Keeping a dream alive: Envisioning a chess park in East Tampa

Joshua L. Jones knew a cultural arts center would mean more than just a meeting place for a historically Black neighborhood in Florida.

Of course, he was the one who designed it, so he can see it all clearly: Community members would enjoy a variety of cultural amenities like a covered amphitheater, a seasonal food garden, and a teaching kitchen. It would also be built around the preexisting structure of an abandoned fire station.

The Center for Civic Arts is such a developing project in the Porters Community in Gainesville. It is the brainchild of a collaboration between the city of Gainesville and the University of Florida. 

But it just as easily could have been born in Tampa -- and could still come to fruition with vision, leadership, and financial support. 

In fact, Jones designed a similar project in 2017 for a chess park to be built on an unused parcel of land in East Tampa. Then a USF student studying Urban and Community Design in the School of Architecture, he wanted to include enough amenities to encourage diverse participation from the community.

Jones, now studying at the University of Florida to complete his Ph.D. in architecture, has a knack for reimagining dilapidated public facilities as identifiable community centers, where residents can feel a sense of ownership in their neighborhoods. He designed three options for parks that put chess at the forefront while still incorporating everyday activities. 

“If the children are learning to play chess, then what are their parents doing? If there’s a tournament, where will the spectators sit?” says Jones. “You can’t afford to have the park serve just one function. It should be somewhere where you can have a local barbecue.”  

He designed the Gainesville Center for Civic Arts early in 2021 on behalf of Studio Zeren, his own not-for-profit studio, for consideration to the American Institute of Architecture of Tampa Bay in 2021.

His design for the East Tampa chess park earned him the AIA Tampa Bay Merit Award for Architecture in 2017.

Building consensus before construction

Jones says he believes there have been several reasons for a lack of investment in East Tampa by the city. Investing in downtown has been a priority in recent years as cities compete for talent. The return on investment for a project downtown could grant the city nationwide notoriety, while one in East Tampa might not.

There is also a unique community identity in East Tampa that causes some residents to fear what could be lost to public investment. 

“There’s a reliance on the public sector to try to invest in districts but there’s usually some kind of disconnect when that happens,” says Jones. “There's an identity that a public entity will try to impose on a district as opposed to something which can encourage the growth of the identity of the community.”

Jones says some of the most successful developments around the city of Tampa can be attributed to partnerships between public and private investors. These projects tend to focus more on increasing community engagement than economic return.

The chess park was designed with such a partnership in mind: A collaboration between the University of South Florida and the HOPE Learning Center, which offers computer training and other educational programs to the East Tampa community.

Trent Green, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of South Florida, had initially coordinated Jones’ involvement in designing the park. 

Green says gentrification is a real concern in East Tampa. The idea that development could displace the people who most strongly identify with the community often reinforces the community’s wariness of public investors. 

“A small development may not be a catalyst for large scale displacement, but it could spark it,” says Green. “It sort of shows that, well, maybe the market is ready for others to invest in down the road. There has to be mechanisms in place so gentrification and displacement can be minimized.”

He, like Jones, believes that public-private partnerships help facilitate community involvement. Academic institutions that often represent the public half of the partnership typically have social agency components to ensure that the voice of the community is uplifted during the process of building a project.

Building community after construction

Jones imagines the chess park as a seed in the development for East Tampa. As well as providing children with a safe area to play games and develop their skills, it would serve as a place for community gatherings. 

“You can't afford to have the park serve just one function. It should be somewhere where you can have a local barbecue,” says Jones. “It's something where play is just as important as planning.”

Centers of community life like the CCA and the chess park are especially important to historically Black neighborhoods. Professor Green says that institutions like schools, churches, and recreation centers can help stabilize a community. 

“Little things like that, creating community spaces where people can gather, it means a lot for these residents. I can speak from experience,” says Professor Green. “They have these informal gathering spaces where different groups tend to gather. These are considered safe spaces in the neighborhood, so they have a lot of meaning to the people who live there. This is ground they feel comfortable with.”

A national study conducted in 2014 reported that income-based differences in extracurricular participation can greatly impact the outcomes on students later in life. Diminishing access to school clubs and sports only widens the achievement gap between upper- and middle-class students and their low-income peers.

“Chess is not just for the upper echelon. It's a game just like soccer, just like basketball. It can be for anyone. It wasn't precluded from having that kind of park life and diversity,” says Jones. “I think that's how people fall short for communities that are under-served because they assume people from those areas only do one type of activity.”

Public facilities are important in not only giving the community a space to gather, but in giving the community something to pass down to their children. A small project, like a chess park on a vacant parcel of land, is a huge symbol of growth and excellence.

“Things like the chess park are a way to say, ‘Hey, there are brilliant young children in East Tampa,’” says Jones. “‘If we can give them a place to develop their skills, what can they do?’ ”
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Read more articles by Siham Kharfan.

Siham Kharfan is an undergraduate student of Broadcast Media and International Relations at USF. She was born in Miami, FL and raised in several cities, including Tampa, Oklahoma City, and Beirut. Her goal is to be accepted into law school by 2022. In her free time, she enjoys writing and playing chess.