In a city where tall buildings can make one feel closed in, Bryant Park offers open space for residents and tourists to relax, grab food and drinks, or simply to charge a cell phone at an outlet station. Visited by six million people annually, according to its website, the park has a well-designed backyard feel, equipped with a porch, comfortable chairs, a fountain and a sprawling lawn. In a tiny section of the park in New York City, one of the world’s greatest financial and cultural centers, a close-knit community comes together at The Tables, free outdoor ping pong tables that attract people from across the city and around the world.
This unique setting in heart of Manhattan brings together individuals with vastly different backgrounds—a homeless person, a soldier, a business person, a student—who share a love of ping pong. People of various ages, backgrounds and skill levels were strangers who became friends first, then family.
Krishan Kumar, 64, a lawyer originally from India, visits the tables nearly every day. “I believe that by playing ping pong you can be young,” he says. “I still have got that energy.”
Another player, Trevon Jeffrey, a young Guyanese man who lives in Brooklyn, New York, returns year after year. “I’ve been playing here … maybe 7 or 8 years,” he says. (These cities have the most green spaces.)
The Tables are available to the public beginning at 11 a.m. with paddles and balls provided by the park. Regulars start to trickle in around 4 p.m. with their own paddles in hand, ready to dominate. This dedicated group, referred to as the “After 7 Guys”, remain at the tables long after they officially close and the public paddles are packed away. Matches become more competitive—doubles on one table and singles on the other—and winners are able to stay on a table until they are defeated. Those waiting their turn can be seen practicing their swing on the sidelines, eagerly watching the game or joyfully greeting returning friends.
Deeper than the healthy competition and love for the sport is a sense of belonging and inter-generational camaraderie among the 20 or so regular players.
“Whenever I come out here, I feel like I’m just a regular guy, you know, I’m not a soldier. I’m just a guy just coming out here to play ping pong and to talk to people”, says Gabriel, a veteran who finds solace in the park.
He adds, “Behind each individual, there’s a story. As I got to know people, it was fascinating to find out what they went through, and everything that led to this place.”
They come to have fun, connect, relieve stress and “feel alive”. Gregory Williams, a man in his sixties, was formerly homeless, but has been able to find a series of jobs through the connections he made at The Tables. He has built many relationships with players including a special relationship with a younger player, Gideon. “For a young man he’s grounded very well,’ Williams said. “ I feel good being around him, you know, he always makes me feel better. Especially when I was going through some tough times he would go out of his way to check on me.”
Most are unaware that professional ping pong player Wally Green is responsible for the addition of the ping pong tables to Bryant Park. What began as a marketing tool for SPiN, a local ping pong center, unexpectedly grew into the community it is today. “It makes me feel amazing,’’ Green says. “I mean, the fact that people are here playing every day, there’s tournaments… the whole point of bringing [the tables] wasn’t in vain.”
Originally from the Marlboro public housing project in Brooklyn, Green credits the sport for changing his life at age 19. He has since represented the U.S. in more than 35 International Pro Tour competitions including a tournament in North Korea.
Without Green’s initiative to bring The Tables to Bryant Park, Jon Bunning, the filmmaker who created “The Tables” documentary, would have been just another passerby walking through the park. However, as big fans of ping pong, he and a friend stopped by during a lunch break to observe. Bunning consistently returned to the park to play. Inspired by the diversity of players and the community they developed, he wanted to share their story. “I just found it really fascinating that a homeless person could play as equals with a successful Wall Street banker,” Bunning says. “That kind of hooked me and I felt like there was something special about this place and the group of regulars that all came together because of these tables.” (Read why athletic diplomacy can by more effective than political outreach.)
After its premiere in 2017, the documentary became an official selection for numerous film festivals and has won several awards. “One of the biggest insights for me was that notion that everyone just wants to belong whether you’re looking for a support group or a group of friends or a community,” Bunning says. “That’s one thing that I think all humans share. We all want to belong to something, or have a place to feel like you fit in and belong there.”