CHINATOWN — Ever since the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway claimed the neighborhood’s park and field house some 50 years ago, civic leaders have been fighting to bring the amenities back.
At long last, their day has come.
City officials on Monday unveiled the brand-new Ping Tom Memorial Park Field House, a 30,000-square-foot facility complete with a fitness center, basketball courts, swimming pool, community meeting spaces and a rooftop garden terrace.
"It has everything that families and communities would want to come together and strengthen the bonds that bring people together ... the notion was first discussed when the Dan Ryan was built, which tells you its time is now," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A Chicago Park District spokeswoman said the $15.2 million field house at 1700 S. Wentworth Ave., outfitted with green features like a geothermal heating and cooling system and low-flow plumbing, is paid for exclusively with money from the River South tax increment financing district, with the park district kicking in an extra $200,000 for finishing touches like furniture.
Monday’s ribbon cutting, attended by Emanuel, parks chief Michael Kelly, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and dozens of community leaders, caps off years of renovations at the waterfront park, which have included adding green space and walkways at the park’s north end and the debut of a stylish boathouse to store kayaks — all in the shadows of a spectacular skyline view.
The projects represent an evolution for the neighborhood, anchored by densely packed apartment buildings and the commercial hubs of the Wentworth Avenue main drag and Chinatown Square development.
“I live in Chinatown and don’t own a blade of grass. Chinatown is all this concrete,” said David Wu, executive director of the Christian-focused Pui Tak Center.
And for Chinatown’s aging community leaders, the debut of the field house is a testament to the spirit of Ping Tom, an influential business man who worked to expand the neighborhood to make room for more Chinese immigrants. Tom died in 1995.
Longtime park advocate Leonard Louie was honored at the ceremony for tirelessly working to restore the neighborhood’s original park space and field house at Hardin Square Park and Stanford Park, which were erased during the 1962 construction of the South Route, now known at the Dan Ryan Expressway.
“We had to get them back for our community,” said Esther Wong, director of the Chinese American Service League.
Wu, who has served on the park’s volunteer advisory council for more than a decade, said his three kids have wondered what’s he been doing at all those community meetings centered on planning the facility. He thought it would take years, even decades, before the plans would come to fruition.
“Realistically, it will be your kids that will get to swim there,” he told his children.
Yet there he was at Monday's ribbon-cutting alongside dozens of other kids bused in from area schools and park programs to shoot hoops, splash around in the six-lane swimming pool and roll down a large grassy hill outside.
Carmen Yang, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas Kelly High School who resides in Chinatown, helped take the community's feedback for what programming they'd like to see at the field house.
"Honestly, young folks just wanted a place to be active and they're wasn't a place for that," she said.
Park district officials say sign-up is already underway for floor hockey, volleyball, basketball, tumbling, flag football, badminton and several more activities. The roster for winter programs will be available Nov. 18 and online registration will begin Dec. 3.