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Controversial Wicker Park Chess Tables to be Removed

By Alisa Hauser | May 15, 2013 4:17pm
 Four built-in chess tables that have long been in the southwest corner entrance to Wicker Park will be removed, according to Chicago Park District officials.  The tables will be replaced with four new tables that are not gaming tables and the new tables will be installed throughout the park, rather than clustered in one spot.
Chess Tables in Wicker Park to Be Replaced
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WICKER PARK — The controversial built-in chess tables in Wicker Park will be removed, though Chicago Park District officials have not provided a date when they will be ripped out.

That won't be the end of tables in the park, though. New tables without chess boards will be installed in various spots around the park, rather than clustered as they are now — a grouping that had led some to complain they were a magnet for people drinking, gambling and dealing drugs.

The existing four cement gaming tables with bucket seats ignited controversy in February when a 15-member park advisory council voted nearly unanimously to remove them, a decision which prompted an alderman to call for a community meeting to discuss the future of the tables as well as crime and safety issues in the park.

The four tables often are used by the homeless, local residents and seniors to play cards and dominoes, with the players gambling with peanuts instead of cash. There have also been complaints about drug use and crime linked to the gatherings, which neighborhood residents pass while entering the park.

Doug Wood, secretary of the Wicker Park Advisory Council, said Tuesday that the tables will be replaced with newer, more updated carousal-style tables that are backless and have bench style seating.

Park District officials were unable to provide a photo of the new tables.

At an advisory council meeting earlier this month, a park district representative said that "the new tables have been ordered" but there was no scheduled date yet for the removal of the existing tables and installation of the new tables.

At an April meeting, members of the advisory committee selected separate locations for the new tables rather than group them at the southwest entrance to the park where the old chess tables had long been a fixture.

Planned locations for the four new tables include two tables in "Schiller Grove," the name for the area at Schiller Street and Damen Avenue where the existing four tables are located. One table will be anchored near the basketball court and another one will be situated by the playground in the northwest corner of the park.

Several visits to the existing tables over a series of recent warm afternoons have shown they are being used and enjoyed by diverse groups of people.

Megan Hargarten, a healthcare consultant from New York City, was working on her laptop while sitting alone at a chess table.

"I was just texting a friend of mine in New York to say that I am sitting in a park at a table that reminds me of the kind they have in East Village [New York]," Hargarten said.

Freddy Rivera, 23, was playing checkers with a group of friends and said he's been hanging out at the tables for about two years.

Rivera said the planned removal of the chess tables made him feel "like a piece of my heart is missing."

"Everyday, I am loyal to this park. People play checkers here, they barbecue," he said.

When asked about statements made by residents at a community meeting concerning drug dealing at or near the tables and other illegal behaviors, Rivera said that "because of the [security] cameras, there's none of that. Guys keep it clean."

Audrey Farrell, 30, said that she has walked past the chess tables for at least five years.

Farrell, who works as a nanny, said the men who sit at the tables made comments such as, "Looking good, girl!"  

"It doesn't make me uncomfortable when I'm by myself, but when I'm with a baby I'm taking care of, yes," Farrell said.

Farrell said she spent a lot of time in the park and believed "the white vagabond runaway kids" are "a greater threat to the safety of the park" than the men who gather around the chess tables playing dominoes or checkers.

"The kids are drinking and getting in fights and their dogs are roaming around, sitting on sidewalks in front of the park," Farrell said.

When told of the Park District's plan to replace the four existing chess tables with new tables spread throughout the park, Farrell said it "sounds better" than the existing arrangement. 

"If there's a family and the kids want to play basketball, you can still sit at a table and do your own activity while they play," Farrell said.

Charlie Hunt, 35, said he's lived near the park his entire life and had been hanging out at the chess tables since 2003.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hunt was playing dominoes with a group of men.

"They try to replace [the chess tables] for the wrong reasons. They claim it's always a problem but we ain't smoking or drinking, we playing dominoes," Hunt said.

Hunt said that "some people from the park" told him it was a problem because he and his friends were often sitting at the tables, which meant others couldn't use them.

"We are sitting at one table, there are others," Hunt said, pointing to an empty chess table.

Hunt said he wouldn't have any problems with the new tables as long as there were no slits in the top wide enough for dominoes to fall through.

In the event the new tables aren't designed for a game of dominoes, Hunt has an alternative plan.

"We just bring our own table. This is a public park," Hunt said.