I met Matt Dwyer on the north end of…well, it’s not really a park. It’s technically part of Happy Hollow Boulevard in Dundee, but it’s too wide to be called a median. It’s a three-city-block-long stretch of greenery lined by towering oaks and elms. Many probably know it as the spot where generations of kids (and grown-ups) played touch football and, in winter, went sledding down the slopes or, more recently, skated on the seasonal ice rink.
It’s…well, most people just call it The Sunks.
If difficult to describe today, The Sunks 100 years ago was much more clearly delineated. It was a formal, Parisian-style garden with sculpted, circular beds of flowers, and—possibly, the old photos are pretty grainy—a small pond with a fountain. Far from the industrial hub of Omaha, The Sunks bordered the western edge of Dundee, a newly founded “city set on a hill” that boasted “high, dry, pure, and clear air,” low taxes, sociable people, and homes built for a minimum of $2,500 (as described in a circa-1890s brochure cited in Dundee’s application to the National Register of Historic Places). It was a city designed as a “garden suburb,” and The Sunken Gardens was its defining space. The gardens went to seed around 1929, most likely a victim of the tail-spinning economy.
“It wasn’t real grand, not super opulent,” Dwyer says. “But it was a good start.”
Dwyer is the co-founder of GreenSlate Development, a key force behind the remarkable transformation of the Blackstone District around 40th and Farnam streets. Greenslate has restored six buildings on the strip with another four in the works. Now Dwyer is setting his sights on restoring The Sunks.
Dwyer grew up in one of the stately, red-brick homes that line the old garden. He used The Sunks to play football on the lawn and sneak cigarettes under the trees as a teenager. “It was a huge part of my life,” he says.
It was around 8 a.m. when I met Dwyer at The Sunks. It’s at a busy intersection and cars whizzed by as people headed to work. We walked down the steep hill, our feet slushing through wet grass, to get to the bottom where the ground leveled out. The depth dulls the passing traffic noise and creates a peaceful, secluded feel. Dwyer says the slopes and winter ice rink (neighborhood favorites) will stay. But for the rest, he envisions meandering pathways, benches, and picnic spots…maybe even a water feature, with room to spare for a robust game of football.
Dwyer aims to raise private capital to build the gardens and create an endowment to maintain the space. The Parks Department has promised to help as much as it’s able, but Dwyer knows that the real muscle behind such an initiative will come from the neighborhood itself, one that in 2011 was named to the American Planning Association’s list of Great American Places.
The strongest asset at his disposal could very well be the Dundee-Memorial Park Neighborhood Association, perhaps the city’s gold standard for such community groups and one known for its ambitious vision, can-do spirit, and dedicated volunteer base.
“Great cities have great public spaces,” Dwyer says. “And I think we’re a great city.”
Visit dundee-memorialpark.org to learn more.