Gayoso Bayou, Memphis

As the cost of living in New York becomes ever more expensive, I sometimes think of which other cities to consider as a future home. Employment opportunities are the top concern wherever I may move. As far as parks are concerned, Memphis, Tennessee has a diverse parks portfolio within a large city territory that holds potential for future parks as development expands within the city’s borders. Among the places where parks could expand is atop hidden waterways, which contain so much history and sustainability potential. Bayou Gayoso is one such stream, running through the  city’s center in a series of drainage channels.

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Between 1911 and the 1930s, nearly all of Gayoso Bayou had been concealed beneath the city’s streets, hiding its rich history.

History of Gayoso Bayou

What are known as arroyos in Los Angeles, washes in Las Vegas, runs in Virginia, and kills in New York are known as bayous in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee- small creeks that drain into larger streams. Gayoso Bayou received its name from Manuel Gayoso, the Spanish governor of the Louisiana Territory between 1797 and 1799.

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In 1818, future president Andrew Jackson and county namesake Isaac Shelby pressured the native Chickasaw nation to sell their western Tennessee and Kentucky homeland to white settlers and the city of Memphis was founded in the following year. In its first decade a plan was designed for it, giving the city a street grid and four public squares. Notice how the 1819 map above has Gayoso Bayou bracketing the city on its eastern side. All cities have their borders, often delineated by waterways.

Small core of a big city

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Since 1819, the municipal borders of Memphis have expanded to cover nearly half of Shelby County at 324 square miles. To compare, New York City is 468 square miles but the difference is that most of Memphis is comprised of suburbs, parks and a few farms ringing a relatively small urban core, while nearly all of NYC has been developed.

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In this 1887 prospective view of Memphis, Gayoso Bayou is highlighted, conforming to the expanding grid with elbow turns. Although the city was devastated in the American Civil War, followed by race riots, a yellow fever epidemic and recession, it could always rely on its status as a Mississippi River port to stay viable, ferrying goods such as cotton and lumber.

Memphis, City Beautiful

In 1911, Memphis’ Democratic party boss E. H Crump succeeded in gaining the state’s approval for a city commission to govern Memphis. At the time, there were still plenty of creeks running through the city. On the 1911 P. F. Collier & Son map below, the famous Beale Street is highlighted and the present location of Gayoso Bayou is circled in green.

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The centralization of power enabled the city to build a sewer system, water supply lines, trolleys, and waterfront parks. Say what you will about his rigid hold on power, but Crump’s inner circle included plenty of forward-looking city planners, including Overton Park designer George Kessler. It was during this decade that efforts to cover Gayoso Bayou took form as a solution to the creek’s occasional flooding of the city’s center as seen below in 1912. The photos are from the Memphis Public Library Digital Archive.

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What’s there today

The only exposed sections of Gayoso Bayou today can be found on six vacant blocks between A. W. Willis (formerly Auction) Avenue and the pumping station at Saffarans Avenue and N. Front Street. To the south of Willis Avenue, the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital occupies the stream bed and further south, Lauderdale Street has been running atop the creek since 1911.

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Using the creek’s path as a route, city planners built Lauderdale Street as a convenient shortcut between the city’s uptown and downtown. But nature has a way of reclaiming what is hers and the former course of the Gayoso is recognized as a flood zone by FEMA.

Visiting the Gayoso

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In March 2015, Memphis Magazine reporter Eileen Townsend and photographer Brandon Dill ventured down into the culverts to document the current state of the bayou as well as nearby Lick Creek. Click on the above magazine for photos of the underground channel.

Gayoso Bayou’s current state and possibilities for daylighting were also brought up in August 2014 by Amanda Nicole Gann in her Master’s of Architecture thesis at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In her 39-page report, Gann provides plenty of historical sources, maps, photos and examples of other streams restored in advocating for a linear park (Greenway) along the course of the creek. Click on the image below for the full report.

A small portion of Gayoso Bayou can also be found at Loftin Yard, an outdoor southern eatery built next to the stream bed.

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Life in Memphis

The nearest comparably sized city is Atlanta, almost a six hour drive, so Memphis stands out in its region. There is plenty of nature within the city and around it, but no mountains to hike, nor any oceans or large lakes to swim in. For public sector workers interested in planning and parks, there is plenty to talk about. Things such as the city’s pyramid and what to do with it, the restored trolley network and possible expansion plans, and various revitalization projects, means plenty of work to do. And on top of that the local Orthodox Jewish community is offering incentives to members of the tribe who are interested in relocating. I’m really thinking about it.

The “Bluff City,” home of the blues, could soon have blue-green ribbons flowing across its map as streams return to the surface of the storied southern city.

In the News:

DNAinfo reporter Noah Hurowitz tells the story of Sunfish Pond, an excerpt from my book.

Huffington Post has an opinion piece by Columbia University’s Steven Cohen on the transformation of Fresh Kills on Staten Island from a trash dump into a park.

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