Teens lounged on the grassy hill at Landmark Plaza this week, surrounded by empty tents set out for an upcoming children’s festival. The small park in downtown St. Paul, best known for hosting an ice rink each year, was quiet.
Eleven yard signs, stuck in a row at the edge of the grass, were the only hints that change could be coming.
The signs bear the faces and quotes of teens, each sharing thoughts inspired by the legacy of famed author, filmmaker and Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, who started his photography career in St. Paul. If Parks’ family and supporters’ plan becomes a reality, in a few years the plaza could contain much more than signs.
They hope to construct a “living memorial” to Parks, possibly with interactive art and a performance space. Organizers of the Gordon Parks Memorial — an idea a decade in the making — kicked off a fundraising campaign this week.
Robin Hickman, Parks’ great-niece, wants to raise $200,000 to work with St. Paul artist Seitu Jones, black artists from across the country and local young people to design the memorial. While the full cost of the project will be determined by what the artists come up with, another $2.5 million to $6 million could be needed to construct and maintain the memorial, according to a plan developed by Hickman’s company, SoulTouch Productions, and local nonprofit Forecast Public Art.
St. Paul officials, who have indicated early support for the idea, would have to approve the memorial before construction could begin in the city-owned park.
The memorial is a piece of a larger initiative to show young people of color “visions of possibility,” Hickman said.
“We want to really represent the spirit of my uncle, who believed, and throughout his career made sure, that people who looked like him had opportunities,” she said.
The memorial site could host events, from celebrations to lectures to spoken word performances. Hickman also plans to create a yearlong fellowship to connect young black men in the Twin Cities with professionals who work in the same fields as Parks did. On Friday, in a precursor of what’s to come, she brought Kokayi Ampah, a location manager who has worked on blockbuster movies and grew up in St. Paul, to speak with high school students about show business.
A site with relevance
Landmark Plaza’s prominent location, across the street from Rice Park, was not chosen at random. Parks’ photography career started next door, where Pazzaluna patrons now sip cocktails and eat pasta. In 1940, that was the location of Frank Murphy’s clothing store, where Parks got his first job as a fashion photographer.
“It isn’t just any site. It isn’t just a great site — it has relevance,” said Jack Becker, founder and executive director of Forecast Public Art.
After Parks’ initial work in St. Paul, he went on to blaze a career path in the arts that paved the way for many black filmmakers and photographers. The subjects of his images ranged from celebrities, including Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe, to the slums of Rio de Janeiro. His novel “The Learning Tree” became his first film. He went on to direct several other movies, including “Shaft,” and write a number of books. Parks died in 2006 at 93.
At the annual Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner in New York last week, attendees included Swizz Beatz and Usher. “There are some really heavy-hitters,” who were influenced by Parks, Hickman said, and she is optimistic they will help make the memorial a reality.
Memorial organizers have spent the past year and a half gathering input on what the site should include. In addition to raising funds for construction, organizers plan to gather money for maintenance and programming at the space, Becker said. They will offer the memorial and maintenance plan to the city as a gift, he said.
The memorial would not interfere with the usual events at the plaza, like the ice rink.
The city’s Parks Department supports the memorial project and the community process, said spokeswoman Clare Cloyd, and it looks forward to seeing the final concept.
Becker said the Landmark Plaza plans dovetail nicely with the upcoming revitalization of Rice Park.
“Both projects will improve and enhance two existing downtown parks that are well-used and loved by the community,” Cloyd said.