Checking in at Church and Queen

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By Christine Dobby

There’s an air of casual excitement surrounding the small group gathered in the park on this sunny late-September afternoon. Plastic playing pieces are pulled one by one from a red cookie tin and placed on black and white chess boards. People gather around the four concrete tables, pull out more pieces, and the games get going.

Errol, one of the regulars, is setting up a match when a bird dropping lands directly on his leg. He jumps up in disgust looking to the trees above searching for the culprit. The crowd around him whoops at his misfortune. Two elderly men sitting on a nearby park bench join in the laughter. “Don’t worry, it’s good luck,” someone tells him.

This is Queen and Church, only blocks away from the “worst neighbourhood in Toronto” as Errol notes. The area has one of the highest concentrations of shelters in the city. Every day students on their way to Ryerson walk past drug dealers and other transients.

Yet the scene here is one of camaraderie and good-natured taunting. Friends greet each other as they arrive. They like seeing each other at this park, getting the news and, of course, playing some chess. Passing by the park and seeing these men contentedly chatting, playing and laughing, you might forget you’re in the same city reputed for its cold shoulders and impassive stares.

The chess tables are a good example of a basic design premise that works, says Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing magazine. The tables give people a place to sit, but not be loitering, and gives them something to do apart from just hanging out. He notes that investments are often made in safe, already polished areas. The park at Queen and Church, while not overly-designed, provides a valuable counter balance and shows that the creation of effective public space can be that simple.

These are the same chess tables that the regulars once played at outside Sam the Record Man since the early 1980s. After the record store underwent renovations the four concrete tables were moved to the park in 2003 from one corner of Ryerson’s campus to another.

The church itself was behind the idea and in 2002 received $22,600 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The grant was awarded to “enable all area residents to enjoy the parkland” through the installation of permanent chess tables for public use. Around the same time the City of Toronto installed chess tables at Nathan Phillips Square. But the former Sam’s crowd migrated east to Queen and Church instead, preferring the comfortable shade afforded by the park’s elm trees and the superior lighting at night.

When the weather is good, chess players gather around the four permanent tables and spread out to a nearby picnic table where they play on their own vinyl chess boards. The players also bring plastic chess pieces and game clocks for speed chess.

“Blitz” chess allows five minutes per side. A player punches the clock at the end of each move, stopping his clock and re-starting his opponent’s. Victory is sudden and sometimes barely perceptible. If neither player is checkmated, the game ends when one player runs out of time or “flags.” The pieces are gathered up and returned to their proper order. New opponents settle in, taking their place on the concrete stools with wooden seats worn smooth from years of near constant use.

Pacing around the tables and observing the play, a regular smiles and comments that there are a lot of players here today “but no fish,” suggesting that everyone present is pretty good. The third table erupts into laughter after the players realize both of their clocks have run out and one laughs “I flagged over a minute ago but you never noticed!”

Rev. Dr. Malcolm Sinclair, one of Metropolitan United’s two ministers, explains that the park is owned by the church but maintained by the City, who rents it for $1 per year. He says the park used to be surrounded by fences but they were taken down in the 1970s.

The church became concerned that the wide open area would become a tent city and permanent home to drug dealers. Sinclair says Metropolitan United, which offers a variety of services to marginalized people, wanted to include the park in their space and protect their property. Benches with arm dividers were installed to discourage people from spending the night. Low hanging tree branches were trimmed to increase visibility. The installation of the chess tables was in line with the church’s efforts to make the park a welcoming place.

Sinclair knows that crack is sold on the church grounds and notes that vans have been known to pull up and openly sell drugs. It’s a particular problem at night. But the chess-playing community is a positive feature of the park. Some of the regulars “smoke a little dope, play a little chess,” and he says the crowd is generally peaceful.

Rev. John Joseph Mastandrea, Metropolitan United’s second minister, also sees the chess tables as part of the Church’s efforts to draw people into the park and make it a friendlier place. Many of the regulars are well-seasoned Eastern European players and although the style of play is aggressive, Mastandrea notes that it is a competition of the mind, not one of force.

Spectators gather freely and people linger well into the night when the weather is good. Importantly, Mastandrea points out, “it’s free, and how many activities are free these days?”

In the waning hours of this early autumn afternoon, music rings out from Metropolitan United’s church bells. A middle-aged man, perched on a stool at one of the tables, observes the play at the other three. He eats peanuts and strawberries out of a plastic grocery bag spread out across the table. A black squirrel scrambles up the wheel of his bike which leans against the table. He tells a friend that the squirrel prefers to steal from him when he’s not looking. He lets the squirrel take a nut only centimeters from his fingers and pretends not to see.

Another friend of his arrives and he waves him over, telling him he’s saved the table. The plastic bag and peanut shells are cleared and the two friends are soon readying another set of black and white plastic armies for battle.

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