Activists push state on Reggie Wong Park
After years of negotiations, Chinatown and Leather District residents, volleyball players and skate boarders are all calling on the state to honor an alleged agreement to lease the Reggie Wong Memorial Park to community development groups for just $1 in order to make necessary improvements and preserve the space for community use.
A crowd of park supporters, including City Councilor Ed Flynn, State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, representatives from the Leather District Neighborhood Association and the Chinatown Community Land Trust, players from the Boston Volleyball Association and the Gung Ho Club Lion Dance met at the Kneeland Street park earlier this month, to discuss the vital role the park plays in the community.
Reggie Wong Park is the neighborhood’s only public recreational open space, and has for decades, been the home of Chinese nine-man volleyball in the region — a sport brought over from the Taishan province of China by early Chinese immigrant laborers.
Russell Eng, president of the group and the late Reggie Wong’s nephew, who grew up playing in the park, was one of the people that spoke to the importance of the park for the community. He spoke to how volleyball got him through the death of his father in 2018.
“This park, and nine-man volleyball, have kept me going during hard times,” he said.
Wendy Chan, a member of one of the non-traditional women’s teams encouraged by Reggie Wong, also spoke to the park’s importance in a community low on gathering space. Chan spoke to the draw the park has, and the way it invigorates the neighborhood.
“We are able to offer free clinics to our volleyball and basketball players. And the parents come and watch the kids play,” she said. “When they’re not watching the kids play they’re out there in Chinatown shopping and visiting the stores and restaurants in the community.”
Reggie Wong Park, which has been largely unchanged since the 1970s, has also drawn unconventional users — skateboarders who have found little amenable area to skate in the city. Skateboarders joined the October gathering to express appreciation for sharing the space with the rest of the community, and hope as groups look to the future.
“It’s very difficult to find a safe space where we can perform our passions,” said Armin Bachman, owner of the Orchard skate shop.
He said skaters have been using the space, with portable ramps, for over 30 years.
“We’re excited to be involved with any future opportunities,” he added.
The idea of improving and redeveloping the park first entered the public sphere in 2016 when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which owns the parcel that the park sits on, opened the land up to proposals. Fearing outside control of the beloved park, the Chinatown CLT drummed up support, and in 2018, say they successfully negotiated a lease for the land.
This agreement, which was slated to be a 15-year lease with an option to renew, included a grant from the City of Boston’s Community Preservation program for $100,000, and $25,000 from the Leather District-based developer Hudson Group to make the improvements needed for the park to thrive. According to Chinatown CLT, the committee met with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and other DOT representatives to reach a lease agreement with a fee of $1 a year.
However, with coronavirus, and the discovery a contaminated soil on the parcel, negotiations stalled and groups now fear for the worst — that the agreement, despite financial backing, will not come to fruition.
A spokesperson for the MassDOT declined to confirm specifics of lease terms with Chinatown CLT, but did confirm negotiations are ongoing.
During the October meeting, Rep. Michlewitz shared plans from the state level for spending of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in the amount of $250,000 for renovations and improvements to Reggie Wong Park once an agreement is reached. He noted that late community leader Reggie Wong acted as a bridge that brought people together, and that his namesake park was continuing to play that role of bringing together diverse sectors of the community.
“We have a new administration thats going to be coming in here,” Michlewitz said. “We’re going to need to make sure that they’re well aware of the commitments the DOT made to both the leather district and to Chinatown to make sure this park is sufficient and a positive one.”
Kathryn Friedman of the Leather District Neighborhood Association described planned short term improvements for the park to be made with the existing funding. Plans include repaving and realigning the courts, adding play equipment for younger children and installing more attractive new fencing with a design that honors late community leader Reggie Wong.
“Its been years, it’s been a lot of work and it’s been great learning about the history of the park and the members of the community,” she said.
Community groups have come together under the name Friends of Reggie Wong Park to continue long-term negotiations with the state and have plans to meet with MassDOT in November. Leather District Neighborhood Association chairman Chris Betke said that after years of advocacy and negotiations, the community is ready to take the next step, calling for a group photograph and leading a chant of “Sign the lease!”
Councilor Flynn, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council, asked that the DOT signs a lease, “that respects the community and our immigrant roots.”