Yesterday hundreds of people, including 18 ping pong teams representing six Newark colleges and universities, descended on Military Park for the second annual Ping Pong in the Park tournament. The day also included lawn games and food trucks.
Although the event officially started at 11 a.m., the park was already buzzing by a quarter to the hour. A colorful string of balloons arched high over the tournament site in the heart of the park; organizers set up the tournament bracket and positioned trophies at the DJ booth; Girl Scouts organized a table to display their cookies; and the DJ herself prepared for five hours of nonstop spinning.
At 11 a.m., teams donning coordinated t-shrits started rolling in, and with each passing half hour, the crowd kept growing and becoming more diverse. At noon, the corporate lunch crowd meandered into the park, many of them heading to BURG, the hamburger joint located on its eastern end. A few sharply dressed employees doffed their jackets and rolled up their shirtsleeves to take on college students at practice tables. School mascots followed, adding a pep rally-like feel to the event. (In the dance-off battle between the NJIT Highlander and the Pillar College Panther, the panther won, due in large part to a skillful “stanky leg.” Under the costume was a petite and energetic young woman named Arlene.) The Rutgers University double dutch team showed off their skills, and the music prompted “electric slide” and “wobble” dance sessions. Children arrived as well, increasing the irreverence of the lawn games.
This environment was exactly the point for Gail Stone, managing director of the NJPAC Women’s Association. “Our main objective was to celebrate Newark as a college town, and bring students downtown to see what’s happening here and participate in the tournament,” said Stone, while taking a break from emceeing the games as participants enjoyed the box lunches the Women’s Association had arranged for them. “I can’t ask for a better day,” she added.
The afternoon also saw a cameo by Mayor Ras Baraka, who open the games with a ceremonial match between himself and NJPAC president John Schreiber. Although the match was meant to entail the two VIPs lobbing the ball back and forth just a handful of times, the pair got a nice volley going and extended their play.
Area businesses also participated, including Starbucks, which offered half-price coffee to anyone with a student identification from a local university, and the new Nike store, which sent staff to help referee the lawn games that included three-legged races and sack races.
“We’re big on volunteering our time,” said Ray Lee, who is the “Assistant Head Coach” at the Nike Store and helped referee the lawn games along with his staff of “athletes,” who wore Nike gear with neon green accents as they enthusiastically participated in the activities. “If you’re going to make money in the community, you should do something for that community,” he mused.
Christian, a Prudential employee who commutes in every day from Brooklyn, ventured out to the park by himself after hearing about the event from his company. “It’s very lovely here, and it looks like everyone is having a great time. It definitely creates a different image of Newark,” he said.
Kevin Barnes, who lives in East Orange and arrived with Rutgers’ respiratory program’s team, concurred. “I think it’s a great event, and it’s a nice way of bringing people out towards the middle of Newark,” Barnes said. “I go to school with people who only think of the negativity. This event is very multicultural, and there are people from all ages here. It shows that Newark can go places.”
In the end, a team from NJIT placed first, but it almost felt beside the point. The real objective for the afternoon had already long been accomplished.
The NJPAC Women’s Association’s next event will be their Annual Spring Luncheon and Auction, which will take place May 3rd.