Chess-in defies SFPD crackdown

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By Christina Aanestad

More than 50 people crowded Market Street with tables, chairs, chess and other board games Sunday for a "Chess-in," a response to the San Francisco Police Department's closure of a decades-long San Francisco tradition of sidewalk chess.

"We had no say in the decision,” said Marvin Boykins, a 35 year veteran chess player.

Last month, police ended the open and public chess games at Fifth and Market Streets, citing crime as the reason. A nearby shopkeeper, who declined to provide their name, told the Guardian that drug dealers sometimes use the chess tables to conceal their business dealings. There's no doubt crime occurs around the neighborhood, which marks the intersection of the Tenderloin and SoMa. Just three doors down from the chess games, a woman stood in the doorway of a closed business holding a crack pipe. Nevertheless, chess players like Boykins say crime happens in all neighborhoods—and it's no reason for the police to stop a decades-old tradition.

“SFPD made a very grave mistake in their administrative capacity not acknowledging the true problem—that we have nothing to do with nor do we condone [crime],” he said.

Other shopkeepers, like Phil Gatdula, manager of sustainable soul food restaurant Farmer Brown on Market Street, said he enjoyed the chess players, who encompass people from all walks of life including business owners, youth, and elders.

Many attendees of the Chess-in voiced concerns about gentrification in the city, pointing to sidewalk chess as its latest casualty. Activists with the Coalition on Homelessness said blaming the removal on crime is merely a cover for an underlying agenda.

“To suggest that a long-time community of elder chess players engaging in a fun, public event is creating a public safety issue is a thinly veiled move to push poor people from public space,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition On Homelessness.

Just days after the police kicked the chess players off Market Street, a new rent-a-bike station with gleaming identical bikes took their place. Bay Area Bike Share is a newly launched program that rents out bicycles, with nearly three dozen locations in San Francisco. Having opened in August, it's a partnership with San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Valley transportation authorities, offering “access to shared bicycles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for use in the cities of San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose,” according to the company's website.

Lisa Alatorre, another staff member with the Coalition on Homelessness, sees the chess crackdown as part of a larger plan to appeal to techies and tourists in the area. It's also no coincidence that a new shopping mall and condo development are going in right across the street from where chess players gathered for decades before the recent displacement, she said.

Josh Shadlen, 28, moved to San Francisco a few years ago as part of the second dot-com wave. Despite working within the tech industry that critics like Alatorre say is the cause of high rents in San Francisco, Shadlen spent his day sitting on the sidewalk, playing chess in the sun to support reclaiming public space. He said that while 90 percent of his colleagues don't care about impacts they are having on the local community, he does.

Josh Shadlen, a tech dude who's siding with the chess players.

“It seemed basically like an attack on the residents of this neighborhood and part of a plan to turn this neighborhood into fancy office buildings where maybe I might work at some point, but I don't want that to happen here or anywhere,” he said.

Shadlen said the police should do a better job at policing rather than throwing out chess players.

Organizers like Alatorre say it's unlikely chess will return to Fifth and Market Streets. For now, the players have moved to Yerba Buena Park. Alatorre and others are still hopeful that things could change—but they believe the political will doesn't exist among current members of the Board of Supervisors. Asked whether she thought people would continue to gather at Fifth and Market streets to play chess next Sunday, she said, “I hope so.”