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Eternal City

The Best Place in NYC Is the Seward Park Ping-Pong Table

The ping-pong table—and the community that has grown around it—is a reminder of what the city could be.

(Hell Gate)

It was just after 9 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday, and Bao Cai Zheng, a middle-aged man dressed in a red Calvin Klein T-shirt and black track pants, had already set up court at the ping-pong table in Seward Park, just steps from the corner of Essex and Canal in Chinatown. That morning, he was coaching two women on the art of table tennis. 

"Not too high," Zheng, who has the look of a bulldog, albeit one with carefully slicked back hair, barked at one of his students, a tall, slender woman in a pink top. She tried a downward slice with her paddle. "Good!" he told her in Mandarin. "Two weeks from now, you’ll be great. Step by step, you’ll get better."

"People call me 'shifu,'" Zheng told me modestly, during a pause in their training session. He's a master, true, but a different, no less accurate descriptor for him would be the unofficial mayor of the Seward Park ping-pong table, and thus, the mayor of the greatest place in all of New York City. Anyone who has walked by that intersection on a summer evening has likely seen crowds of people gathered around the ping-pong table, a crowd that's unlike any other you'll see elsewhere throughout the five boroughs—immigrant grandmas and middle-aged businessmen in suits, teenage skateboarders, and young city-dwellers who would blend in comfortably at, say, Nowadays (or the nearby Ten Cent Plaza), all there out of love for the game. The cost of entry? However much you spend on a paddle, and a willingness to potentially embarrass yourself in a very public place. In a city that increasingly feels inhospitable to the idea of sociality, and where any remaining vestige of the public good is being whittled down budget cut by budget cut, the Seward Park ping-pong table is a reminder of what the city could be.

Bao Cai Zheng and his students. (Hell Gate)

A construction worker by training, Zheng was the one who had built the detachable metal poles, currently tucked neatly under the table, off of which people hung LED lights in order to play into the night, and he had drilled several hooks into the side of the table, so that people could hang their bags full of equipment. He had also taken it upon himself to keep the area surrounding the ping-pong table clean. "Every morning when we come, we sweep first. But recently, someone stole our broom," Zheng said. He added, "The worst is people with their dogs. They poop everywhere, and we step on it."

His student in pink—"I'm Ah Siu," she told me cheerfully—stops by the Seward Park ping-pong table almost every morning before she heads to work. She only started playing ping-pong a few months ago, but she's been seized by a mania for the sport, and by a love for this particular ping-pong table. "We want the Parks Department to add another table," she said. Her fellow trainee, a Chinatown resident in her 70s, had also come late to the game, having only begun playing last year. "I come every day," she said. "I'm old now, so I want to get out of the house."

Zheng himself only began to get more serious about ping-pong eight years ago. He looked into classes, which were too expensive, so he began by watching YouTube videos. Now, he offers up his coaching services to anyone who wants to learn. "All I ask is that you buy me a cup of coffee or a pastry," he said. I took him up on his offer of a lesson. 

After showing me how to grip the paddle, Zheng and I played a match, the better for him to assess my skills. (We quickly realized I have none, as I whiffed ball after ball.) Undeterred, he whipped out a training contraption from his backpack, a ping-pong ball attached to a metal clamp that he clipped onto a nearby fence, telling me to practice my returns and hitting the ball at the right angle. Zheng offered encouragement in the form of a running commentary for an imaginary audience: "She just learned, and now, after 30 minutes, she's already at this level. Not bad." I began imagining my new life as a ping-pong player. 

The Parks Department first began putting ping-pong tables in City parks in the 2010s, as part of what the New York Times described as "an experiment in open-air Ping-Pongery." But it was only in September of 2022 that the agency installed the table in Seward Park, first by the library inside the park, then at the northern end of the park on Essex (it was moved there after residents complained of the noise of all that thwacking), and then, due to concerns that flying ping-pong balls would hit pedestrians at that location, it was moved to its current resting place, which is bordered on one end by shrubbery and fenced off with metal barricades covered in netting on the other. (That netting was added by, you guessed it, Zheng.)

That move was perhaps fortuitous—located right next to a busy intersection, curious passersby began stopping to watch, some of whom became regulars themselves. The table's most passionate devotees agree that of all the public, open-air ping-pong tables in the city, and there are dozens scattered throughout City parks, the Seward Park table is special. The ones in Bryant Park? The vibes are off (too formal, too many tourists, not chill). Columbus Park? There's no seating. Brooklyn Bridge Park? Ping-pongers don't really go there. 

Zheng told me earnestly that he sees the ping-pong table as a step toward greater racial understanding and unity, the need for which he felt keenly. "Of every race, 80 to 90 percent of people are good," he said philosophically. "All it takes is one person to do something bad to you, and you're terrified of everyone else." Zheng himself is originally from Fujian, so he gave an example close to home. "If a Fujianese person harasses you, say while at work, just once, you'll think in your heart that Fujianese people are really terrible," he said.

He added, "We just want more people to have fun—old aunties, grandmas, kids, Black people, white people, Europeans, amigos, for everyone to come together and play together."

As I sat on a bench by the ping-pong table that Tuesday afternoon, Zheng's vision manifested, as a steady stream of New Yorkers trickled in—a Queens resident in his 80s who had just picked up the sport and was now obsessed; three young children, backpacks and ping-pong paddles in hand; a middle-aged guy straight out of 1980s New York who cheekily told me that he was widely known as a "bully" before devastating his opponent with forehand smash after forehand smash; a woman with the air and style of an ad agency executive; 20-somethings who had grown up in the neighborhood; even a juggler (white, natch), who idly tossed a few ping-pong balls in the air as he waited for a second player to arrive. 

(Hell Gate)

"It's known for having the best players," 24-year-old Gramercy resident and longtime ping-pong enthusiast Daniel Opstelten, who stopped by that day, said of the Seward Park table. "You meet people from all different backgrounds, all different ages, and it's still competitive, which is really, really awesome." 

His opponent that day was another regular, Ms. Mei, an athletic woman in an aqua-blue polo shirt; the two exchanged brief greetings before quickly getting to business. (Opstelten won.) "I've only been playing for about a year," Mei said after their match. She explained that she walked by one day and was drawn by the energy of the crowd she saw around the ping-pong table; since then, she comes a few times a week. "Whenever I have free time, I'm here," she said. "I love coming here, it's so lively. It's definitely better than staying home and watching TV."

Opstelten grew up partly in Berlin, where he said it's common to "have ping-pong tables in pretty much every city park, almost every street corner." "I'd love to see more here in New York, because it's really awesome to just, you know, on any given day, walk a block or two and have a ping-pong table there to play with," he said, before departing, victorious. 

(Hell Gate)

Shortly after, another regular, 58-year-old Mr. Yang strolled by, paddle in hand, and patiently waited his turn. He explained why he keeps coming back. "This guy," he said, pointing at one of the two people playing a furious match, "is from my village. But I only met him playing ping-pong! If we didn't play ping-pong, we would've never met."

As the light dimmed, the evening crowd began arriving—Zheng came back, though he said he was too tired now to play. Sitting in the opposite corner from Zheng was Stella Xu, a 25-year-old workers' rights advocate at the Legal Aid Society, and a group of her friends, most of whom had met each other via the ping-pong table. A transplant from Los Angeles who had played the sport regularly there, Xu said she knew she wanted to find a ping-pong community when she moved to New York City. 

"This is the first time I've encountered a space where there's people of this wide range of, like, ages and also occupations and backgrounds, who all come here," she said, adding, "LA was not like that."

Next to her was Francis Lee, a 26-year-old consultant who began playing ping-pong last summer, after he stumbled upon the Seward Park table one evening. "Francis wants to gatekeep this table," Xu quipped. She explained: "Sometimes there are people who come into the space and they're a little rude."

"All the owners of, like, Leisure Centre come, Scarr [Pimentel of Scarr's Pizza] comes down himself sometimes," Lee said, though he noted that they all just observe. If they played, he said, only half-joking, "that would be the beginning of the end."

(Hell Gate)

"It is really addicting to be out here. We know people who are out here literally all the time and, like, any free minute," Xu said. Lee himself was playing ping-pong at the table until 2 a.m. one recent night, he said. "Jobless behavior!" he said. "This is just my life. I play ping-pong, I'm obsessed with, like, watching ping-pong."

His mood turned contemplative. "I think the community here is so awesome. I think especially for young people, we're always surrounded by people around our age," Lee said. But at the ping-pong table, he said, there are "kids from, like, the age of 11 to grandparents in their 80s." 

By 7 p.m., there were so many people waiting to play that the game switched to doubles. Zheng crouched in a corner, watching the matches intently and offering commentary on each shot. Someone had forgotten to bring LED lights that evening, so he called another regular. "Bring them when you're done eating dinner," he ordered into his cell phone. 

Those lights are necessary in part because a streetlamp next to the table has been broken for months; Zheng's greatest wish is to get that light fixed. "I'm very thankful to the American government," he said, in all seriousness. But he's encountered some frustrating hurdles—the ping-pong players have reached out to various arms of the City, but agencies are giving them the runaround, Zheng said—the Parks Department told them it's the Department of Transportation's responsibility, and the DOT has yet to get back to them. None of the local elected officials have been able to do anything, he told me: "They say, 'We've written letters! Government is just this difficult. It's this slow.'" (I reached out to the DOT about the streetlamp, and a spokesperson told me, "We'll inspect this site and schedule any needed repairs.")

Around 8 p.m., the lights arrived, and were affixed atop the poles that Zheng had made. That night, the games could continue.

(Hell Gate)

Update, 4:16 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from the DOT.

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