Detective Cookie Chess Park: Local kids asked, Detective Cookie and the Rainier Beach community answered
By Emi Okikawa
Detective Cookie did not like chess, but the children insisted.
As the Community Engagement Liaison for the Seattle Police Department, part of Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin’s job was to coordinate community events for the neighborhood youth—like the 2005 basketball tournament that engaged approximately 30 children. Keen to keep the momentum going, she was eager to put on another basketball tournament the following year. But to her surprise, the children turned her down.
“We’re not just about basketball,” they told her. “We want a chess tournament.”
“And I really didn’t wanna do a chess tournament, being that I didn’t know how to play chess,” Detective Cookie admits with a laugh, “but that’s what the youth had asked for. So I said, ‘Okay, we will do it.’”
The Detective Cookie Chess Club
Over the next couple of months, Detective Cookie started to put together the beginnings of a chess tournament. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department lent her chess boards, and she was able to partner with an existing summer program, run by Seattle Parks and Recreation employee Joy Williams, to conduct the chess tournament. When the tournament day arrived, the boards were on the table, the pieces were set, the room was packed…but only three children knew how to play chess!
“I asked them, ‘Why would you say you want a chess tournament if you guys don’t know how to play chess?’” she recalls.
So, she made the children a new offer: starting a chess club.
After getting the children’s exuberant approval, Detective Cookie got to work. She secured funding from the Seattle Foundation and the Seattle Police Foundation to buy chessboards and hire a chess instructor. The Rainier Beach Branch of The Seattle Public Library gave them space in the middle of the library where she pushed three tables together for the youth to play.
She made fliers and handed them out to everyone she met. She even put them under cars’ windshield wipers in grocery store parking lots. As the weeks went on, her strategy began to pay off as more and more youth trickled in through the Rainier Beach Branch doors looking to play chess. Suddenly, she had over 60 children showing up to play.
They soon ran out of chessboards and then eventually ran out of tables to put the chessboards on.
“I actually started putting the chessboards on the floor,” Detective Cookie says with a smile. “A lot of the children would just sit on the floor and play chess. And that’s basically how the chess club started.”
Chess Lessons = Life Lessons
Although she initially balked at the thought of playing chess, as the chess club grew, Detective Cookie began to draw similarities between the game and real life.
“I teach anti-violence along with chess. I teach you how to deal with violence, how to prevent violence, how to make good decisions—not just on the chess board, but in the real world as well.
The chessboard is your community, and the things you do in your chess community can cause you to lose your queen, your bishop, or even get you in checkmate.… In the real world, not making [a] good decision can cost you the same thing.
[By playing chess,] children are learning to take these lessons from the chessboard into the real world.”
Building a Chess Park
Then, around 2015, a community member named Maia Segura came up to Detective Cookie and asked her what she hoped to see evolve from her chess club.
“And I told her,” says Detective Cookie, “‘I would love for there to be a park somewhere in Seattle with nothing but chess for people to play.’”
Soon, Segura returned to deliver the good news. They were going to build a park right in the Rainier Beach community, named after Detective Cookie herself.
Detective Cookie recalls the day fondly. “She told me: ‘The community has decided they wanted to name it Detective Cookie Chess Park for all you have done for our children. And because you’ve always been here for us.’”
So, for the next couple of years, the Friends of Detective Cookie Chess Park worked to secure the necessary funding to build the park. After about five years, they partnered with agencies and organizations like the Seattle Parks Foundation to provide fiscal sponsorship and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for the construction work.
A New Project for SDOT
Despite the unusual partnership, the SDOT crew are enthusiastic about the collaboration.
“Everything about this project is so positive,” says Aditi Kambuj, Urban Design Manager at SDOT. “I think it took a while for the department to figure out how we could support the community on this because it’s not one of our typical types of projects.… But it’s important to recognize that our streets are both spaces to move through to get to other places and spaces for communities to gather.”
“It’s a fun project [for our construction crews],” says Pavement Engineering Manager, Elsa Tibbits, “because they get to be a little creative and kind of get out of the standard repetitive work that they do. Our crews take pride in delivering such a contribution to the community, and you can feel it in their passion for how hard they are working to make this space inviting and simply perfect.”
“We are supporting and taking our lead from the community in this project,” adds Kambuj. “From an SDOT perspective, we are interested in doing more projects like this, where we are there to enable the vision that the community has. And through our collaborations on Detective Cookie Chess Park, we are learning how we can support such projects in other parts of the city. We are lucky to have an incredible project delivery team led by Elsa; without them, this project would not have been possible.”
A Groundbreaking Event
On June 12, after five years of community organizing and fundraising, the Detective Cookie Chess Park celebrated its groundbreaking ceremony.
“It felt good,” says Erin Lau, chair of the Friends of Detective Cookie Chess Park Steering Committee. “I think mostly just seeing all the people there that I didn’t expect to be there was very heartwarming, and people really wanted to physically break the ground with the shovel. That was really fun symbolically to do.”
After reflecting on her tenure as committee chair, Lau is proud of how far the project has come—from a crowded library with children playing chess on the ground to the start of their very own chess park.
“First and foremost, Detective Cookie is really important and therefore this park is important,” she says. “The park is about bringing community together in a public space in Rainier Beach, where there’s not really any central public plaza that is designated as a community gathering space.”
Protectors of This Space
About three years ago, two giant metal statues were installed at the park—a set of king and queen chess pieces. At night, they light up in purple and can be seen from blocks away. To Detective Cookie, they represent the protectors of the space—keeping a watchful eye out for the youth and adults of the community.
“That’s what I wanted,” says Detective Cookie, “for this to be known as a safe place. Even though this chess park has my name on it, this is everybody’s chess park. ‘Cause I could not have gotten to where I am now without the community.”