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Way back in 1955, the city’s 342-acre Overton Park, stood in the way of Interstate 40 in Memphis, and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Overton Park contained a mature forest, the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis College of Art, a 9-hole golf course, an amphitheater. Elvis fans may recall that this was the site of Elvis Presley’s first paid concert in 1954.
A group dubbed the “little old ladies in Tennis shoes” founded the organization Citizens to Preserve Overton Park in 1957. The movement was also backed by environmentalists, who feared that the interstate’s construction would upset the park’s fragile ecological balance, as the wooded area had become an important stopover for migratory birds. The impact on the Memphis Zoo was much talked about as well.
The organization waged a 12-year legal battle to prevent highway construction in the park, culminating in the 1971 United States Supreme Court decision, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the District Court for further review, and it ruled that the highway commission had not adequately explored alternative routes.
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For many years after this case, the state continued to explore options to route I-40 through Overton Park, including tunneling under the park. It was not until January 26, 1981, that plans were finally abandoned to route I-40 through Overton Park, and instead Memphis just redesignated the northern portion of I-240 as I-40.
Sam Cooper Boulevard now exists as several miles of a controlled-access road that had been built to tie into the interstate. Sadly, many structures and homes were demolished to make way for the ill-fated Interstate 40. A lonely sign stands in silent tribute to the efforts of the “little old ladies in Tennis shoes.”
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