Standing on tired grass growing between cracks in a Lincoln Park tennis court, 85-year-old Elijah Sanders listened Friday as Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke promised that the land under his feet would once again belong to the community.
Sanders remembers when the now-dilapidated field in Lincoln Park was a thriving park with two baseball fields and an Olympic-size swimming pool. It was a place for black residents to gather, picnic and enjoy family and friends before desegregation, he said.
Sanders was in a group of community residents, public officials and black leaders and businesspeople gathered to hear Berke outline plans to preserve five acres of Lincoln Park property to be donated by Erlanger Health System.
"We are committed to preserving this park," Berke told the crowd.
Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel, who also attended the news conference, echoed Berke's commitment to the neighborhood.
"We believe this park should remain a park and the [hospital] board is committed to exploring all the possibilities to make this a reality," he said.
Vannice Hughley, president of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, said the group and other supporters have worked hard on the project.
"We've all been on the ground working," she asid. "Praise the Lord. That's all I've go to say."
However, Erlanger trustees have not approved the transfer of the land -- yet. Several board members explained most of the deal making had been done in private by hospital executives and city officials. They said they were kept in the dark about how much the land was worth and where the city planned to locate an extension of Central Avenue to Amnicola Highway.
"Asking us to go ahead and approve it before we know all these things, I don't think we would have been good trustees," said Erlanger board member Russell King. "I want to see the people of Lincoln Park taken care of. But I'm a trustee for Erlanger. I'm not a trustee for the city of Chattanooga or for Lincoln Park. We need to look long and hard to make sure a board 20 years from now doesn't look at [a donation] as a mistake."
State Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said there is no reason that Erlanger shouldn't donate the land for public use.
"It shouldn't be a problem," said Favors, a former Erlanger trustee. "As much as they have done in other communities -- Fort Oglethorpe, Soddy-Daisy and other places -- they should be happy to do this."
Berke said when the deal goes through, the five acres of land will be donated to the Trust for Public Land, which will be responsible for restoring the property. The land will then be given to the city, which will maintain it as a public park.
The Lincoln Park community, which includes 100-plus households, is tucked behind Erlanger hospital. The neighborhood extends for about six streets, including Scruggs and Moss. But the neighborhood used to be at least twice as large before the hospital and railroad started building on the land, residents said.
During its heyday, Lincoln Park thrived, with the pool, amusement park and a zoo with monkeys and a bear.
"People came to Lincoln Park in Chattanooga for the weekend instead of going to Atlanta," said Eddie Holmes, chairman of the Chattanooga Housing Authority and former president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "This was pre-Lake Winnepesaukah, pre-Warner Park. This was the spot."
Many residents recalled how they walked to the park, had picnics, ate cotten candy and snow cones and played baseball in the fields.
People from all over the Southeast visited Lincoln Park. It had Negro League baseball games where players such as Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige played. And the park had a recreation center with arts and crafts, Holmes said.
The amusement park, with a merry-go-round, swings, kiddie cars and Ferris wheel, operated until the late 1960s. The park started to decline in the late '50s and '60s as the city became more integrated, Hughley said.
A plaque on the property states the park was dedicated to African-Americans in 1918. Erlanger rededicated it to the community in 1996, she said.
Extending Central Avenue to Amnicola Highway, an estimated $6 million project, has been on the drawing boards for months. Lincoln Park residents oppose any route that would cut into their neighborhood. Association members and other neighborhood groups began meeting with city officials working for the new Berke administration to voice their concerns about how the project would affect their community.
City officials said a study will be done to evaluate the best path for a Central Avenue extension. The mayor vowed to get input from residents throughout the planning process. Officials said they expect to have alternatives narrowed down for consideration in October.
On Friday, Berke commended the neighborhood residents for their love of their community.
"Just walking around you can see the emotional attachment," he said. "You can feel how enthusiastic people are to be here."
And he pledged that any Central Avenue extension would not compromise their neighborhood.
"No road will be built through this park," he said.
The crowd broke into applause.
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