St. Louis owns and manages approximately 10,000 vacant lots of land that have come into its possession through tax foreclosure. Concentrations of these lots create barren wastelands of pavement, driving down property values while driving up social and environmental impacts.
Maintenance alone on these acquiesced estates — the overwhelming majority of which do not even contain a structure — encourages slow economic leak, altogether suggesting a need to embrace alternative approaches to urban land use.
Sounds like a job for chess.
Understanding space — and how to use it — just so happens to be a basic element of the King’s game, a building block that has now leaped off the board with Chess Pocket Park, opening in the heart of Old North St. Louis. The park was the brainchild of Rosemann & Associates, one of 48 teams that answered the challenge proposed by the Sustainable Land Lab, a joint-effort initiative between Washington University and our desolately patchworked city as a “living laboratory of strategies for creatively reusing vacant land.”
A formerly dead, residential-sized lot near Crown Candy Kitchen has been transformed into a simple outdoor community center themed around chess.
“Chess Pocket Park is sustainable not only because of designs to keep it low maintenance, but it also substantially provides the community with something they didn’t have before, something that makes the whole surrounding community better,” said Nancy Rodney, the project’s manager from the Rosemann group.
“The idea is finding places where young people are supported, you give them something that has great tangible benefits, and then you use that to attract other families into the neighborhood. It’s a win-win in terms of sustainability, in many ways.”
Rodney said a forefront goal was to bring in a broad range of people and ideas, not only to design and build Chess Pocket Park, but to operate it and keep it running for a long time. Rosemann architects mapped out their vision alongside Cole civil engineers, while EM Harris Construction did much of the heavy lifting with table and bench installation. The Missouri Botanical Gardens provided expertise on low-maintenance native plantings to beautify the place, and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis has been staffing the park weekly to provide free chess lessons.
And community reaction to Chess Pocket Park, which had a “soft opening” in June — before construction was even completed — was instant.
“I never really have any downtime, I’m playing or teaching for the entire time I’m there,” said Ryan Chester, who helped kick off the park by pushing wheelbarrows and laying paving stones, and now leads free chess lessons every Saturday morning. “It’s a good mix between kids and adults, a lot of the same people coming out each week. They mainly come from around the neighborhood, with other people drawn by the farmer’s market there.
“It’s just a very festive atmosphere around the whole area, always seems like there’s something going on. There’s music playing, people walking in the streets, people selling food or poetry books — and now people are playing chess.”
And when Chester is not there providing lessons, Chess Pocket Park still remains accessible in its intent: Interested players can borrow chess sets next door at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group headquarters, which donated the land to the Sustainable Land Lab initiative.
The original challenge looked to tackle not just one vacant lot, but 10,000 of them — and Chess Pocket Park is an idea ready to be replicated. Rodney says the mayor’s office is already looking over the original blueprint, seeking tips and tricks that could convert dead lots to low-maintenance, self-sustaining pocket parks all over St. Louis.
“The intriguing thing about replicating anything is that nothing is ever exactly the same — you have different groups of people with different missions, and it will always be a little bit different,” Rodney said. “But a nice thing in this regard is the Chess Club, who has been a key partner with us and wants to be a partner with anyone else who wants to do this.
“The only limitation that I can see is just having that surrounding environment, someone who can watch over the area and make sure the chess pieces don’t walk away or that there are bathrooms to use on a Saturday. Having a business, or someone who can keep an eye on things, is important in making this a success -- not just another abandoned park.”
The Grand Opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for Chess Pocket Park will be held tonight, Thursday, Aug. 21 at 7 p.m., as part of the Rise UP Festival in Old North St. Louis. Free chess lessons will continue every Saturday morning at 11 a.m.
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.