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Once there was a fairy forest at the end of Woodland Street in East Nashville's Lockeland Springs neighborhood. Tall old trees caught the breezes as they swayed over fantastic fairy houses that captivated children's imaginations. Students from Lockeland Elementary School learned about the natural world in an outdoor classroom. They scrambled around the rocky ruins of a 19th-century water bottling plant, splashed in the bubbling springs, and walked home dirty, wet, and happy. But in 2020, a tornado came through Lockeland Springs Park, felling the beautiful trees and carrying the fairy houses into the stormy sky.
"The fairy forest was just flattened," Noam Pikelny, a Lockeland Springs resident, says. "It was really sad. For a while, no one could get back there because the paths were blocked by the fallen trees." To make matters worse, clean-up and tree-planting efforts were stalled by the COVID pandemic.
One portion of the fairy forest, though, had survived. Or at least the folk assumed it was a surviving portion of the fairy forest. An adjacent parcel of wooded land just northeast of the established Metro neighborhood park beckoned. A flatter expanse than the escarpment/valley location of the bottling plant ruins and springs, it boasts ephemeral streams, mature trees, a pond, and a thread of a path that ends at a stream-bordered Shelby Golf Course. It doesn't have the same magic as Lockeland Springs Park proper, but it would do in a pandemic. And so, the people walked there among the trees and away from their computer screens. Then private property signs appeared, and the people despaired. They knew the land was no longer theirs, that developers had come at last to bulldoze the beloved trees.
"People had comforted themselves in the face of all the other development with Lockeland Springs Park. 'At least we'll always have our magical fairy forest,' we thought, every time another new house appeared. And then we lost our park as we knew it to the tornado. And it raised the stakes on the possible development of the adjacent parcel. It felt like a park expansion was more important than ever. We couldn't bear the thought of losing this potential," Pikelny explains.
The tornado coupled with the pandemic galvanized the community to save the little "Forest on Forrest [Avenue]" adjacent to the now decimated Lockeland Springs Park. "People in the neighborhood did all this research and had been dreaming about this for over a decade, but it had kind of been at a standstill, especially with the pandemic," Pikelny says. He and his wife, Caitlin Canty, with encouragement from neighbors, picked up the baton and led renewed efforts to preserve six wooded acres.
They were building those efforts on the foundation laid earlier by East Nashvillians Bo Parr, Jim Polk, former 6th District Metro Council member Mike Jameson, and current Councilmember Brett Withers. Parr and Polk had been instrumental in caring for the original Lockeland Springs Park, leading neighborhood clean-ups that helped transform it from a trash-filled gulley into a fabulous fairy forest and historic landmark over a decade ago. Parr wrote the grant that funded the outdoor classroom, paths, and fairy houses. She even wrote the educational texts found on the signs throughout the park.
The adjacent property had been on and off the market and was constantly under threat of development. On advice from the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, which planted hundreds of trees to restore the destroyed fairy forest, Canty and the newly formed Friends of Lockeland Springs Park contacted the Trust for Public Land (TPL) for assistance. The national non-profit helps communities acquire and preserve green space for public use. Canty sent them an impassioned email, which TPL's Tennessee Director, Noel Durant, describes as "A love letter to Lockeland Springs Park." In that letter, she told the lost beauty of the park and the nature of the neighboring parcel.
"Much of the care and love of the park is unofficial - people pack out trash and clear brush on their own accord," she wrote. "Some children and park goers have adopted trees, pledging to water them during the long hot summers and keep the weeds down. The park is an official Metro park, but much of the care has always been and continues to be in the hands of neighbors."
"We are part of a motivated community who loves and cares for Lockeland Springs Park and feels that 1900 Forrest is a natural extension of LSP," Canty continues. "The
community is also motivated by the fear of development and loss of the only wooded area left in our immediate neighborhood. The
devastation of the tornado and the lost "secret garden" vibe of LSP's former beauty, and the loss of urban canopy and so many trees in the park and on our streets and yards has motivated this community even more to 'Save the Forest at 1900 Forrest.'"
Inspired by Canty's letter, the community's commitment, and a potential collaboration with Metro Parks, TPL and the neighborhood began to put together a fundraising and purchase plan for the property, which had come on the market again, this time at $2.9 million. Then before details on that deal could be
finalized, a Redfin Real Estate alert went off on Pilkney's phone, indicating that the property had come under contract with another buyer.
"We were so close to having a path forward," he says. "Our hearts just sank; nobody could believe it. It had just slipped from our grasp. Everyone in the neighborhood assumed it was a developer who put it under contract."
But it wasn't a developer. It was a young couple from Chicago. They wanted to buy 1900 Forrest Ave. because they liked the privacy of a wooded lot and the convenience of an urban neighborhood. When the advocates for park expansion made some inquiries, it was discovered that the young couple from Chicago only required about two of the six acres for their home site. Of equal importance, they were open to selling the remainder, not for development but the expanded park. "It turned out the potential buyers had a vision that aligned with the park. They want to belong to that place. We have an opportunity to purchase the property from them at an appraised value; they'll retain two acres as a home site, and we'll add just under four acres to the park," Durant explains.
The proposed arrangement would also connect the secret garden of Lockeland Springs Park with the vast expanses of Shelby Park and Bottoms and the Cumberland Riverfront. The new appraised price for the smaller parcel was $1.6 million, and a path forward emerged. If the Friends of Lockeland Springs Park and neighbors committed to raising $800,000, Metro Parks would match them. So throughout the pandemic, without holding a single indoor fundraising event, according to Pikelny, the folks in Lockeland Springs worked to raise their share. Neighbor to neighbor, in small backyard gatherings and front porch informational sessions, on Zoom and by phone, they quietly spread the word and pitched in to buy that little parcel and keep it green forever. They raised the needed sum in a few short months, thanks, especially to some very generous donations received at the start of the campaign.
Bo Parr was among the first group of donors and likely inspired others, but she gives all the credit for the fundraising campaign's success to the young mothers who led it. "I'm the grandmother of the park now. I'm just here for historical reference only." Some would call her the fairy grandmother of the park.
"My jaw is on the ground. The funds were raised by a handful of donors, and very quickly," says Rebecca Ratz, Director of Friends of Shelby Bottoms. Some years back, she was the city planner who created the master plan for Lockeland Springs Park. She saw the potential for the protected open space back then and is glad to see the collaboration with TPL to realize the expansion.
As Durant observes, "There was already an understanding in the community of that property as open space before we got involved. That is a key factor in the rapid success of the fundraising efforts. It was a known and loved space. It was of the community. The people belonged to Lockeland Springs Park, and it belonged to the neighborhood." He suggests the fundraising and commitment to the Lockeland Springs Park expansion can serve as a model that can perhaps inspire other neighborhoods that want to save their green spaces.
"It is a small amount of acreage, but it is very interesting environmentally, with the spring, the streams that run through it," Ratz says. "In an area that is so under pressure, where they are constantly taking down one house to put up two or scraping at the last bits of the remaining property, I think any acreage is a win in adding to the park. Every little bit counts in creating more space for the community to be in nature and save something that could otherwise be lost. These are the critical acres that connect Lockeland Springs Park with Shelby Park and have the potential to open up access on the north end for streets that dead-end into the park," she observes.
So when will the new parcel officially become part of Lockeland Springs Park? "We're working through all the steps that need to happen next," Durant says. Those steps include transferring the property to Metro and putting it into trust with TennGreen Land Conservancy. Fundraising will continue to provide an endowment for ongoing maintenance, like tree planting and clearing invasive species, and create a master plan. "We can't say exactly when it's going to be a public park, but it's in the works - and it's really exciting to see where we are basically a year since we had the first outreach from the neighborhood." Durant is hoping to see a ribbon-cutting on the expansion within the year.
Park lovers will have an opportunity to support those efforts at an art show in collaboration with The Chestnut Society, Friends of Lockeland Springs, and Friends of Shelby Parks at the Shelby Bottom Nature Center in April. The show will feature work by members of the Chestnut Society. This painting group focuses their work on raising awareness about trees and supports environmental sustainability by selling their work. President Judson Newbern, a landscape architect, also serves on the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps board and helped with tree-planting efforts. "I was over there planting a white pine, and it struck me that this is such a quirky little park, and these neighbors love it so much, this is the kind of space we should be painting right here," Newbern says. Many of the paintings on view at Shelby Nature Center are of the park.
It seems things are finally falling into place to restore and expand Lockeland Springs Park. Ask Bo Parr if that isn't some fairy magic on top of all the hard work, and she'll tell you, "That is the water speaking for itself. Those springs are here to be known; the water is making its way to the river. They are the Lockeland Springs, and they are doing their work. I think we need to follow the water."