CHINATOWN — One of the city's new boathouses has undergone some growing pains since its debut, with vandals and thieves targeting the showcase property along the Chicago River's South Branch.
“It’s sad that the city builds a beautiful facility for everyone to enjoy, but then it gets treated like this,” said Jay Brown, 40, manager of the Urban Kayaks outpost at the boathouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park, 300 W. 19th St.
The kayak and canoe launch is open to the public, but the Downtown-based Urban Kayaks rental business opened its Chinatown branch in June. Since then, the boathouse has been vandalized multiple times.
Brown said thieves broke in and swiped two tandem kayaks and 10 paddles earlier this summer. All were later retrieved under a nearby railroad bridge.
More recently, the $2.5 million facility was tagged with spray paint, and the ornate panels surrounding the kayak storage area were bashed in and damaged.
Brown said the Chicago Park District has promised to shore up the gates to prevent more damage and has been diligent about cleaning up the graffiti.
The incidents, however, didn't seem to weigh on the minds of the groups of kayakers embarking on an afternoon journey Monday. One by one, they buckled into life jackets and listened as Brown laid out instructions for a safe ride up or down the river.
The business, which draws anywhere from 50 to 100 kayakers on the weekends, has been bolstered by Groupon deals and word-of-mouth chatter in the neighborhood, Brown said.
“Now people realize what’s on the north end of Ping Tom Park,” he said, looking toward the boathouse and parts of the newly renovated park.
On Monday, as the Chicago Water Taxi passed by, kayakers took to the floating dock along the river bank and awaited instructions from Brown, a South Loop resident who spends his winters working on yachts and his summers in Chicago with Urban Kayaks.
Among those waiting to launch was Tom Meyerink, 42, of Hilton Head, S.C., who’s visiting friends in the city. He said he’s used to kayaking in southern rivers and the Intercoastal Waterway near his hometown.
Still, the prospect of paddling along the Chicago River on a sunny day left him dazzled.
“I mean, where else can you kayak on a river and get that as your backdrop?” he said of the skyline in the distance.
Brown said Urban Kayaks hopes to remain open through Oct. 31, depending on the weather. Check the company's website for details.