Gentrified San Francisco Has No Place for Homeless Chess Players

Friday, September 20, 2013
(photo: Jim Herd, SF Citizen)

A group of chess players, many of them homeless, have been kicked off the sidewalk at Fifth and Market Street in San Francisco, where competitors have matched wits and irked shop owners for 30 years.

The chess games, played on card tables by an ever-changing group of competitors, were busted up by the San Francisco Police Department a few weeks ago after what the authorities said were an average of 100 complaints a month. The police took the boards, the chess pieces, the tables and chairs.

SFPD Capt. Michael Redmond told the San Francisco Business Times that the games were used to disguise illegal activities that included drug sales, illegal gambling and “barbecues on the street.”

But some observers feel the real crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That stretch of Market Street, like many areas of the city, has undergone marked gentrification and the block where the chess players held court is slated for a 10-story arts and education center, along with 250 housing units, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A number of tech companies have also recently moved into the hood, including Twitter, Yammer and Zendesk.

Store owners complained that their businesses were negatively affected by the street activity. One manager at a beauty salon complained to a Chronicle reporter that women would clutch their purses under their arms as they passed and others would cross the street to avoid the chess players. But there was no mention in any of the media stories about violent incidents, robberies or anyone’s safety being threatened as a result of their presence.

It’s not the first time police have cracked down on the chess players. SF Weekly reported in June 2010 that the players were chased away, and thought to be gone for good. But they eventually resurfaced.

There has been talk of finding a new home for the street players. Many cities have sanctioned places for such gatherings, like the Santa Monica chess park at the beach near Los Angeles, but, so far, no one has established a new San Francisco venue.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Endgame: S.F. Police Shut Down Sidewalk Chess (by Neal J. Riley, San Francisco Chronicle)

Wanted: a New Home for Market Street Chess Players (by J.K. Dineen, San Francisco Business Journal)

Market Street Chess Games Shut Down (by Chris Roberts, SF Weekly)

San Francisco Street Chess Banned! (by Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum)

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