A Pickin’ Party Takes Flight

THERE WAS ONCE A TIME WHEN preservation was just about salvaging an old building, but the days of an isolated rescue are long gone. Now preservation is about preserving communities and the values they embody; values such as honor, ingenuity and stewardship. These are the tenets that pave the runway of historic Cornelia Fort Airpark and light the streets of neighboring East Nashville homes.
     Established in 1944 in memoriam to Nashville debutant and World War II pilot Cornelia Clark Fort, the landmark celebrates a pivotal figure in American history. Recognized as the first pilot to encounter the Japanese air fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor and second member of the Woman’s Air force Service Pilots, Fort devoted her life to the valiant protection of her country. In March of 1943, Fort perished while courageously serving the United States, titling her the first woman in American history to die on active duty.
     Operated as a private airpark Cornelia Fort Airpark, rumbled with the vibration of over 30,000 aircraft operations per year. When the floods of 2010 devastated Nashville, Cornelia Fort airpark was among the carnage. Overwhelmed by the loss and duty of rehabilitation, possession shifted to Nashville Metro Parks. Once acquired by the city, the sprawling 140 acres of land was hinged to Shelby Park/Shelby Bottoms producing a spectacular and expansive greenway boasting 1,300 acres.
     However, even under supportive new ownership the damage from the flood accrued a profound and unexpected cost. A once vivacious airpark, buzzing with possibility and adventure, has become miserably quiet. Robust and innovative hangars once sheltering the wings of exploration are now vacant and idle, while great buildings that welcomed weary travelers are now shuttered and dark.
     Fortunately the spirit of Cornelia Fort, and the values of allegiance, integrity and service upon which the airpark was built are still active in nearby communities. Todd Jarrell, the producer of Bluegrass Underground and a resident of the nearby Rosebank neighborhood, notes, “This is a special place. Those buildings do not belong in a landfill. This is a place where things were meant to take flight.” Jarrell, along with his wife, Brooke Scurlock, who is the current president of Friends of Shelby Park, has joined with Nashville Metro Parks to honor Cornelia Fort’s legacy and aid in the preservation of the Airpark. Friends of Shelby Park is a well-respected private nonprofit with the mission to “protect the natural and historical integrity of the area by supporting appropriate recreational activities, maintaining and enhancing its features, promoting programs that inspire appreciation and conservation of Park and Bottoms.”
     On Saturday, July 25, under the cover of a warm summer night, Cornelia Fort Airpark will host its inaugural Pickin’ Party. “We wanted to host an event that would bring the community together and allow all ages to enjoy the space,” says Jarrell. “Cornelia Fort airpark is rich with potential, and it is an important part of East Nashville’s heritage.” He goes on to say, “The possibilities here are truly endless; the buildings, the hangars, and the magnificent greenways. It is an oasis amidst a metropolis, and it deserves to be celebrated.”
     Admission to the venue is $10 and includes one local craft beer from Yazoo Brewery. Food vendors will include local favorites Edley’s BBQ, Hoss’ Loaded Burgers, Lockeland Table, The Post East, and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. Jarrell states, “All money made there stays there. All proceeds will go to the preservation and rehabilitation of this extraordinary site.” In addition to libations the event will host a bevy of vendors and food trucks. Returning an energetic hum to the airpark, music will be performed by local bluegrass bands along with an exciting DIY component welcoming patrons of all abilities to bring their own instruments and join the entertainment. The Pickin’ Party will be the first in a series of events aimed at raising awareness and funds to provide proper rehabilitation for the airpark’s existing structures, with the hope that through their preservation the structures can be repurposed a wide variety of events and activities. Scurlock sums up the event this way: “The Cornelia Fort Pickin’ Party is absolutely a family-friendly occasion. The party will be well lit, safe, and a great way to meet people and unify the community.”