The Central West End has been recognized as one of the Top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America by the American Planning Association, for reasons that won’t surprise anyone from around here.
This historic section of St. Louis has been highlighted for, among other things, being a “rebound neighborhood” for economic revival since the 1970s, an engaged neighborhood association and its community leadership. It also is a sidewalk showcase of unique boutiques, restaurants and public art displays that provide a pedestrian access becoming increasingly rare around the city. The recognition mentions several of the CWE’s cultural amenities, such as the Cathedral Basilica, the offerings of nearby Forest Park -- and hey now, its representation as the promotional epicenter of the U.S. Capital of Chess.
I once described chess as being on the verge of an invasion, ready to take over America. I likened this movement to a great wave, one that bubbled out of the Central West End and swelled from St. Louis, seemingly primed to wash over the entire U.S. But I now realize that the description is just not accurate.
Invasion sounds so forced, signifying efforts of aggression and implying drastic change. The word invasion promotes an idea of new occupancy, but the truth, as I have come to realize, is that chess is already nestled comfortably within American culture -- and it has been for years.
Indeed, much like the CWE is limited to a mere few square blocks amid a larger surrounding city, chess likely won’t ever find itself dominating the nation’s attention. But research from a 2012 survey that looked at having the game recognized as an Olympic sport showed that 15 percent of American adults -- roughly 35 million of us -- considered themselves active chess players who sat down to a board at least once a year. That number expanded exponentially to those who simply know how the pieces move: More than 70 percent of American adults have played chess at least once in their life.
There is no invasion over territory already inhabited -- chess is already here, and a population this large isn’t about to sneak up on anyone. What the game is primed for, however, just like the Central West End, is a rebound. A reawakening. A revival. It may come as sudden realization, or perhaps more of an admission: That you remember the importance of Bobby Fischer in the 1970s. That you miss those long-ago lessons from your grandpa. That you understand the thrill of checkmate.
America is waking up to the overdue recognition that chess truly is a valuable cornerstone of our culture. Even if it has remained in a small, perhaps overlooked, neighborhood of our lives.
The Central West End didn’t suddenly invade St. Louis -- it has been here for years. We have understood this corner of the city to be our own hidden cultural treasure, and now the rest of America can realize that vibrant footnote.
Chess is on a similar path. The game has moved past mere pieces and squares, and has now populated itself, in many ways, within our collective consciousness.
Time to sit up and take notice, America. None of this is surprising anyone from around here.
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.