wealthy traveled in their own carriages — rode the streetcars to dwellings in the suburban fringe.
Suburban real estate developers, who often also owned interests in the streetcar lines, discovered that setting aside some of their subdivision plats for green space stimulated sales — and prices — of the surrounding land. So they built parks at the end of their lines and staged weekend entertainments in them to entice city-dwellers to catch a ride. If the ’burbs were a fine place to spend a Sunday, living there would be even better.
The original Shelby Park followed this pattern. In the 1890s, the Edgefield Land Company, with interests in Nashville Street Railway, developed a private amusement park near the end of the streetcar line on 19th Street. The company built an entertainment pavilion near the site of the current community center, staged plays and concerts there, and supplied free tickets to streetcar passengers.
The developers named their venue after John Shelby, a prominent physician who served as military surgeon under Andrew Jackson, and subsequently, as a state senator and Nashville postmaster. Before his death in 1859, Shelby owned much of what is now Edgefield and built villas called Fatherland and Boscobel — hence the street names. Contrary to local legend, he never owned the land on which the park lies, according to Deborah Cox of Metro Archives, who has researched East Nashville land grants. But for a real estate company trying to convince prospective buyers forest and farmland could become a neighborhood, the name Shelby had the right cachet.
In 1903, the company that had developed the amusement park went bankrupt. Their creditors received 151 acres, which Nashville’s Park Board discussed purchasing. But East Nashvillians — contrarians from the outset — objected to a park in their neighborhood. By 1909, however, Edgefield, East End and Lockeland Springs had seen rapid development and were less sylvan. Residents told the Park Board they had reconsidered. The board purchased the 151 acres for $40,000, plus an additional tract of 60 acres from J. P. Meredith in 1911. While there was public sentiment for a renaming to Riverside Park, the board retained the original Shelby Park, which opened on July 4, 1912. As opportunities arose, the board purchased additional tracts of land, and today, the park encompasses 336 acres.
NATURE VS NURTURE
When the Park Board first acquired the land for Shelby Park, it was largely forest. They decided to keep it that way, preserving most of the trees while taming the acreage with walking trails and over four miles of drives. A stream was dammed to form Lake Sevier. Log shelters were constructed including the tile-roofed Mission House at the foot of Beech Grove hill and Sycamore Lodge by the river. A boathouse modeled after a steamboat was placed at the edge of the lake and a decorative Dutch windmill was set on a promontory overlooking the park.
The park’s chief, if unofficial, planner was Eugene C. Lewis, an engineer with the L&N railway who had served as director general of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition and was the first chair of the Park Board. Lewis, in addition to designing the log shelters, was interested in reinforced concrete and used this material for the boathouse, the bridges, the windmill, the cave spring grotto and the sulphur spring shelter still standing near the Lillian Avenue entrance.
The Park Board’s initial impulse to maintain Shelby Park in a largely naturalistic state was consistent with the 19th century concept of green space as respite for the contemplation of nature. In the early years of the 20th century, however, an alternative vision emerged. Called “the playground movement,” its advocates campaigned for the exploitation of parks for vigorous, supervised physical recreation “to materially aid the healthfulness of all our citizens, especially those of the poorer classes,” as the Park Board explained to the city council in a request for funding. The funds were to pay for playground equipment and the fields for team sports in order to get children off the streets and keep young men out of saloons.
Shelby Park accommodated active recreation with the 1914 construction of a baseball field. The field was on the site of the current Old Timers field, and was called Shelby #1. The next year the park hosted the first city park baseball league.
“It’s the oldest continuously used baseball field in Nashville and probably in Tennessee,” says Mickey Hiter, who for 13 years has operated the field for the Old Timers Baseball Association. Hiter notes that the field has “a rich history,” including a number of players who went on to major league careers. “I didn’t see it myself, but people tell me that Ken Griffey Jr. hit one into the Cumberland during a game,” he says. “And R. A. Dickey — an All Star pitcher with the [New York] Mets — says the first time he took the mound in Yankee stadium, he thought, ‘I’m a long way from Shelby Park.’”
For Hiter, however, generational history has the most meaning. “I played here with my father, and 30 years later, I played here with my son. In a few years, God willing, I’ll play here with my grandson.”
In 1924, Shelby Park welcomed Nashville’s first municipal golf course. The nine holes were designed by Tom Bendelow, a native of Scotland widely recognized as the most prolific golf course architect in American history with upwards of 600 courses to his credit. Bendelow was a strong advocate for public golf courses, laying out the nation’s first 18-hole municipal course in New York. The Shelby Park course grew to 18 holes in 1927, when the Park Board acquired 60 acres for the expansion.
Another nine holes came to the park in 1932 with the development of the Scotsman’s course, so called because there was no fee to play. This to manpower shortages, but was rehabbed for youth golf and reopened as the Riverview course in 1967. The site is currently occupied by Vinny Links, which opened in 2001 under the sponsorship of the Tennessee Golf Foundation as a venue to teach life skills, as well as golf skills, to young people. The greens of Vinny were modeled after original drawings by legendary golf architect Donald Ross for a course for the same area that was never built. The drawings were discovered in 1988 in a Metro Parks trash can.
The fortunes of Shelby Park have always been intimately intertwined with those of the neighborhoods surrounding the park. In the early years of the 20th century, East Nashville was a tony place to live, and thus, a fitting setting for what Mayor Hilary Howse called “the most beautiful natural park in the southland” at the dedication in 1912.
The Edgefield fire of 1916, which destroyed 648 homes, commenced the exodus of people of means from the area. The erosion became more visible after World War II, with widespread demolitions for public housing projects and the interstate. The perception of the park eroded as well.
People started to fear that Shelby Park wasn’t safe, says Jim Fyke, who began working for Metro Parks in 1964 and served as director from 1978 to 2003. “I never knew that to be true. Of course, parks are no more or less safe than the society around them. But it became part of the East Nashville stigma.”
The historic features of Shelby Park suffered from the problem chronically present in the Parks department budget: ever expanding acres to maintain without a proportionate increase of funds to maintain them. The Mission House decayed and died. In 1984, Sycamore Lodge, after repeated attacks by vandals, was dismantled. The natural aspects of the park declined with the addition of more and more playing fields. By 1985, the park had 10 ball fields.
“You have to remember that in the 1980s, jogging hadn’t been invented yet, at least for most of Nashville,” says Tommy Lynch, the current Parks director. “People played organized sports, so we filled it up with organized sports.” Nearby residents who didn’t play ball often saw the park merely as a commuter cut-through to downtown.
SAVING SHELBY BOTTOMS
The turnaround came with Shelby Bottoms.The idea of making a greenway in 800-plus acres of frequently soggy floodplain immediately adjacent to Shelby Park seems a no-brainer today. But first, the Bottoms had to survive the dark age of the 1980s.
In 1984, it was a land swap. The owners of the bottomland, led by the late Bobby Matthews, proposed surrendering their property for the construction of a new golf course for Shelby Park. In exchange, they would receive the existing 18-hole course for the development of a subdivision. Strident opposition from East Nashville residents killed this deal.
In 1987, “the mound builders” scheme came. In this scenario, some of the bottomland would be dredged, creating canals, with the excess dirt used to elevate other sections above the floodplain for the construction of 4,000 dwelling units. Along the river, a “scenic parkway” — remember, I-440 was supposed to be scenic, too — and a bridge would connect downtown to Briley Parkway, Opryland and the airport corridor. More protests averted “Venice with a highway.”
In 1989, the floodplain’s owners sold options for the construction of the bucolically named “Cumberland Oaks” private landfill. Due to concerns that the landfill would be located in an often-flooded area immediately upstream from the city’s primary intake for its water supply, this idea also went nowhere. Enlightenment came in 1992, when new mayor Phil Bredesen convened the first meeting of what he called the “Green Space Working Group.” He had charged the 10 members with identifying open space for conservation.
“The real estate market was in the doldrums,” Bredesen says. “It seemed a good time to bank some land. We looked at the maps and Shelby Bottoms jumped right out at me. The extension of an existing park so close to downtown made it the one to go for.”
Metro went for the 800 acres for $4 million and “got some grants which we matched with city money to lay some trails,” the former mayor says. Subsequent funding from various sources extended the trails to Forest Green, built the Nature Center and created the bike/pedestrian bridge across the Cumberland to link the Bottoms with the Stones River Greenway, opening up the Bottoms to Donelson and creating a nonmotorized commuting route to downtown. The acquisition of the flood-devastated Cornelia Fort Airpark in 2011 brought total Bottoms acreage to 960.
For Bredesen, Shelby Bottoms remains a cherished project. As he said in his 1994 State of Metro address: “If I ever see any great-grandchildren, that parkland is probably what I’ll brag about from my years as mayor. A hundred years from now, when the arena has long since been torn down to make way for something else, children will be playing in the sun in that park.”
The Bottoms drew people through Shelby Park to get to the main trailhead of the Bottoms. What they saw was beautifully sited public land that needed an overhaul.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
That overhaul is set forth in the Master Plan for Shelby Park developed in 2009 by Metro Parks in consultation with EOA Architects and Hawkins Partners landscape architects. In a series of widely attended public meetings, a consensus emerged among park users on several key issues:
• The circulation system puts walkers and bikers in conflict with cars.
• Lack of easy non-motorized access from the surrounding neighborhoods.
• Site drainage poor; lake needs dredging.
• Better connections to lake and river for pedestrians.
• Need for more green in the park.
• Need for multipurpose open space.
The master plan addresses these issues and goes beyond them to create a new look and layout for the park. Most park roadways will be converted from one-way to two-way to calm traffic. Pedestrian trails will allow people to walk all the way from Lillian Avenue to Shelby Bottoms. The parks water system will be naturalized and landscaped with aquatic and native vegetation. Other planned features include a bridge across Lake Sevier, new parking and a series of pedestrian access points from the neighborhoods.
According to Tim Netsch, Metro Parks’ assistant director for planning and facilities, the $1.5 million being spent this year in Phase I will include construction of a fiveacre multipurpose event field in the area beneath the lake dam on which everything from soccer to the symphony can be staged. The stream flowing from the lake will be daylighted and landscaped. New parking utilizes pervious paving to absorb rainwater. All these features are scheduled for completion in 2012.
In what Netsch characterizes as Phase 1.5, a second adult baseball field will be added between the existing Old Timers field and the new event field. This is actually a restoration of sorts, because the field’s location was once the historic Shelby #2 baseball field. To guarantee progress on the implementation of the master plan continues, $2.5 million has already been allocated for Phase II in Metro’s capital improvements budget for 2013.
Public art is also coming to Shelby Park. In honor of the centennial, Metro Arts is installing Reflection, a 12-foot-tall mockingbird of stainless steel atop a granite plinth by Denver-based artist Lawrence Argent, in a new plaza near the event field. Also, two works in Metro Arts Watermarks series commemorating the May 2010 flood, pieces by local artist Derek Coté and Christopher Fennell of Birmingham, will be placed in Shelby Bottoms near the ped/bike bridge over the river.
FRIENDS INDEED FOR A FRIEND IN NEED
Perhaps the best indication Shelby Park is on the way up is that the park now has friends, specifically the Friends of Shelby Park & Bottoms (FOS). Formed in 2008 under the leadership of Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and then-councilman Erik Cole, the nonprofit group’s first order of business was to serve as a liaison between Metro Parks and the community during the master planning process. Since then FOS has garnered a grant for a bike/ ped connection between Riverside Drive and Shelby Bottoms, put in work hours and solicited in-kind contributions for the new Beech Grove hill trails and path along Lake Sevier, planted trees and cleaned up after the flood, and sweated through the annual Hot Chicken festival on July 4th, the group’s primary fundraiser.
But the group’s raison d’être is best explained by Carol Williams, the first president of FOS, who moved to Edgefield in 1975 and has long and broad experience in the way to get things done in this city.
“Shelby Park needed a voice,” Williams says. “The Metro Parks staff is the most dedicated and overworked in the city. What we needed to do was to create a neighborhood organization to give them some support.”
Williams hopes that the occasion of the Shelby Park centennial enables this voice to ring out load and clear all across the city. “We have over 1,000 acres of green serenity along the river a mile-and-a-quarter from downtown,” she says. “Few cities have this. I think it’s worth celebrating.”