Stalemate over Hyde Park chess
Players refuse to concede after shopping center removes 4 outdoor boards that date back to 1960s

By Celeste Garrett
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 19, 2002

Four popular outdoor chessboards that had entertained Hyde Parkers for more than 35 years before disappearing earlier this year without warning have stirred a controversy that has residents and public officials rallying for their return.

A summer tradition at the retail square known as Harper Court, the concrete chessboards were known for bringing together an ethnic mosaic of generations, from University of Chicago students to business owners to retired police officers--the very diversity on which Hyde Park prides itself.

The contests, primarily among male players, were also an opportunity for residents to shoot the breeze about politics or exchange business cards, or for sons, fathers and grandfathers to bond.

But the board of the not-for-profit Harper Court Foundation, which manages the complex, quietly removed the tables in the spring. Now a group of residents hoping to bring them back has scheduled a march Friday, and some residents are participating in a boycott of the nearly 20 Harper Court businesses.

Even the neighborhood's alderman and state representative have weighed in, siding with chess players who say the removal of the chessboards was a culmination of two years of tensions between the foundation and the players.

They say the conflict at Harper Court--at 52nd Street and Harper Avenue, one block south of Kenwood Academy High School--began with complaints about litter.

"You could see it happening when Kenwood high schoolers would come over to eat their lunch, leaving behind their trash all over the place," said Cleo Newsome Jr., who had played chess there for 16 years. "[Court management] would say that we left the trash and that we were responsible for cleaning it up. It got to the point that we'd be picking up trash that didn't belong to us, just so we could play chess."

As gangs, drugs and panhandling sprouted north and east of the court, tensions increased. Then in April the boards vanished without explanation.

Defending removal

Afterward, longtime board member Nancy Rosenbacher wrote a letter to a community newspaper to defend the decision, describing the players as "constant polluters."

"They have constantly harassed our staff," wrote Rosenbacher, who declined to be interviewed. "They don't shop in our stores and in general have been less than wonderful visitors to our shopping center. ... There was not one business in Harper Court that wanted to retain the chess boards."

Leslie Morgan, interim executive director of the Harper Court Foundation, also said the storeowners had joined board members in supporting the chessboards' removal.

"When this decision was made, both groups were polled and both groups approved of the decision," Morgan said.

But Nancy Stanek, owner of Toys et Cetera, has been a merchant at Harper Court for 27 years and is among at least eight retailers who said they had not been consulted and were disappointed to see the boards go.

"It was all a management decision, and the store owners didn't have anything to do with it," Stanek said. "Why would I want to get rid of the chess players? They are promoting a game I sell and they buy boards from me. I have never, not once, had a customer complain about the chess players."

One retailer said he is glad the players are gone. "They are rude, they are irritating, and they are non-customers," said Rich Padnos, president of the bicycle shop Wheels & Things.

Rosenbacher also argued in her letter that "most of our customers are women, and they are uncomfortable running the gauntlet of men chess players."

But several women who watched the matches disagreed.

"I personally find that laughable," said Cathy Gruber, who met her husband while working at one of the Harper Court shops years ago and is the chess coordinator at the Latin School in Chicago. "It's so obvious that the chess players made the area safer. What could be safer than having a bunch of men with their eyes on the streets?"

"I never found the chess players in the least bit intimidating," said state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), who had an office in Harper Court for many years. "In fact, I felt they added a certain class to the community."

Racial tension

Although the chess matches drew a multicultural crowd, some black and Hispanic chess players said they felt that the complaints, and recently installed "private property" signs, were aimed at them.

"Any place that African-American men congregate, there seems to be a suspicion of a problem, and yet there has never been a problem among the chess players at Harper Court," said Tracy Dante Brown, who owns two barber shops in Hyde Park and learned to play chess on the court eight years ago.

The chess benches date to the conception of Harper Court, built in 1965 with $500,000 in federal money as a haven for artists, musicians and retailers who were displaced by urban renewal. Hyde Parkers raised more than $150,000 toward construction of the court, which has a chessboard in its logo.

The court grew into a meeting place and a center for small enterprise, but merchants today are competing with larger chains during a retail slump.

"There are merchants within the court that have been unfairly blaming the chess activity for business problems," said Bill Gerstein, former owner of Mr. G's groceries in Hyde Park and principal of the School of Entrepreneurship at South Shore. "Most businesses want to attract a more upscale clientele, which they feel do not come in big enough numbers due to too many black men hanging out."

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) has called for the return of the chessboards, calling them "an important community gathering place in Hyde Park."

The players should not be blamed for drug activity and panhandling nearby, she said.

"In fact, whenever you have a gathering of people for some good purpose, such as playing chess, it forces out the bad actors because they don't want any witnesses," she said.

For now, chess players have scattered far and wide to play out their passion in places such as Java Oasis, a chess and coffee shop at 2240 S. Michigan Ave. that has benefited from the removal of the chess benches.

But if Tom Fineberg, a retired math teacher and chess coach, has his way, Friday's rally and other efforts will bring the boards back. Fineberg, who escorts public school children to chess tournaments as a volunteer, said his players have honed their skills at the court and that veteran players help keep youngsters out of trouble.

"There was always a good racial mix of people out there, as well as a good age mix," Fineberg said. "The kids, in fact, would come around and get a big kick out of beating out some of the adults who were masters at the game. ... It was a great thing for so many reasons."

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune