Can pingpong displace cows?


CHICAGO - How does a city that gained international acclaim for placing fiberglass cows on street corners come up with an encore?

For Lois Weisberg, the answer is no further than the pingpong table gathering dust in her basement.

"My grandson came into town for a visit, and after he found the table in the basement, he didn't come upstairs for three days," says Weisberg, Chicago's commissioner of cultural affairs. "He had such fun with it that I started thinking, why not try to bring pingpong out of the basement and bring it out into the city?"

Thus was born the Chicago Ping-Pong Festival 2000, an effort that will put hundreds of table-tennis tables throughout the city, beginning Aug. 3.

Chicago's cultural and tourism officials envision residents playing table tennis throughout the city's parks and recreation centers, culminating in a city-wide tournament near the end of September.

They predict that travelers will pick up paddles and balls to pass the time during layovers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, as well as play in such tourist spots as museums and the Daley Center Plaza.

They're even planning to put a table in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton for lunch-break pingpong as well as high-stakes charity matches between chief executive officers of Chicago's largest companies.

"It's a fun game that anyone can play, and we think it's going to be very popular," says Dorothy Coyle, director of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs.

Table tennis wasn't exactly on the minds of any Chicago officials last fall at the conclusion of the city's "Cows on Parade." The hugely popular show - adapted from a similar one in Zurich in 1998 - featured more than 300 life-size, fiberglass cows decorated by local artists and displayed on street corners and public locations.

The idea has been copied by dozens of other cities this summer, producing moose in Toronto, pigs in Cincinnati, bison in Buffalo and cows in New York City.

"There was enormous publicity, and people even did sociological studies on the impact of the cows in bringing people together through public art," Weisberg says. "I really didn't feel there was any way to top that, so I figured we would take this summer off.

"But then this pingpong idea came up, and suddenly there was a surge of interest," she says.

The company that owns the Ping-Pong trademark name agreed to let the city use it, and other companies stepped forward, donating tables, selling supplies at cost or putting the tables up. The U.S. Table Tennis Association is helping stage the event.

Since announcing that the summer of 2000 would be the summer of table tennis in Chicago, tourism officials have been trying to build excitement by hauling equipment to just about every neighborhood festival that has space for tables.

"This is going to be a lot of fun," says 17-year-old Antonio Campbell, who lives on Chicago's South Side. "I really like pingpong. I think I can beat anyone in the city."

At the city's 20th annual Taste of Chicago - a 10-day festival around the July Fourth holiday that draws up to 4 million visitors to a park near the lakefront - officials set up what was billed the "Taste of Ping-Pong."

"I think this is a great idea," said Dan Persinger, 18, who was visiting Chicago with a couple of friends from Kenosha, Wis. "It's cool to play outside along the street."

With 10 tables set up in a plaza near the park entrance, hundreds of people stop each day to play - careful not to hit balls so hard that they might roll 50 feet into Michigan Avenue. A gumball machine was on hand to sell balls for a quarter apiece, and a tourism official lent paddles to passersby.

Often, strangers simply challenged each other to games - building the sense of community sought by the tourism officials.

"Pingpong is a good way to bring people together," said 68-year-old Dave Bronstein, who lives in Chicago's northern suburb of Glenview. "I like these outdoor tables, but it's much harder to play outside because of the wind."

Yet many Chicago residents miss the cows, remembering the exact details of their favorites.

"I really liked the cows, like the one that looked like Uncle Sam and the one that was like Marilyn Monroe," says Fatma Karuma, who lives in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. "Pingpong is pretty different. It might be fun, but all of the tables are still green. Maybe they could paint some of them different colors?"

The city's tourism officials are aware of those feelings, and they've started thinking about ways to incorporate the concept of public art into table tennis.

There's talk of an artists' display of table-tennis tables in a downtown plaza. But they admit that table tennis won't duplicate the cows.

"It's as different as we can get from the cows," Weisberg says. "But you never know. Maybe other cities will be copying us again next summer."

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