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The Park That Brought Green Space to Chinatown

Meredith Francis
Ping Tom Park
A pagoda-like pavilion takes center stage at Ping Tom Park in Chinatown. Photo: Scott Shigley / site design group ltd.

With its bright orange pagoda and lush greenery grazing the edge of the Chicago River, Ping Tom Park is a small but mighty green space that has become a cultural destination in the city.

“It is a focal point of pride in the community,” said George Lee, chair of the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council.

Just a short walk from Chinatown Square and the CTA Red Line, the park has become a popular spot on the river, a stop on the Chicago Water Taxi, and a destination for events and festivals. 

For decades, Chinatown didn’t have a park or any significant green space. When the Dan Ryan Expressway was built in the 1960s, the community’s only two parks, Hardin Square and Stanford Park, were both demolished. According to the Chicago Park District, “Two full generations of children in Chinatown grew up without access to a neighborhood park or any recreational area.”

Members of the community worked to change that. In 1991, the park district bought vacant railroad land that was owned by the Sante Fe Railroad. Ping Tom, a prominent business leader in the community, spearheaded the initiative. In previous years, Tom had formed the Chinese American Development Corporation, which created the Chinatown Square retail and residential development. The park was part of a larger vision for the community. Tom died in 1995, just four years before Mayor Richard M. Daley dedicated the new park. 

Ping Tom Park A before and after shows how Ping Tom Park changed the landscape of Chinatown. Images: Chicago History Museum (Before) and Zach Mortice (After), Courtesy of site design group ltd.

Over the years, the park has become a “hidden gem” in Chicago, says the park’s landscape architect Ernie Wong. Hidden, in part, because there’s only one entrance on 19th Street. This was one of the many challenges in designing the park. Wong’s firm, site design, has worked with the park district over the last 20 years to develop the park in phases.

“We ended up on site with a lot of challenges,” said Wong. “It used to be former railroad land, so it had some environmental issues, and it was cut off from the community by the railroad tracks.” 

And, said Wong, the land sat up 15 feet above the Chicago River, so there was a cliff-like dropoff at the western edge of the park. Residents wanted an active park with ball fields and other recreational spaces, but there just wasn’t enough space to create that. It was a long, narrow patch of land cut off by the 18th Street overpass and surrounded by transportation infrastructure. 

“The community had brought out a Feng Shui master to that site who identified the site as the worst place you could ever put a park,” Wong said. “He said the site turns its back on the river, and it faces the railroad tracks, which is really bad.”

The design of the park sought to change that. Wong, whose parents immigrated from China, traveled to China to study classical gardens to look for inspiration for the new park. (Wong’s father, Y.C. Wong, was an architect who studied under Mies van der Rohe.) 

Wong said the goal for the first phase of the park was to connect it to the culture of the community. That’s why the park has a pagoda-like pavilion and Chinese symbolism incorporated into the playground. Even the benches are inspired by Chinese design.

“The other thing we did was study how many plants in the US are originally from China,” Wong said; they then incorporated some Chinese plants. They also experimented with a bamboo grove. and to everyone’s surprise, despite the climate, “It has thrived.”

In 2002, the park district acquired more land, allowing Ping Tom Park to grow. There’s now a swath of native plants in a wilder, prairie-like landscape at the northern end of the park. There’s also a boat house and a walking path with rails painted in bright red that extends over the river in some places. North of 18th Street, there are now ball fields and a field house that has a pool, gym, fitness center, and rooftop garden. 

Ping Tom ParkIn recent years, the park has expanded to include a walkway that extends over the river. Photo: Andrew Bruah / site design group ltd.

“It's serving the people of Chicago,” said Wong. “It's serving this community, which was deserving of a green space that they could identify with, that they took some pride in.” 

For George Lee, the park’s playground was a place he took his son when he was younger.

“Just sitting under the pagoda, it’s such a peaceful atmosphere. It’s just relaxing,” said Lee.

What’s interesting about the park, according to Wong, is that it’s surrounded by so many forms of transportation: the CTA Orange Line, Amtrak and Metra trains, the expressways, the boats on the river, and even the freight trains that still go directly through the park at ground level. 

“If you stand there in the middle of the park with all this traffic around you, it's still quiet, which is really amazing. Everything kind of goes away,” said Wong. 

Wong attributes the park’s popularity to its proximity to the river, since a park normally surrounded by all those bustling city features might not be as peaceful. Even the nearby lift bridge has become a sight to see at the park. The park has also become a home to festivals and other events, like the annual Dragon Boat Race.

Ping Tom ParkThe annual Dragon Boat Race takes place in Chinatown each summer. Photo: Andrew Bruah / site design group ltd.

Still, the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council is looking to the park’s future and continued improvements. According to Lee, the park council wants to add more murals and improve lighting, which they hope will incorporate a traditional Chinese lantern design. 

They also want more than one entrance to the park, including a way to connect the field house to the rest of the park, which is cut off by 18th Street. One of the initial issues that designers faced when first building the park was the lack of accessibility. Even today, said Lee, the train that runs through the park at ground-level can mean someone trying to get out of the park and get to lunch is stuck for a while, since the train runs right through the sole entrance to the park. Additionally, the entrance was so tricky to find in its early days that it was featured in the finale of the show The Amazing Race back in 2005, and even the contestants and city cab drivers couldn’t find the entrance

Though its entrance may be tucked away from busy streets, the community has embraced the space, said Wong. He said the reason he got into landscape architecture was not because of the plants or the design component, but because of the social nature of how people use public spaces.

“It's a safe place,” Wong said. “Kids go there. Early in the morning you see the senior citizens doing Tai Chi. It is extremely well-used, and it's well-used four seasons of the year.”