A group of chess players became an unwitting symbol of gentrification on mid-Market in September, after the San Francisco police excommunicated them from the sidewalk between Fifth and Sixth streets. The police claimed their tables had become a magnet for drug trafficking and vice. The players maintained their innocence. Occupy protesters called it a class war.
Within a few weeks, Market Street chess was relocated to Yerba Buena Gardens, and a new clutch of baby blue bicycles took its place — a tell-tale sign of change in the neighborhood.
Beat cops at the Southern Police Station who carried out the chess crackdown say it's purely coincidental that Bay Area Bike Share installed a depot on a patch of ground adjacent to the old chess site. "The tables were located ... at the corner of Market and Mason Street," Officer Jennifer O'Keeffe writes via e-mail. "The bike share program is located in front of Payless shoe store at Holiday [sic] Plaza, which is closer to 5th and Market Streets."
Southern Station Capt. Michael Redmond adds that he initially issued the ban in response to complaints from pedestrians in the area, and that he had no idea Bay Area Bike Share had secured a permit there. "It was my decision," he insists. "We don't issue those permits."
In fact, SFMTA issues the permits, and a spokesman from Bay Area Bike Share says the agency issued them a while ago: Its staff built the depot at Hallidie Plaza in August, roughly a month before the chess crackdown.
Fair enough — although it's also a fair bet that most bike share users don't want a group of homeless chess players within arm's reach. Since previous chess bans all coincided with spurts of development, moving the players around has become a standard procedure on mid-Market. Years ago, the games took place at tables affixed to the ground by Powell Street BART station, in front of the Westfield Shopping Center. When the Department of Public Works repaved the sidewalks there, it demolished those tables, and never reinstalled them.
Fifty-seven year-old Marvin Boykins, a Lowell High School grad who has played chess on the streets of San Francisco for decades, says he's been forced to move many times over the years. Street vendors, merchants, cops, and city officials all saw the chess tables as an easy scapegoat, he says.
The latest grumblings about the games likely came from a new class of passersby on mid-Market, whose members work in the area, Redmond says — but not at the Payless shoe store, or the check cashing place, or in any of the abandoned buildings lining that block between Mason Street and Hallidie Plaza. They're evidently less tolerant than the tourists who've long viewed street chess as an attraction and an atmospheric element.
Mid-Market is transforming rapidly, particularly with the arrival of well-heeled tech companies whose engineers scuttle to and from the Twitter building each day. Coincidence or not, these new arrivals are the ones for whom bike shares were designed.