When we caught up with Carol Coletta, this indomitable urbanist had just been named President and CEO of the Memphis River Parks Partnership (formerly the Riverfront Development Corporation). This latest in a series of eminent positions augments her role as a senior fellow at The Kresge Foundation, a national philanthropy actively reimagining the Memphis waterfront and the ways our citizens can connect through it. As a lifelong Memphian, Carol has deep affection for the city, and paired with an illustrious career studying how to build successful, happy communities, she is especially well suited to take on this next opportunity. If you want to know why Memphis is on the rise, get to know this week’s FACE of Memphis.
Tell us about where you grew up.
I was born in Memphis. I was raised in South Memphis, which I’m very proud of. I have a real affinity with that part of the city. I moved to Whitehaven at one point and lived there and then came to Midtown in my early adulthood. My parents thought I’d moved to another country.
You have taken a fascinating path that started at one of Memphis’ most defining institutions, Holiday Inn, Inc. How do you describe the overall trajectory of your career?
It was all about ‘how do you make cities successful?’ Particularly, I always looked at all my work and everything I learned through a narrower lens of ‘how would this apply to Memphis and helping make Memphis successful?’ I’ve been at that, strangely, since a very young age. I actually wrote the mayor when I was in high school and told him what he should do with Beale Street.
What would you like people to know about urbanism?
Urbanism is about people of all different types joyfully occupying the same space. So that means it needs to be dense, it needs to be walkable, it needs to be mixed use, it needs to be mixed income, it needs to be well served by something in addition to cars, and it needs to be welcoming to everyone. Urbanism sounds complicated, but it’s really not complicated at all. It’s just we don’t do it. We don’t do what we know has worked for hundreds of years. It’s really no mystery at all.
How did you initially get involved in this field?
I went to Holiday Inn Inc., and while I was there, I saw that there was a Court Square Task Force, and I called the woman whose name was in the paper about it. I said, “I’m really interested in what you’re doing. Could I help?” And instead of saying, “No. Who is this young person? I don’t know her name. She’s not in my social circle,” she said, “Yes, absolutely.” Which was one of the best lessons ever. When people raise their hand to help, you really should try to say yes. That was a gift she gave me – to let me into her circle.
Did you have female mentors as you progressed through your career?
My boss at Holiday Inn Inc., Dotty Abbott, was a legend. She was one of the original female disc jockeys at WHER, Sam Phillips’ all-female radio station. I started lucky, with a female boss in a moment in time when you wouldn’t necessarily have a female executive.
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who helped invent New Urbanism, was the head of the Knight Fellows program in Community Building at University of Miami. She was really gracious and kind to me. Joan Shigekawa at the NEA was wonderful. Barbara Hyde, Teresa Sloyan – they’re amazing women who’ve been real mentors to me.
You’ve spent a career studying cities and spent over a decade in other regions. How has your perspective on Memphis changed?
It’s funny, because in some ways I came back with a feeling that our challenges are the same challenges every city faces. There are things that we have not done as well as other cities, but I also think there are some extraordinary, nationally competitive people and organizations doing work here. There’s nothing about Memphis that depresses me. There’s nothing about Memphis that makes me think, It just can’t be done.
What is the concept of a civic commons, and how does it apply to cities like Memphis?
We need a civic commons desperately in our lives because trust among people in America and in our communities is on the severe decline. People don’t trust institutions anymore, and they don’t trust each other. One of the reasons they don’t trust each other is because they have very little interaction with each other.
For me, the civic commons is all about that place where you’re going to see everyone occupy the same space. We have let those things that are all over our communities — arts, libraries, community centers, trails — fall into decline. That’s not the fault of people running those things, but it’s time to retool and reimagine, and that’s what the work of the civic commons is.
What is unique about Memphis’ riverfront?
First of all, we’re at the Mississippi at one of its widest and most powerful points. It’s really hard to get a better waterfront. The view from Memphis across the river — it’s extraordinary to have a city of this size looking over at natural landscape. We are so connected to nature – even when we don’t realize it in our heads, we know it in our hearts. That, to me, makes it different.
And to say the obvious, when we say “riverfront” from the Memphis River Parks Partnership’s perspective, we’re talking about six miles, five park districts, all Memphis. Six miles of publicly owned land is pretty amazing. We’ve got an incredible canvas on which to work. All of that, and the fact that our riverfront is not separated from downtown by an expressway. It is all right there. You just feel like you could reach out and grab it.
In addition to the riverfront, what do you make sure guests of Memphis see while they’re here?
I want them to see the bridge lit at night and to walk across Big River Crossing. I want people to see Greenbelt Park and MLK Park in South Memphis, Beale Street, the fun neighborhoods that have been remade all over the place, Overton Park and Shelby Farms, the Wolf River Greenway and the Greenline. I think those are really special things about our city. And of course, the power of the Mississippi River at Memphis takes your breath away. If nothing else, I want them to see a sunset.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
There is so little of it, but I love the Grizzlies and I love the University of Memphis basketball and football. I always want to see my Memphis teams succeed.
What is your best advice?
I think the best advice is people don’t want to hear your story, they want to hear their story.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what three things can you not live without?
My Earl Grey tea in the morning, my jewelry collection and living in a vibrant, walkable place.
Thank you so much, Carol, for your love for and work in Memphis! To learn more about Carol’s work with the Memphis River Parks Partnership, visit memphisriverparks.org.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele for these beautiful photos.
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES section — prepare to be inspired!