Chinatown's Ping Tom Park celebrates 25th anniversary; former rail yard now a beloved public space

Thursday, May 30, 2024
Chinatown's Ping Tom Park celebrates 25th anniversary
What is now an urban oasis in Chicago's Chinatown began as a former railyard. Ping Tom Park is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- On a late spring, sun-drenched day, Chinatown's Ping Tom Park radiates, framed by the skyline and south branch of the Chicago River.

The dazzling, over 17-acre landscape paints a striking mural in one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods.

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"If you come out here first thing in the morning, you see all the seniors out here doing Tai Chi," said Ernie Wong, Ping Tom Park's landscape architect. "The playgrounds are being used after school. The park is being used by folks that are exercising."

Wong helped cut the ribbon opening the park in 1999. He said what is now an urban oasis began as a former rail yard.

"Oh my god, it was a mess," he recalled with a laugh. "But what was important was the river's edge. Had we not developed this park alongside the Chicago River, I don't think it would be as popular as it is today."

Visitors arrive by water taxi, by bicycle and on foot. For 30 years, Chinatown had no park after the only one was demolished in the 1960s to build the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressway extensions.

"So people did not see a swimming pool, did not see green space, did not see programming, and that was normal, and that's also why I don't know why to swim," said Debbie Liu, president of the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council. "And so now I'm really grateful that this park exists, and now my son can swim in the park."

Now there is a fieldhouse with an indoor swimming pool, walking paths, a boathouse that rents kayaks and the signature pagoda.

The park is named after business and civic leader Ping Tom, who died before the park opened.

"I don't think he would have expected to see anything of what it's become. I mean, it's become I think the most beautiful park in Chicago," said his son Darryl Tom.

A number of 25th anniversary celebrations are planned for the coming months, including one this Saturday in the park, from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. The theme of the event is "What can be accomplished when a community works together."