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A Railroad Runs Through Ping Tom Park

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding ten community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece is the fourth of a ten-part series highlighting these projects.

Ping Tom Park has breathtaking views of downtown Chicago, a state-of-the-art fieldhouse, and many opportunities for riverfront access on the South Branch of the Chicago River. One of the park’s greatest assets is the surrounding community, where civic and community leaders are working tirelessly to make the park accessible and welcoming.

Led by the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community (CBCAC), a team including the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council (PTPAC), Wilderness Inquiry and the Greater Chicago Dragon Boat Club (GCDBC) received a grant from the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) to bring wayfinding and culturally relevant placemaking into Ping Tom Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

Stephen M. Scott (flickr)

Debbie Liu, the Community Development Coordinator for CBCAC, recently spoke with MPC about the improvements being made in Ping Tom Park. Liu recounted that residents and visitors alike have trouble navigating the expansive park, especially as they make their way from one section of the park to another, or from the neighborhood into the park.

“Though the new fieldhouse was finished in 2013, it is still not connected to the Ping Tom boathouse,” Liu said. “There also aren’t a lot of signs to help navigate visitors around the park, which is a problem not only for newcomers, but for local residents who want to visit their local park. People get lost.”

These experiences, captured in the 2017 Chinatown Walkability Report, show that Ping Tom Park can benefit from both physical and cultural connections.

The project team aims to implement a signage plan to link the Ping Tom Park fieldhouse to the rest of the park which has riverfront access—the two sections are divided by a railroad which can only be crossed by walking several blocks—and do so in a way that celebrates Chinese culture. They also aim to help connect the park to the broader community through the “Welcome to Chinatown Gateway” that will feature murals on the park’s 18th Street bridge.

The mural at Ping Tom Park is underway. Andy Bellomo (Instagram)

The mural is currently under way, being painted by local artists Andy Bellomo, Anna Murphy, and Chester Chow. A dedication ceremony for the mural will take place on Saturday July 28, 2018.

The grant also expands placemaking activities in the park, include canoeing and dragon boat activities on the South Branch of the Chicago River.

These initiatives expand on the goals articulated in the 2013 Chinatown Community Vision Plan, which advocates for improved signage, innovative placemaking, and further tapping into Chinatown’s tourism potential, among other goals.

Dragon Boat Races at Ping Tom Park. Photo: Terence Faircloth (flickr)

Behind the scenes, the CBCAC and its partners have made it a point to champion community involvement in their project. They have held multiple community workshops, including mural design workshops and community stenciling days for the murals, and the wayfinding and activities draw directly upon previous community plans.

“Especially with outsider-led projects, respect is due to the community. Locals need the skills and the funding to make sure that any project happening in the neighborhood is community-led, especially in communities where there exist language barriers,” said Liu.

According to Liu, communicating the project team’s intentions and the community’s desires across language is an especially important concern for this project, as development in minority communities like Chinatown often prompts fears of gentrification. “What happens when a community gets ‘too nice?’ It’s hard to have these conversations about gentrification when advocating for these projects, but it’s necessary.”

The CBCAC, PTPAC and GCDBC hope that this combination of wayfinding, cultural artistic representation and riverfront amenities will result in economic and environmental benefits for the Chinatown community.

“In the long term, we hope that this project will help more people will be engaged in cleaning up the park, in water-based activities, as well as bolstering the tourism in Chinatown,” said Liu.

Learn how to dragon boat race on July 21 and come out to celebrate the completion and dedication of the Ping Tom Park Mural on July 28!

Nicolas Robledo is a former research assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council and a current student at University of Illinois at Chicago.