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Moreno Not 'Tied' to Keeping Controversial Chess Tables at Wicker Park

By Alisa Hauser | March 14, 2013 4:47pm

WICKER PARK —  Ald. Joe Moreno said he wouldn't be opposed to removing built-in chess tables that have been subject of controversy at Wicker Park but said he wants to make sure another gathering spot replaced them if they are removed.

"I'm not that tied, personally, to the chess tables," Moreno (1st) said at a meeting of 30 residents this week. "What I am tied to is … some sitting area that maybe we can move a little bit to open up so people can still sit and gather and do things to enjoy the park."

In a controversial decision, an advisory park group had voted to remove the four chess tables last month, which are clustered in the southwest corner entrance to the park at Schiller Street and Damen Avenue. The issue prompted Moreno to call the meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue as well as overall security and other concerns at the park.

Residents Tuesday had mixed feelings about whether the tables should be removed, and whether drugs and other concerns were truly problems at the park.

Herman Milton, who said he uses the tables, said "the same thing we talk about around the [chess] tables is going on all over the city of Chicago." He pledged to "make it my business to put the word out, no [illegal] activity in the park." He later said "homeless vets" mainly use the tables, and none of the activity there involved anybody "sticking up or raping nobody."

While Teddy Varndell, president of the Wicker Park Committee, said his volunteer group has a consensus on "supporting decisions to eradicate drugs in the park," he said that he personally has never witnessed a drug transaction in the park.

"Our concern is [... chess table removal] would be focused on a small group of people and not generally applied to the Chardonnay drinkers and softball players but focused on 'the paper bag guys,'" Varndell said.

Jim Drew, a former resident of Wicker Park, said in the three years he lived there he had "never once seen a [drug] transaction in the the park and it's not apparent to me that there's a deep problem facing that corner of the park."

But Susan Fontana, who lives across from the park, insisted that "it's a drug dealing hotspot on the corner. ... It's not the chess tables, it's about the behavior and the conduct and it's been escalating. "

Another resident said the tables "present a choking point" because of the fact they are concentrated in one spot at a busy entrance.

But removing or relocating the tables wouldn't necessarily decease undesireable behavior in the park, said Robert Rejman, director of planning, construction and facilities for the Chicago Park District.

"In our experience, moving things around physically might not have any visible result. Activity will follow," Rejman said. But, he added, "We are happy to explore ideas."

Scott Venable, pastor of Mosaic Church, who is a member of the volunteer-park advisory council that voted to removed the tables, agreed with Moreno that if the tables are taken out, they should be replaced with a similar area where people could play cards or do other activities.

Moreno said he's requested additional signage to warn patrons that illegal activity will not be tolerated at the park, and said he would be willing to drum up funds to install an additional camera, provided its footage would be viewable in the park's field house. The park has two cameras now but viewing the footage, officials acknowledged, can be a challenge.

"If we have an additional camera that we can view here it will act as a tremendous deterrent," Moreno said.

Tom Byrne, newly appointed director of security for the Chicago Park District, admitted that monitoring those and the other "185 to 200" cameras installed in parks citywide is "a work in progress."

In response to residents' concerns, he said he would try to track down any footage of that might show who tagged a historic fountain in the park Sunday.