The corner of Telegraph Ave. and Haste St. in Berkeley is a historical place, steeped in meaning. It was previously known as “Cody’s Free Speech Corner,” after Pat Cody, the late owner of Cody’s Books, which resided on Telegraph Ave. from 1956 to 1977. The corner hosted not only an abundance of cultural, social, and activist speakers, but also a first aid center for Vietnam War protesters in 1968. Now, for almost three years, the corner has served as a meeting spot for the Telegraph “chess club” led by the Chairman of the club, Jesse Sheehan.
On Friday, Sept. 29, the club was forcibly shut down, and the tables and chairs were removed from the site due to ongoing permit violation by the owner of the property and storefront, Ken Sarachan. The club has since continued to occupy the space until further actions are taken.
The club, previously held at People’s Park, a block up on Haste St., has, for roughly a decade, provided a unifying, positive, and inviting community for people of all demographics, including age, health, gender, race, and class. It was inspired by Sheehan’s experience playing street chess in New York and Virginia Beach throughout his adolescence. He initially founded the club as a way of contributing to his community in Berkeley.
Sheehan spoke of the importance of chess and why access to public space for the club could be interpreted as a necessity, he said, “The city is spending millions of dollars figuring out where they can do biking infrastructure and bike racks. A lot of my friends are disabled; you don’t bike in a wheelchair, but chess is a very good alternative … it gives somebody whose mind is not paralyzed, but perhaps they themselves are, an opportunity.”
In addition to never being asked or asking to pay rent on the affected property, Sheehan is a personal friend of Sarachan’s. As Sheehan put it, “The city decided to begin selective code enforcement on his property against our tables and chairs. Tables and chairs are against the ordinance of the property.” He later added, “(That Sarachan) had to do what he had to do or lose the property for auction.”
This ongoing discordance has triggered a lot of controversy between the City of Berkeley and its constituents.
“In the California constitution, it says that the freedom of assembly is to protect the people who may assemble to consult for the common good … any day that we are collectively here on this corner, we are obviously consulting for the common good,” said Sheehan.
Sheehan additionally shared how the potential permanent removal of the chess tables and chairs can affect the youth community, “The youth has to realize that their public spaces are being attacked by corporatization,” he said, later adding, “This is your public space in your hometown so why haven’t you guys had benches along Telegraph to play chess on your own? Growing up you could have just sat with the smartest people in the world down here. By removing public spaces, we’re removing the opportunity for people to share information. We’re robbing a generation of a chance to meet people.”
Correspondingly, Kash Goldblum, a Berkeley High School sophomore and leader of the Berkeley High Chess Club expressed how community youth will feel the loss of the Telegraph Chess Club.
Goldblum said, “Having free access to chess pieces and to chess boards in public is really important because some people can’t do that … it was a very open and welcoming community, and I think that people have fun playing chess there. And I just think that shutting it down, that’s a real bummer.”