Harlem’s Flower and Chess Man

There are a lot of human interest stories that are not told in chess. While the world fawns over Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, there is another side of chess that is often overlooked. James “Black Knight” Taylor suggested (before he passed away) that “street chess” deserves recognition and should be memorialized.

The New York Times ran a story about Prentiss “Sonny” Gibbs a long-time vendor in Harlem, barred from selling flowers on 135th street. He also had chess boards at his booth. Years ago, authorities started to crack down on this practice and shut down many of the vendors because many were operating without a vendor’s license. Harlem is an important area in terms of its artistic history. Ten blocks south of Gibbs’ stand is the historic 125th Street also known as “Malcolm X Boulevard”. It is on this thoroughfare that the Harlem Renaissance was born.

Mr. Gibbs in Abraham Lincoln Playground with Steven Campbell (left) and Masiyah Hines, both 13. He taught them chess. Photo by Nikita Stewart.

On 125th is the Apollo Theater, but what was once a mainstay of the strip were the vendors who dotting the sidewalks selling all types of wares from incense, CDs, and books to clothing and artwork. Harlem is teeming with these types of vendors, but the area is undergoing a rejuvenation with investors buying up greystones and brownstones at high rates.

It was interesting that the Wilbert Paige Memorial tournament was held in this storied area at the Hotel Theresa where Malcolm X held meetings and where Fidel Castro stayed after being denied service at Shelburne Hotel in the downtown area (1960). Of course, the area has been changing over the years and even President Bill Clinton established an office there. When the Starbucks and CVS stores started to appear, the property values increased. Many of those like Hill were told to pick up and move to another location… after 23 years. According to the article, Hill has not been deterred and hopes to return at some point.

Harlem was once a haven for street vendors. Those days are disappearing.

Apollo Theatre…many famous entertainers got their start there.

Hustle and Bustle of Harlem!
Photos by Daaim Shabazz.

The article had a quote by FM Kassa Korley who may have gotten his first inspiration from Hill. A Duke University senior, Korley recounted stopping by hill’s chess tables almost daily. You never know when or where the inspiration for the next master player will come from. Gibbs may never know about Korley’s progression in chess, but certainly there is a place for men like him.

Link: https://www.nytimes.com/

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