WICKER PARK — The built-in chess tables in Wicker Park — and the people who use them — are causing a neighborhood stir, with an advisory council voting to rip them out to clean up the park's entrance.
But Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) is putting the brakes on the removal for now, saying there needs to be a way to slow crime while still giving all people who use the park a sense of community.
Members of a volunteer park advisory council earlier this month voted 14-1 in favor of removing the four chess tables that have long occupied the southwest entrance to the historic park at Damen Avenue and Schiller Street.
The tables often are used by the homeless and seniors to play cards and dominoes, with the players gambling with peanuts instead of cash. There are also complaints about drug use and crime linked to the gatherings, which neighborhood residents pass while entering the park.
Doug Wood, secretary of the council, called the removal of tables "a last-ditch effort to bring the area under control" in a section of the park that's "getting worse and worse."
"For the chess tables to stay, police must be there, security must be there, and people need to not feel endangered walking by these tables. Nobody is doing anything to fix the situation, or even view the footage on the security cameras that were installed there, so this is why" there are efforts to remove them, Wood said.
Since the table-removal decision became known, not everyone has been on board, including Moreno and Scott Venable, pastor of Mosaic Church, which uses the park to minister to "unreached people groups." He knows many of the people who gather at the tables.
"There's not a group that wants to take care of the neighborhood park more than [the advisory council], but I think there needs to be a meeting to decide this, and the alderman thinks so, too," said Venable, who is a member of the council but was not at the meeting when the vote took place.
Wood said that he presented the removal of tables to the Chicago Park District and it agreed to remove the tables this week.
Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Park District spokeswoman, confirmed there was a plan to remove the chess tables based on a recommendation from the advisory council. But the plan was halted after Moreno reached out to the Park District, she said.
"The alderman asked that a community meeting be held first," Maxey-Faulkner said.
Moreno, who lives two blocks from the park, said, "We can't be 100 percent guaranteed that crime will be reduced if we remove these tables. We need to do a better job of removing nefarious elements while giving people of all backgrounds a sense of community in the park."
A local police sergeant who's been patrolling the area for more than 10 years, mainly on the evening shift, said the tables "have certainly morphed from their original intent of being a nice place to play chess."
The sergeant described the population that hangs out at the tables during the day as mainly homeless people and seniors who play dominoes and cards, using peanuts instead of currency.
"I let everyone sit there that's welcome there. If they are not doing anything illegal we cannot remove them from the park. It's a public park," the sergeant said.
According to the sergeant, after 11 p.m., the tables attract a different crowd and would likely "have a positive effect" on curbing loitering if the tables were removed, though he added he has "mixed feelings" about the issue.
"The tables add to the character of the park. Nobody should be in the park past 11 p.m., whether you're a young couple walking around or hanging out waiting for the Night Ministry bus."
Venable sent an email to Wood and council members outlining three reasons why the council should reconsider its decision.
Among the pastor's points was that the removal would be "seen as a race issue."
"Since the majority of the people in that corner are African-American and most already feel like their park has been taken away, I think this would be the final straw and cause way more harm than good," Venable wrote.
On the northern end of the park Tuesday, Greg Liegel, 37, was hanging out at the dog park.
Describing the southern end of the park, Liegel, an eight-year resident, said, "It's not a family-friendly corner of the park — there's cigarettes, alcohol, profanity, but it's also a place of community for those people, the same way [the dog park] is."
Marcus Faletti, 54, a Nigerian native who said he is homeless, was sorting through piles of metal scrap he'd laid out on the bench near the park's fountain around 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Faletti said he'd gotten wind of the possible removal of the chess tables through "a rumor."
"Are they gonna take away the tables and leave it open? Why would they leave it open? It makes no sense to me," Faletti said.
"I imagine if people come to the park, where are they gonna sit down? It won't look good. The tables are part of the park."
Enrique Martinez, 58, has lived just a few blocks from the park since 1993 and was slowly making his way across an icy park path with a walker Tuesday.
Martinez said he sits at the chess tables almost every day in the summer.
"We play dominoes there. We bring food and need a table to eat at. The white people, they come and make a picnic by us," he said.