Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She has written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and local outlets.
Not only will Unity Park in Greenville, South Carolina, unite two formerly segregated parks; confronting and educating visitors about its history, including a segregated baseball stadium, is part of the design.
Around 1939, at a time when black people were lynched for much less, Rev. E.B. Holloway and his neighbors went to a city council meeting in Greenville, South Carolina.
The city had recruited a minor league baseball team and decided to take about half of the land from Mayberry Park—a Southernside park created for black children, who were not welcome at other Greenville parks—in order to build the Meadowbrook baseball stadium. So Holloway approached the city council to ask for a new park for blacks, and to protest the taking of the land.
The mayor objected, insisting that Greenville was doing no such thing—in fact, the black community gained a baseball stadium. Holloway noted that black people weren’t even allowed to sit in the stadium’s stands.
Meadowbrook stadium stood there until it burned down in 1972.
For almost 80 years, this story was largely unknown outside of Greenville’s black community, the mayor says. Now, the city’s history of segregation will feature in the design of a long-awaited new park.
“We’re definitely telling a story that for most people in this region in this city has never been heard before,” says Knox White, longtime mayor of fast-growing Greenville.
The first phase of the new Unity Park is due to open in 2020. Unity Park will unite the two parks that were once segregated: Mayberry and nearby Meadowbrook, once a park restricted to whites. These days Meadowbrook Park is small and largely disused—many Greenville residents don’t know it exists. Mayberry Park, which has picnic tables and a baseball field, is still used.
The 60-acre park will be in Southernside, a historically black neighborhood near downtown. It will join together Mayberry and Meadowbrook and be accompanied by the development of affordable housing.
“I can remember asking why do we have as a city, why do we have two parks down there, both of them just postage-stamp size with a little bit of equipment,” White says. “That’s how naïve I was.”
This time, as Greenville works on its newest park, it has sought guidance from community members in order to ensure Unity Park reflects the desires of the surrounding neighborhood.
Mary Duckett, president of the Southernside Neighborhoods in Action Association, is instrumental in this work. Duckett, a community activist so popular that a mural was painted in her honor, has lived on the same street for more than 50 years. (She says it’s the same address where her Sunday school teacher lived when Duckett was young.)
Duckett says that when she was a child, Mayberry Park was the only place the black community had to go. It became a gathering place.
“That was where we all met up from all over Greenville,” she says. “We’d meet up on Saturdays and Sundays and have basketball games, football games. We’d cook out and bring the children. It was the only place we really had a recreation meeting spot.” She estimates that Mayberry and Meadowbrook Parks desegregated in the mid-1960s.
Duckett joined the city’s committee for Unity Park when it was formed in 2013. She didn’t want Unity Park to forget this history.
“When it comes to the park, the committee wanted to make sure that there was something that would be representative of everyone in the city, that everybody would feel comfortable,” Duckett says, adding that’s why Unity Park is a fitting name. “If you find something wrong with unity, then there’s something wrong with you.”
Southernside also didn’t want the city to ignore what happened there. When Greenville sponsored a cookout in July at Mayberry Park for people to see the future site of Unity Park, 300 came. Duckett says attendees shared their memories of Mayberry.
“One of the things we said as blacks in this neighborhood: ‘Call the park anything and anything you want,’” she says. “‘The thing that we will not stand for is for you removing the identity of Mayberry Park because this is our history, and this is part of our roots, and we don’t want it to ever be forgotten.’”
The urban-design firm MKSK, that is working with Greenville on Unity Park, will preserve Mayberry’s baseball field, the surviving baseball field. Based on feedback from the neighborhood, it will be named Mayberry. (The baseball field will be closed while it becomes part of Unity Park.)
MKSK is still working on the final design of Unity Park, but the firm has looked at having physical exterior elements around the park or digital media to tell some of the memories.
“There is a history of racial segregation, and we want to both understand that and learn from it and build on that to bring the community together the best we can in this public space,” MKSK principal Darren Meyer says. “Ultimately, what comes forward in these stories is going to be driven by what the neighborhoods around the park would like to communicate.”
Greenville isn’t only incorporating lessons from its history of segregation into Unity Park. It will also use what it learned from the popular Falls Park on the Reedy in downtown Greenville. In 2002, Mayor White’s administration removed a four-lane highway overpass to create the park. This project ultimately changed downtown from languishing into flourishing.
But Falls Park also led to expensive development. This taught Greenville to invest more in affordable spaces, so that a neighborhood with attractive, renovated public places doesn’t become inaccessible to long-time residents.
“We’re more aware now that ‘OK, we build this park, it’s going to gentrify,’” White says. “Learning a lesson, what we’re saying is let’s redefine public-private partnerships going forward. When the public investment’s made, we’re going to make sure the private investment is inclusive, at least to a strong degree.”
The area around Unity Park has already seen high-end development in the form of apartment complexes and condo projects, with units selling for more than half a million dollars. In 2016, a historic church sold its land and was demolished to make way for one of those luxury complexes—and the park isn’t even built yet. Greenville hopes to prevent the displacement of Southernside residents by concentrating on affordable housing.
The city owns 25 acres scattered adjacent to Unity Park, and it is donating just over eight acres to its affordable housing trust fund, launched earlier this year. By federal definition, affordable housing costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Nearly 34 percent of city residents pay more than that.
The affordable housing around Unity Park will include places for people with lower incomes, teachers, and senior citizens. White says the city wants its housing to have a diversity of income levels and architecture.
A planning team will create an affordable housing plan, and then the city will have a request for proposals. White expects at least some affordable buildings to be done by the time Unity Park opens.
The first housing will be for seniors.
“That gets to the issue of people having their neighborhood change from under them,” White says. “These are for seniors who live in the neighborhood already and can have a chance to stay in the neighborhood.”
Meyer says MKSK is also looking at equitable business development around Unity Park.
“What are the strategies that we can use to ensure that we have neighborhoods supporting businesses that have offerings or are accessible to folks who are living in the neighborhood?” he says. “It certainly does you no good to have a strong affordable housing component if you can’t walk down the block and afford a burger or a beer.”
Southernside has gone through a lot in its existence. The area around Mayberry Park had two landfills and a jail. The city’s public works building, staffed mostly by people of color, was also there: Duckett says the flooding in the park from the nearby Reedy River was so severe, the building would take water as well.
Now, Unity Park will start a new chapter that also nods to the history of Southernside.
“It’s been a long journey, and that’s why I say the word ‘unity’ pulls it all together,” Duckett says. “It’s just going to be gorgeous. It’s just going to open the city.”