by Phil Manzano
The Detective Cookie Chess Park had its grand opening on a resplendent Saturday afternoon as community members, neighborhood activists, and government officials celebrated what likely was Seattle’s feel-good story of the weekend.
Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” boomed over the loudspeakers as Mayor Bruce Harrell, Police Chief Adrian Diaz, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Greg Spotts and Deputy Director Rodney Maxie (whose crews built the park), members of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle on horseback, as well as the Seattle Police Mounted Patrol Unit, food trucks, and a large crowd crammed into the small park.
Located on a tri-corner at Rainier Avenue South, 51st Street South, and South Barton Place in Rainier Beach, the park, designed by Johnson+Southerland, features a 50-foot-long curved seat wall with permanent tables for chess playing. A giant in-ground chessboard dominates the center, and it’s overseen by landmark metal sculpture of king and queen chess pieces.
The park is named after Seattle Police Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, who started a chess club to divert kids from the streets to a game that develops their minds, builds healthy competition, and helps children see alternatives and strategies to obstacles.
Bouldin had to overcome many obstacles to see this day: doubt that kids would show up to play chess, an impatient teacher who turned Bouldin off to the game of chess, and doubts that a chess park would ever come to fruition.
But the chess club is now a fixture in the South End, with one of its members, 10-year-old Selina Cheng, winning the U1400 category at the Washington Women’s Championship this month. Bouldin is an avid chess player who loves the game, and the opening of a brand-new chess park that bears her name seemed a fitting event for a diverse and growing community emerging from the pandemic.
“I’m humbled as I stand before you,” Bouldin said. “This means so much, not just to me, but to us. So many people came together and made this happen. I didn’t make it happen. It’s you, all of us, coming together, regardless of your race, regardless of where you are from, regardless of your income. This is how we do it.”
Bouldin thanked a long list of government agencies, community organizations, companies, donors, and volunteers who nursed the vision and worked to make the chess club and park a reality.
“We, as a community, we take great pride in this,” Bouldin said. “We must all take care of it. We must make it known this is a fun and safe place for all. Regardless of what part of Seattle you are from, this is a safe zone. … This chess park may have my name on it, but it’s also your chess park. I couldn’t have been successful without you.”
That kind of community effort is at the core of policing, Chief Diaz said.
“We know that many of our officers, way back in the day, we didn’t think this was police work,” Chief Diaz said. “They didn’t think that this was the way to go out and handle crime. But this is about police work. This is about building community. This is what saves lives every single day.”
Mayor Harrell congratulated Bouldin on her vision, and also the larger Rainier Beach community for the effort and love he saw reflected in the park.
“We have 84 square miles in the city,” Harrell said. “And when we talk about One Seattle, when we demonstrate to those 84 square miles that there’s magic over here — look, look around you. We don’t look alike. We don’t speak alike. Many of us have different religions, different clothing. … But we come together, Cookie, under your leadership, sister, we come together, and we say we’re going to build community, [and] when we come out of this pandemic, we’re going to be stronger, we’re going to be brighter, we’re going to be happier.
“All of the community that helped build this — thank you,” Harrell said. “I’m humbled by this, and we’re going to look at building more throughout the city. Now, I’m not making a budget promise. … I have to announce my budget next week, but I would be a fool not to recognize this kind of beauty, and how do we spread this kind of magic throughout the city?”
The Washington Chess Federation has been a longtime sponsor and partner of the Detective Cookie Chess Club, often offering scholarships to club members to compete and attend events.
Saturday’s event was a significant way to build interest in chess and get more young people involved, a trend that chess has been seeing for the past couple of years, said Josh Sinanan, National Master and president of the state federation.
“To have a community building event like this, where there’s a chess park, a safe community gathering space where chess is used to bring people together, that’s really significant,” Sinanan said.
“This can get everyday people to see how chess can be used as a metaphor for community building and developing your life skills. Like Detective Cookie said, you don’t need to speak the same language as your opponent. You can sit down and play a game of chess with anybody, and we’ve seen especially that it helps kids grow confidence, social skills,” Sinanan said. “It helps them become more outgoing. Chess players are naturally very introverted people. But we noticed that after a few years of playing chess, they become much more extroverted. And a lot of them, especially kids, develop lifelong friendships through chess.”
Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Seattle Department of Transportation crews designed the park. The park was designed by architecture firm Johnson+Southerland. The article was updated on March 10, 2023, to correct the error.
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and is the interim news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Northwest Tap Connection performs during the grand opening celebration of the Detective Cookie Chess Park, at the corner of Rainier Avenue South and Barton Place South on Sept. 24. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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