by Melody Gordon
On a mild and sunny Saturday observers turned into basketball players, families became friendly competitors, and couples took out their cameras to capture it all for RiverPlay’s big debut.
From the elevated viewpoint of Memphis Park, the bright colors and pop music make for an unexpected novelty for people strolling by to get a look at the Mississippi.
A steady flow of people came through RiverPlay on the same day as the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, an annual music event with +100k attendance. Activities bustled on the asphalt of Riverside Drive with three basketball half-courts, a roller skating rink, a multitude of seating areas, and food stands serving beer and BBQ. Meanwhile, children hula-hooped and played beanbag toss on the nearby grassy hill of Mississippi River Park.
Rhonda Wilkes, a resident of South Memphis, stood off to the side with one foot on the pavement and one in the grass.
“We like to come down with the babies and walk and play on the river,” Wilkes said, waving toward her two daughters with hula-hoops. “I heard the music and when we got closer I was like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ We were just walking through really and wanted to stop for a little bit.”
Another pedestrian on her way to the music festival had a similar idea. Dressed in a flowy top and shiny sunglasses, Alexandra Mae was taking a breather with one of her friends at a picnic table between the half basketball courts.
A Mississippi-native, Mae said, “I’m not from here… I was just here for Memphis in May. We drive up every year and this is new to us. I can’t remember seeing anything like this down here.”
Several seconds later her head turned to glance at one of the basketball players. Slowly, she nodded and looked over all of RiverPlay and said with a smile, “It’s cute.” Then she and her friend were back on the road to neighboring Tom Lee Park, a 30-acre park less than a mile away and the event site of the music festival.
For Andria Lisle, the programming curator for the Fourth Bluff, it’s those little moments of spontaneity that are the most validating. She said, “That was opening weekend and we wanted a very soft opening. We just wanted to open it and sit back and observe what happens in that space naturally.”
Lisle recalled being at RiverPlay on Friday around 2 p.m. shortly before it officially opened. “At 2:55 people just magically started showing up with basketballs,” said Lisle. “That was really exciting to see that, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
“It’s a park that no one has ever seen,” said Lisle. “From the colors used in the design to sustainability features like the LED lighting and the programming the Grizzlies Foundation is bringing makes it a unique destination.”
RiverPlay took ten days to construct on a block-long stretch of Riverside Drive, temporarily closed to automobile traffic for Memphis in May festivities and now for RiverPlay.
Meg Johnson, an urban designer with Groundswell Design Group, the firm that brought RiverPlay to life, said going from conceptualization to installation took approximately three months.
“During the design process, we collaborated with a network of community stakeholders, working with the Riverfront Development Corporation, the Grizzlies Foundation, Innovate Memphis and others,” Johnson said. “During installation, the highlight of our community involvement was on our painting day when volunteers from local libraries, schools, and more came to help paint the vibrant street mural.”
Until August 1, instead of high speed automobile traffic, this section of Riverside Drive will see basketball tournaments, themed skate nights, and after-school programs for kids. Every Friday will be “Fourth Bluff Friday” featuring pop-up beer gardens, food trucks, and music from local artists.
RiverPlay is keeping track of what park-goers do with their new space. Lisle said, “We have this infrastructure for programming, but we also really want the park to be this beautiful organic thing. We’ll see how the public uses it, then adjust as we go.”
Melody Gordon is a native Memphian and freelance writer focusing on local perspectives.