By Robert P. Helms

In late afternoon on sunny days, the Gettysburg Battlefield stone casts its long shadow on the makeshift platforms that serve as temporary chess tables since Clark Park’s North section was redeveloped in 2010-2011. Before that renewal, the chess players would straddle a concrete bench that surrounded a disused flag pole, just south of the stone. The only time anyone used that pole in my time was once, for an anarchist flag marking a meet-up spot. Chess, however, made good use of that structure whenever weather permitted, and the activity started several decades before I came along.

I began loving Clark Park and its surrounding neighborhood in the summer of 1989, well before the sea-change began. When I first strolled though I could read the dollar amount of the fine for littering, as posted on the sign at 43rd & Baltimore. Now, the old London plane tree has nearly swallowed the sign whole.

Clark Park is substantially different now, with new paths, benches, a few bike racks, playground, and lately even a bike rental station. The park is also far safer. Every year there is another development. The most extreme change will be the raising of a condominium tower across 43rd Street which may alter the atmosphere entirely, when it materializes. There are other planned changes that keep being delayed because of costs, including a dust-abated bottom for the dog bowl and sidewalks that let the rain seep through.

One change that is not under discussion is the installation of permanent chess tables. At a meeting of the Friends of Clark Park in July 2011, “The committee approved a plan forwarded by chess players to place up to 4 Chess tables in the Park A Plaza and anchor them with cables to the light poles.”

No move has been made since then, and the clock is ticking.

This is the one item that irritates me and draws my interest year after year, and I am writing now to insist that 2015 is the year to install the tables. Next year is the wrong year, and later still is to say, We can wait those guys out because we own the neighborhood now and they are polite. We will swallow them like the tree has swallowed the metal sign. Thus the cutting-edge sidewalks and the dainty turf and the rich people’s dormitory will become reality, but the environment where working men of color can relax, talk, and improve their minds together will fade and disappear. To anyone who opposes the installation of the tables, I say something I often heard as a young, white-bread man: That’s mighty white of you.

I’m a Mayflower descendant, and this gives me the right to tell other White people how to be White. Does this sound ridiculous to you? Well, how does it sound when we limit the number of temporary chess tables to four? Why don’t we publicly apologize for having removed the concrete benches without an interim plan for chess?

Almost all of the people who have played chess in Clark Park through the years are working class African American men. The players do something quiet, civilized, and intellectual. It would be right, proper, and decent if every parent on this wide earth encouraged their young to play chess in a safe and lovely setting during their free time.

A dozen small tables are cheap in view of this purpose. They fill up dumpsters every time a start-up cafe goes under or Starbucks makes a routine layout revision at one of its million locations, or when the university students leave in the Spring. Nobody loses sleep over those tables, not for their cost, nor for their uses, nor for their aesthetics. It’s just a few tables, and there is a highrise condo building going up across the street. I hereby dismiss the issue of cost from this discussion forever.

If this were football, the matter of a dozen tables would be delegated to an architectural intern. If this were the fine arts, for theater or museum patrons to rest and sip tea, there would be a striking and unique row of tables, designed my some genius of the age. Art critics would give out sexy musings about the chair seats.

In case you thought I mentioned the Gettysburg stone just to sound urbane, let’s remember that

all the blood, death, agony and sorrow of the Civil War was suffered to end or not to end slavery. If you’re on the right side of that battle now, then you want to squash the guts out of racism, even where you had not noticed it. Thus our neighborhood improvement wonks need to cause the chess tables to be planted in the ground.

No individual or group is to blame in any way. No person or group is intentionally racist in their planning work for the park. No injury has been done to any individual in the continued absence of permanent chess tables. In other words, nobody in particular has been insulted in the writing of this article.

I am complaining about the soft-core, mild racism that makes the chess tables remain humble and makeshift when they should be stainless steel, smartly designed and beautiful, forever. I want to change the focus and put a value on this activity. It has been wrongfully neglected until now.

UPDATE Non. 15, 2016: Four attractive metal chess tables, with two matching chairs each, have been installed. It’s a wonderful outcome!