Pokemon, Popcorn and Public Spaces
It started the night before at the public tennis courts, when a mismatched gaggle of young people skipped straight through our game, clutching cell phones, laughing and oblivious. They were heading for the cemetery. In relaying the story to my son later that night I added that I thought they were looking for a place to smoke pot. “Uh, no, mom. They were looking for Pokemon.”
I downloaded the app and was hooked in five minutes. The next night found me at Queen Anne Square at 10 PM “walking the dog”. (I was looking for Pokemon. Newport is lousy with them.)
The Square is lovely; beautifully landscaped and sloped gently towards Narragansett Bay under the lights of the Trinity Church steeple, a church built in 1725 and a familiar landmark to those walking, driving, or boating.
Strangers were connecting quickly to get updates and learn strategy. A sweet young man, Gerald, helped me and another middle-aged newbie with strategy. We had an easy conversation while the dog waited patiently. It turns out we are work neighbors: Gerald at Inpopnito, a place that my family loves, and me at 1772 down the street at IYRS. I pass him every day.
The square and the surrounding area are rich Pokemon hunting grounds. The streets and public spaces (including many historical sites and markers) are the framework of the game, which uses GPS and local landmarks as touchstones like the historic Redwood Library and the League of American Wheelman Monument. Outside of a historic preservation conference I have never heard this many historic places being discussed with such intensity.
The Pokemon Go phenomenon reminded me why the board and staff at 1772 have been thinking so much more about the importance of public byways and places to preservation- how we navigate and use the connective tissue of our historic cities. We are increasingly aware of the value of getting out of cars and moving by bicycle and by foot- how these modes of transportation clearly promote human-scale interaction and deeper appreciation of place.
It was evident last month on my trip to Copenhagen as we were gliding by bike through the incredible medieval city and I was surprised to feel a similar response while enjoying a little childish adventure in Queen Anne Square with Pokemon Go, a smashing success at enticing people out of their houses and into the streets and public spaces to explore the richness that has been there this whole time.
When we think of restoring historic cities, we have to pay serious attention to the role of the “arteries”; spaces where the energy of residents and visitors should flow freely. Car-free byways and public spaces are where we connect face-to-face and where community bonds are formed. This is both the historic use and the promising future of public byways and spaces. We have coined a term at 1772- “integrated historic revitalization” and these spaces are what integrate all of the historic pieces. A little Pokemon Go on a warm summer night reminded me why. After a horrifying week of escalating worldwide violence it was especially uplifting and reassuring to find so many strangers connecting on a warm summer night under the glow of the Trinity Church steeple.
My Pokemon Go career ended at level 5. I still don’t really know how to use it. But, I had a blast for a day or two and I got out of my house and rediscovered parts of my home city that I had missed or forgotten about. I also got to meet my neighbor Gerald and that was great, too. Go see him at Inpopnito: Popcorn in Disguise at 387 Thames Street in Newport, RI.