Ping Pong and Planting: Creating Community in Gulick Park

Last weekend, 150 or so Lower East Side residents gathered in Luther Gulick Park for “It’s My Park Day.”  The event was part of a community-based campaign to revitalize the park, at the corner of Willett and Delancey streets.  One of the highlights was a hotly contested ping pong tournament. We asked Kim Gledhill, the tournament’s organizer and Friends of Gulick Park member, to share her thoughts on the big day:

Weird coincidences are the hallmark of my life, so it was fitting that the week after I came to the conclusion that the one material item conspicuously missing from my home was a ping-pong table, a beautiful outdoor table tennis platform appeared in Gulick Park, across the street. Granted, a ping-ping table would take up a good percentage my apartment, but having grown up in an old house with a table-tennis-equipped basement, I realized this was one of the few things about suburban living that I missed. I wished that a ping-pong table could be a part of my son’s childhood the way it was  a part of mine. So when I saw it, I immediately knew that the Gulick Park table was a good omen.

In my excitement about the concrete table—which looks like it was crafted by someone whose first love is sculpture — I contacted its owner, The Friends of Gulick Park.  One thing led to another and I was asked if I’d like to join the organization and organize a ping-pong tournament. “Sure!” I said, already thinking of the same idea. And so was born the Gulick Park Ping-Pong Challenge.

There are a lot of things I like about ping-pong. For starters, a casual game seems to have the effect of a conversational lubricant in my experience, even more effective than a couple of drinks sometimes. (I once experienced a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman becoming chatty about emotional topics over a game of ping-pong.) But more importantly, ping-pong is kind of like soccer—a very democratic game, and I like things that bring out democratic tendencies. People of all ages and cultures excel at it, and you can’t judge a ping-pong manual by its cover. There’s no better testimony to that than the Gulick Park Ping-Pong Challenge.

For instance, if you think senior citizen women are obsolete when it comes to sports, don’t let Audrey Rosenberg’s unimposing stature and grey hair fool you. She was a formidable opponent, beating challengers many decades younger than her—their low-slung jeans contrasting with her made-for-comfort attire. It was wildly inspiring. (Rumor has it that she was a contender on the Catskill hotel table-tennis circuit.)

As the organizer of the event, I personally made the mistake of concerning myself whether a thirteen-year-old player who signed up would be able to fairly compete at a level in the same ballpark as the adults. Let’s just say he turned out to be an outstanding player and would have wiped the floor with me had we been paired against each other. And when my friend’s dad,  a 90-year-old long-time L.E.S. resident showed up in his motorized scooter to play a few shots, I thought, “Isn’t that nice?” No patronizing was required, however; the guy clearly still had it going on.

An Estonian woman put on quite an impressive show of skill, as did her female Scottish opponent. Chinese-speakers, Spanish-speakers, African-Americans, Anglophiles and those of Yiddish ancestry (like myself) surrounded the table throughout the afternoon, all joined by a shared love of ping-pong. I had the feeling that this common denominator among neighbors of very different backgrounds was deeply appreciated by everybody.

group planting

It seemed that this energy extended to everyone at the “It’s My Park” Day event on the whole, even beyond the ping-pong tournament. When it comes down to it, not only are people in our neighborhood often socially separated from each other by age and ethnicity, but in the city it’s easy to fall into circles determined by profession, too. The Gulick Park event felt like a really nice way of bridging that gap, if only for a day. And though I might be optimistic, I do think the ping-pong table will help foster a sense of all-inclusive neighborliness year-round. I’ve had some evidence of that already.

Recently I was playing with my friend Christy Burke (who was instrumental in helping to organize the tournament), and we realized that a group of Chinese women were waiting to play. Since we’d been there a while, we immediately offered up the table. Though not all of them were fluent in English, they let us know that they wanted us to stay and play doubles with them, which we did. They invited us back to play at their regular hour. We didn’t need to discuss the fact that nothing else could have possibly brought us together in this way had it not be for ping-pong that day, and we were grateful for it.

Shortly after that game, I made the acquaintance of Alan Good, the president of Henge, Inc. and maker of the table at Gulick Park. Talking to him was so refreshing, because what I experienced in playing with these women was his goal in creating Henge: bridging cultural divides through ping-pong in public spaces. (Incidentally, Alan had played with the same group of women.) It sounds kind of trivial at first, but seriously—can you think of another conceivable way of bringing so many groups of people happily together? I can’t. So I’ll continue to be optimistic.

Ping pong competitor Julius Shapiro.

It felt like everything conspired to make the Gulick Park Ping-Pong Challenge a success: perfect weather; a great turnout; friendliness among the players; Sam Huang, the tournament official who made everything go as smoothly as possible; and the generosity of SPiN NYC, which sponsored the event. Not only did SPiN provide the grand prize of a family membership to the club, but co-owner Franck Raharinosy was also present with whiz-kid Daniel Picciotto to add a good bit of razzle-dazzle with an expo match. David Auerbach, owner of Dijitalfix, who donated a $100 gift certificate as the runner-up prize, also deserves a big shout-out of thanks.

Sam from SPiN with Barry (2nd place) and Ilan (1st place) the tournament winners.

Wondering who is the reigning champ? After a feisty but friendly, match Ilan Hausner took home the grand prize, while Barry Huang was the runner-up. I’d love to think that the Gulick Park Ping-Pong Challenge will become an annual Lower East Side event that continues to bring neighbors together, and that maybe someday in the far-off future, my now-seven-year-old will lose himself in conversation while volleying with his grey-haired mother.

If you’ve got the inclination, just come to the Gulick Park ping-pong table and see if anyone’s around to play. If I’m there, I might just recruit you in a game of doubles.

I’ve lived on the Lower East Side for three and a half years, and the inscription of Sidney Hillman’s quote on the gate to the  Hillman Housing’s park always struck me: “We want a better America, an America that will give its citizens, first of all, a higher and higher standard of living so that no child will cry for food in the midst of plenty.” You don’t hear that too much anymore, but it’s reaffirming to have it literally set in stone at the place where I live. The  planned renovation of Gulick Park and the addition of the ping-pong table are something of an extension of these idealistic principles. Ping-pong might not change the world, but it sure can give our community a point of intersection that it didn’t have before.

Luther Gulick was a visionary advocate of green urban spaces and playgrounds at the turn of the century. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1912, he wrote, “Play is as essential to children as bread…Have not the children the fundamental American rights—the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?…”

Kim Gledhill is a graphic designer, illustrator and author who lives on the Lower East Side (but you knew that last part already!)  Here’s a link to her web site.