The tip was top-secret. "Have you heard about Pong Island?" asked my source. "It's incredible, but you can't write about it. That would ruin it."
I stayed mum, but the secret escaped anyway. And Pong Island was sunk, given 48 hours by the city to disappear or be disappeared.
The pandemic has sparked creativity and community in all kinds of ways. In Italy, residents of adjacent apartment complexes stood on their balconies and joined in song. In Denver, two people decided to start howling at 8 p.m., and that sound echoed from Cheesman Park around the world. A few blocks away, at East Fourth Avenue and Williams Street, a homeowner decided to put a ping-pong table in the middle of a traffic island in a very residential area, equip it with paddles and balls, and nail up a sign announcing the sudden existence of Pong Island.
Tom Filippini had grown up playing ping-pong in suburban Chicago with his brothers. "Ping-pong was our go-to," he says. Once he was living in the 400 block of Williams with a family of his own, he got an all-weather ping-pong table and set it up alternately in the backyard, the basement and even the driveway, back in the days when you could invite your neighbors over to invade your space.
But there hadn't been much call for table tennis in his household as the pandemic dragged on, and with spring finally moving in, he had a brainstorm: He'd put the ping-pong table on an empty traffic island just down the block, where it would create a diversion for his neighbors and "be put to more frequent and better use than it was at our house," he recalls thinking. "I sort of latch onto these ideas, and maybe I take them a little too far, but this would be a really interesting lesson in humanity." And he'd execute the idea anonymously, creating a QR code — "I learned that from all the restaurants during the pandemic" — for sign-ups and comments. "We wanted to keep it on the DL as a community amenity," he explains.
He enlisted his children in the stealth campaign, and waited for "the opportune moment to make our strike." It came early one Sunday morning about three weeks ago, when he and his daughter — the only child who proved willing to get up — started rolling the table down the driveway. "It was so loud, and it was so quiet at four in the morning," he recalls.
Still, no one stirred, and they were able to set up the table and nail up the Pong Island sign — purchased on Etsy — and get back home without anyone noticing. One complaint, Filippini promised himself, and he'd remove the table.
But no complaints came. Instead, the community did. "Every time I pulled around the corner, someone was playing," he marvels. Neighbors used the QR code to sign up, and to talk about how much they enjoyed the table. One woman noted that since a paddle was broken, she'd ordered some new ones on Amazon.
"I wanted to create community," Filippini recalls. "I had no idea it would actually play out the way it would. It was such a simple thing, but it brought people together...from all walks of life."
In a way, he says, it made him think about how "ping-pong diplomacy" had helped China and the United States resume relations four decades ago.
But even Henry Kissinger couldn't win a game against the toughest opponent on Pong Island: Denver bureaucracy.
As the city's mowing season finally got under way — delayed by snow, then rain — a Department of Parks and Recreation crew discovered Pong Island, with its illegal sign, illegal table and illegal fun. Ironically, players had been having so much fun that there was almost no grass left to mow.
Even so, on May 11, park ranger Matthew Paul posted a notice on the table that the "personal items" would have to be removed from public property by 5 p.m. May 13, or they would be confiscated. He also used the QR code to leave a comment with the same warning.
Filippini saw it and broke his anonymity. He identified himself as the perpetrator to the city, and asked for a stay of execution. He alerted the players who'd left email addresses along with comments on the site (one of them my source, whom he'd never met) that Pong Island's days were numbered. "It seems there are bigger fish to fry in Denver parks than a ping-pong table, but hey," he wrote. "It was fun while it lasted ????…"
He shared some of the comments with the city.
"This is amazing! Thank you!," one neighbor had written.
"What a wonderful gift to the neighborhood! We love ping pong and will do our part to respect and maintain this happy diversion. THANK YOU for having this brilliant idea, putting it together and providing a simple joy for all to share."
"Had so much fun playing today! Thanks for setting this up!!"
"Love Pong Island! I live in the neighborhood and have played and enjoy the fact that I’ve seen so many people playing. What a great idea."
"Thank you for this amazing set up. My husband and three boys are looking forward to some serious tournaments this summer."
"Pong Island is amazing! So glad we found it and played two games. The world needs more of this. Thank you!"
Filippini had hoped that these sentiments would score points with Parks and Rec, but the city still found Pong Island out of bounds.
"We want people to get out and enjoy the parks," explains Deputy Manager/Parks Scott Gilmore. "They're busier now more than ever." And because of that, the city has to play by the rules.
In order to keep the parks safe, early on during the pandemic, the department had pulled down basketball hoops and removed tennis court nets in an attempt to keep people from congregating and ignoring social distancing guidelines. "But everything's back up now," Gilmore says. "The parks are fully open, and rec centers are trying to get back on line."
And city crews are going out to mow Denver's 6,000 acres of parkland, including that little triangular travel median that had been dubbed Pong Island. Although Filippini suggested that he'd be willing to move the table for the mowers — no mention of the fact that the games had killed off the grass, anyway — Gilmore says that wouldn't work. "We just don't allow individuals to drop things in the park," he explains. "I appreciate him doing something positive. If I allowed one group to do it, though, then I'm going to have stuff in every park. It would be chaos."
And so Pong Island was sunk. When Filippini returned home from work on May 13 (a pilot, he's in the aviation business), a city crew was getting ready to take the table. Filippini took it back to his house. "I'm ready to roll it back down there," he promises..
But as far as Gilmore is concerned, the game's over. He suggests that players head to the Carla Madison Rec Center at 2401 East Colfax Avenue, which has four ping-pong tables outside, as well as a climbing rock and "all these types of outdoor activities."
Or, he notes, "there are plenty of big yards in that neighborhood. Put it in your front yard."
Not on a traffic triangle. "There are some things I just have to say no to," Gilmore explains. "Everybody's mad at me for something."
One of those things? The fact that a decade ago, a rich resident who lived in a big house on the Fourth Avenue Parkway, right by Pong Island, was allowed to put a sidewalk up to the front door of his pricey home despite the fact that his front yard was really a city park. Maybe the ping-pong table should go there, one neighbor suggests.
Others wonder why the city is so eager to get rid of ping-pong when homeless encampments are popping up all over the city. If that table was a tent instead, Pong Island would still be in business, they say.
In the meantime, though, the spirit of Pong Island keeps bouncing along.
A couple of days after he moved the table back home, Filippini was driving through the neighborhood when, a few blocks away, at Fifth and Columbine, he saw that a ping-pong table had been put in a driveway between the sidewalk and the street, in what looked like a copycat attempt to coax out the community.
"It's created a movement," he says.
Match to Pong Island.
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