The place is Clay Hill, known to nearby Riverview residents as the land between Dunbar Street and Industry Drive.. they were the generations who came from the African-American children who lived in nearby Riverview.. the clay balls and sticks were among the stickball games the children played on Riverview's "unofficial playground" back in the day.
And with the new recreation ballfields under construction on Clay Hill now, those children, now grown with kids and grandkids of their own, will be happen to know that the city of Kingsport has heard their wishes to have their fond memories of playing on Clay Hill remembered forever.
The name of the new ballfields has been chosen. Drum roll, please.........
"Really?" says former resident Sandra Pierce Ewing. "The Clay Hill Ball Fields? That's great. It means a lot for the Riverview community and the kids who used to play up there in the woods."
"The name speaks to the residents who lived here years ago, long gone, who played up there and had a good time," says resident Linda Kincaid, who lives right beside the ballfield location. "Clay Hill and the neighborhood will always be interconnected. I'm glad there was no controversy over the naming."
"The city listened to us," agreed Vickie Smith, another Riverview resident whose home borders the new ball park. "They could have named it anything they wanted, but Clay Hill has a history that is meaningful to us. Sometimes, it's hard to ignore the voice of the people."
Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming says, in many neighborhood situations, it's important to listen to the people who live there. Doing that about the new area acquired from General Shale, he says, uncovered a rich history about the ballfield site previously unknown.
"Originally, we were working under the assumption that the new ballfields would be named 'Centennial Park,' coinciding with the city's upcoming 100th birthday," he says. "But in talking with neighbors of the ballfields in Riverview, we became aware of a more meaningful name that related to the Riverview neighborhood. That name was 'Clay Hill.' We could not ignore that history, and made the decision not to."
In fact, nobody knows who coined the phrase 'Clay Hill.' In the background of the Riverview community, names of places can be easily traced to the individuals who named them: Mrs. Bessie Hipps won a contest in 1940 by offering the name 'Riverview' for the new community (even though the river could not be seen from the community except from Clay Hill)..... V.O. Dobbins, Sr. Complex, named by the city Parks and Recreation Department to honor the stoic Douglass School principal who guided the school through its growth years in the Kingsport city school system..... Dunbar Street, named for the poet, novelist and playwright Paul Lawrence Dunbar.... Carver Street, named for inventor and scientist George Washington Carver.... Douglass Street and Douglass High School, both named for the famed social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass.... Louis Street for the heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis.... Wheatley Street, named for renown poet Phyllis Wheatley... Booker Street, the first given name of educator and author Booker T. Washington... and James Street, named for local businessman and Riverview property owner James Stafford.
But 'Clay Hill?' It's obvious why the name was picked. Underneath the topsoil, is acres and acres of light brown clay. The person who first noticed it shall probably be forever unknown in the ages, but the reference they laid to the area has survived generations of African-American children who played there. For years, the Clay Hill area was considered "Riverview's Unofficial Playground." It was during years of segregation that black children were not allowed to play on playgrounds in nearby white neighborhoods. Even the name 'brickyard' was the name always given to the General Shale property next door, where thousands of bricks were made in the kilns on the site.
"Clay Hill deals with the rich history of the Riverview community," says Fleming. "For that reason, we decided to incorporate that name into the designation of the ballfield area where Clay Hill was located. It makes perfect sense, as was also the decision to use the name 'Brickyard' for the entire park area because of original land owner General Shale."
"I can see why Clay Hill was so attractive to the children as a getaway when they were growing up," he says. "Kids are always looking for places to explore and play Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and Clay Hill obviously fit that bill being just next door. From a city perspective. our advantage is having an area like that, that we can carry on its tradition."
CLICK ON THE PICTURE ABOVE TO SEE THE BALLFIELDS SITE LAID OUT - THIS VIEW IS FROM THE GENERAL SHALE ENTRANCE ROAD, LOOKING SOUTH TOWARDS EASTMAN
Fleming says the Clay Hill Ballfields, including the four smaller fields, and the huge upper deck field are all on track to open for play in the spring.
"We have the sod that will be delivered soon just in time for the cold weather when it needs to be planted and stabilized," he says. "The field house that will be surrounded on four sides by the four smaller ballfields is under construction, as well as the poles going up that will front the forward, outward view from home plate to the left and right outfields. Underground plumbing that will water the sod is also being laid. Site preparation is also about to wrap up on the largest ballfield, where the original Clay Hill once existed."
SEE THE FULL SIZED BASEBALL FIELD LOOKING NORTH (THE BULK OF THE CLAY HILL PLAYGROUND WAS HERE).
DOWNTOWN KINGSPORT IS TO THE RIGHT, CEMENT HILL IS TO THE LEFT
Fleming says, the Clay Hill Ballfields will be something the city, the baseball enthusiasts, visitors, and the Riverview neighborhood can all be proud of.
"This is a first-class facility," he says. "If you're familiar with going up on Clay Hill, you already know it's got this gorgeous 360-degree view of Bays Mountain, Cement Hill, downtown Kingsport, all the way over to Eastman. It's a beautiful view where you feel like you're in nature, but you're right in the middle of town."
"To have this area close to downtown is a gem."
Future plans around nearby Brickyard Park are still up in the air.
"Probably the next most significant thing people will notice, will soon the demolition of the remaining structures on the General Shale property," Fleming says. "We appreciate the patience that neighbors on Dunbar Street have had for all the bulldozers and dump trucks digging and stirring up all the dust on Clay Hill, and pretty soon, they'll be hearing the sounds of steel being torn down as we demolish the buildings that General Shale used in brickmaking. Right now, they're just big, ugly rusty hulks of abandoned buildings and machinery that need to come down, because they attract kids that could be hurt climbing all through them."
Sort of reminds everybody of how Clay Hill was discovered by hundreds of Riverview kids searching for a place to play back in the community's early days?
The thought of those old buildings and machinery becoming Riverview's NEXT unofficial playground was amusing to the city manager.
"Although the ballfields are next door, there are no plays to have either pedestrian or vehicular access to Dunbar Street or MLK Drive," says Fleming. "Access to the ballfields will primarily be from the General Shale access on Industry Drive. We are still toying with the idea of extending ML King to whatever future development that happens in Brickyard Park, but there are no firm plans in place right now."
Fleming says, tourists and visitors would be best served, by having direct access between Brickyard Park and the downtown area, via a connection with the CSX Railroad that the company has made no secret of its desire to close -- the Cherokee Street railroad crossing.
"We are working with CSX," he says. "They have an economic development department that markets rail crossings, and crossings in this particular part of East Tennessee are very limited. By the same token, the city is under a pretty aggressive loan with the balloon payments on the Shale property, so we have a fairly high interest in connecting Brickyard Park with the downtown area. What we have learned in Kingsport with so-called 'brownfield industrial sites' like that area is, you have to be extremely flexible."
And then there is Cement Hill.. the highest point in downtown Kingsport.
It's what Tannery Knob is to downtown Johnson City... what Sharp's Ridge is to downtown Knoxville... what Missionary Ridge is to downtown Chattanooga. The one single place, that offers the most panoramic views of a city that can be found. In Kingsport, it's Cement Hill, downtown's crown jewel of possible downtown development.
Right now, it's off the city's development radar.
It's that history angle that Fleming says, makes the naming of the Clay Hill Ballfields so meaningful.
"I think the heritage of every community is important," he says. "This is the way to maintain that heritage. Kingsport does have a track record of doing things to acknowledge and remember kep names that mean something to the community. You work together with the neighborhoods and do these things to preserve memories."
"The city needed to hear our voices on this one," says Van Dobbins, Jr., another Riverview homeowner whose Dunbar Street property borders the Clay Hill Ballfields at Brickyard Park. "It was an important issue to consider our name for the area, not just to us who played up on Clay Hill, but to our descendants. Clay Hill is part of their history, too. When you look at everything that's being built up there and our history with that area, the city's thoughtfulness of what our feelings are, made it even more important. It was a blessing to have them consider our feelings."
"With the name 'Clay Hill Ballfields'," says resident Ron Taylor, who can see the new ballfield net poles just over the ridge from he and his mom's home on Dunbar Street, "there should be some kind of memorial there to explain what the area means to our community. I think they can look at the ground at see the brown clay, but it's not just about the clay."
"Clay Hill was about the fun we all had up there, that now, others will have."