NEWS

  /  

July 26, 2002

Harper Court protesters: Bring back chess

Over 70 people last Friday called for the return of chess benches to Harper Court in a protest rally. Since the sudden removal of the benches in April, Harper Court chess has become a rallying point for those touting Hyde Park's diversity, while others have alleged that the benches were removed due to racial tensions.

Several of the protestors played chess on portable boards in the sunken courtyard in the middle of the shopping center while others stood by with signs reading "Bring Back Chess" and t-shirts that read "Boycott Harper Court." The purpose of the rally was to deliver a 500-signature petition demanding the return of the benches to the Harper Court Foundation office, which was responsible for removal of the benches.

The delivery was unsuccessful since no Harper Court Foundation staff were present that day.

The Friends of Harper Court Chess organization spearheaded the protest and is planning for more protests as the summer continues. "We're going run another protest in August, hopefully August 16. It seems to me that we have such overwhelming support in the community, in that almost everyone wants the chess boards back," said Tom Fineburg, a retired schoolteacher acting as the official liaison between the Friends of Harper Court Chess and the public chess league coaches.

The Harper Court Foundation has given no official reason for the removal of the four stone benches inlaid with chess boards. However, local police have targeted the corner of 52nd Street and Harper Avenue adjacent to the court as an area of intense drug activity. Protestors suggested that Harper Court Management considered the mostly black male chess players somehow connected to the drug problem.

In addition, intimidation of female shoppers and the alleged failure of the players to patronize the nearly 20 Harper Court businesses were offered as possible reasons for the removal of the benches.

The removal of the benches was met with a torrent of angry letters and phone calls, as well as a boycott of Harper Court businesses. Recently, "Private Property" signs were installed in the courtyard.

Leslie Morgan, the Interim Executive Director of the Harper Court Foundation who has been quoted in much of the prominent press attention to the decision, joins longtime Court board member Nancy Rosenbacher in defending the removal. "I was misquoted, and some of the information reported by the media has simply been inaccurate. That is why I am in the process of preparing a press release to answer these allegations."

"I just don't see why they're being so stubborn about it," Fineberg said. "[The management] could put picnic tables there, tables that could be used for other activities besides chess. We could play chess there again then. If they don't replace the boards, the merchants will suffer, and they'll put them back. They'll lose business without the chess players there."

Although the Harper Court Foundation has defended its decision by claiming support from the business owners in the shopping center, multiple business owners have distanced themselves from the decision, including at least one business that will be leaving Harper Court, although that decision was a result of disatisfaction with management and not explicitly the chess bench controversy.

"I just don't see why they're being so stubborn about it," Fineberg said. "[The management] could put picnic tables there, tables that could be used for other activities besides chess. We could play chess there again then. If they don't replace the boards, the merchants will suffer, and they'll put them back. They'll lose business without the chess players there."

The chess benches had been a fixture in the courtyard since the shopping center opened in the 1960s with a $500,000 federal grant and $150,000 money raised by Hyde Parkers. The court's logo features a chessboard.