by Phil Manzano
It doesn’t look like much to people driving by on Rainier Avenue South: a large patch of dirt ringed by temporary chain-link fencing. But to Seattle Police Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, it is part of a long-unfolding vision to help youth through chess and build community.
The patch of dirt meant that the Detective Cookie Chess Park on Rainier Avenue South near 51st Avenue South was taking shape, and community members showed up Sunday afternoon to celebrate its groundbreaking and pay homage to Bouldin’s dream.
“Even though this park is called Detective Cookie’s Chess Park, this is really your chess park,” Bouldin told the crowd of parents, children, and community leaders. “It’s yours because it could not have happened without you. You guys put in the work by coming and showing up for chess. Parents, you put in the work, and the grandparents, by bringing your kids and grandkids. And everybody just came to play.”
Chessboards were set up on folding tables where children challenged adults to a game during Sunday’s celebration. K.J. Wright, former Seattle Seahawks linebacker from the class of Legion of Boom, sat across from his son, Kameron, both studying the board.
“Oh, that’s the queen, good move, good move,” Wright said to his son.
“First of all, I love Detective Cookie,” Wright said. “I met her a few years ago, and I just love what she’s doing in the community with these kids. My son and myself, we play chess … It’s just something that we do together, and it made sense to come out here and support Detective Cookie and these great things she’s doing in the community.”
When finished, the undeveloped wedge of right-of-way will feature a 50-foot-long curved seat wall with a steel and fabric canopy and permanent tables for chess arrayed around a giant in-ground chessboard in the center of the small park.
Her 43 years with Seattle police, the chess park, and youth work are a long way from Bouldin’s childhood growing up in Rockwell Gardens, then one of Chicago’s largest public housing projects, similar to Cabrini-Green.
“It’s just a dream come true,” Bouldin said surveying Sunday’s scene. “You know, a little girl from the projects of Chicago, where people basically said that you would never be anything. You’re just gonna grow up in a project. You’re gonna live in a project and you’re gonna be a housewife.”
“And I really kind of believed that, I really did,” Bouldin said. “I was dreaming of how my apartment was gonna look in there in the project because I didn’t know any better. Until I actually got out of the projects, went off to college and started seeing other things and opened my mind to what I wanted.”
For the last decade, through the chess club, Bouldin has been helping open up the minds of Rainier Beach youth, some whose lives mirrored her own — disadvantaged with seemingly limited futures.
“Kids that people have given up on, I’ll take them in,” she says.
Bouldin plays and teaches chess and has seen the power it has to help youth move forward. One of her former chess club players is now an instructor at Bellevue College. Another is in his first year in medical school and contacted her to thank her for helping keep him out of gangs.
“They are learning how to concentrate, how to make decisions,” Bouldin says. “I’m reminding them that what’s happening on the chessboard can easily happen out on the street; but it’ll be real people and not just pieces. There’s consequences to your actions on the streets as there are consequences to your moves. So, chess has really become part of this neighborhood, and people are absolutely loving every bit of it.”
Kids find it challenging and fun to learn, Bouldin said. Some kids balk at first when dropped off at the chess club, and their parents return to find they don’t want to go home but want to keep playing.
Chess has seen some recent growing popularity, Bouldin said. Recent series like Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit or movies such as Disney’s Queen of Katwe or even the iconic Searching for Bobby Fischer have fueled that rise.
“When I was growing up, it wasn’t a cool kid sport,” she said. “But now you’re cool; not only are you cool if you play chess, but you’re smart. It’s another kind of cool.”
Bouldin is also quick to deflect a lot of attention to the community support of the chess club, whether it’s organizations like the Washington Chess Federation (which has provided mentorship and scholarships to chess tournaments), to City funding through Councilmember Tammy Morales’ office and other departments, foundation support, or local business and volunteers who made Sunday’s event possible.
“Every time I needed you, you showed up,” she told the crowd. “Every time something was going on, you showed up.”
Editors’ Note: This story was updated to reflect Bouldin’s years with the Seattle Police Department and that she continues to play and teach chess.
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and most recently was the news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin and youth members of the chess club break ground on the Detective Cookie Chess Park Sunday, June 12, 2022. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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