I first discovered a Pokéstop next to my building on Sunday night. I looked out my window and found a cluster of people on the sidewalk, their faces illuminated by the Pokémon Go apps on their smartphones. “What could possibly be on my doorstep aside from the occasional dead squirrel?” I thought as I tapped on the floating circle nearby. The game answered with a photo of geese carved into the exterior of a building across the street — a nice detail, however random — that I had never noticed. “Huh,” I thought, as I promptly returned to slinging Pokéballs at a Zubat. (Side note: fuck Zubats 4 lyfe.)
Nearly a week later, what began as passing acknowledgement of some mildly interesting stone geese has swelled into a never-ending journey of architectural breadcrumb after architectural breadcrumb. Without realizing it, Pokémon Go had enrolled me in a civic history course of my neighborhood and, occasionally, the rest of New York City. Yes, playing this augmented reality game has turned me into a terrible (and likely more endangered!) human who barely looks up from her phone in public. I am sure I have become a disappointment to my neighborhood elders, or at the very least, this dad. But maybe they’d be happy to hear that this app also has taught me more about my surroundings in about a week than the combined three years that I’ve lived in my apartment.
Though the unintended effects of playing Pokémon Go include side hustles, tight butts, and the occasional injury, it was no mistake that the developers at Niantic made a game that encourages exploration. (That is, after all, the whole point of incorporating augmented reality.) What may not be obvious, however, is that the landmarks that people have flocked to over the past week originated from an older, somewhat similar game called Ingress, from the same creator. Much like Pokémon Go, Ingress set up “Portals” around neighborhoods, which players were required to visit to progress through the game. But unlike Pokémon Go, it crowdsourced suggestions of what those Portals should be. The general qualifications for Portal status were straightforward: “a cool story,” a place in history, a “cool piece of art,” unique architecture, being a public library or place of worship, a “hidden gem,” or a popular local spot. (It’s worth noting, however, that transferring these spots hasn’t been an entirely smooth process on Niantic’s part, considering people are slinging around Pokéballs at Holocaust museums and funerals.)
Despite the obvious oversights, people are still getting pumped over hometown lore. Earlier this week, a mom in Buffalo, New York, who has been playing Pokémon Go described to me, in great detail, the history of an old gazebo in East Aurora that she discovered through the game. “Back in the 1800s it used to be used as a judge’s stand,” she said. “And then they restored it and moved it into a community area right next to an old folks’ nursing home. It’s something that I often pass, but I would have never, ever, ever seen it.” Mark Smith, a 25-year-old who has lived his whole life in Peoria, Illinois, offered a similar story to Forbes, explaining that he’d just recently discovered a bust of Abraham Lincoln in his town while playing the game. “I’m enjoying getting to know the city,” he said.
When it came to my personal scavenger hunt, I, too, was agog at the treasures nearby. Some background: I live in Brooklyn Heights, an exceedingly pleasant neighborhood on the borough’s waterfront and, most importantly, the location of The Ringer’s East Coast headquarters. (Niantic Labs: We demand our own Pokéstop, right next to the plaque that hat-tips the Dodgers’ old headquarters.) People call it “America’s first suburb” because farmers from there would commute to Manhattan by ferry across the East River in the 1600s, which I can’t imagine doing without a good podcast but I guess we have evolved. Anyway, as a result, there is just a lot of old-world shit — pre–Civil War brownstones, plaques that commemorate battles, churches, around 600 buildings of the Neo-Grec/Victorian Gothic/Italiante/Classical Revival variety — just chillin’ on the streets. You need look no further than the globs of Euro tourists huddled around guides on our street corners to know there are some straight fossils in this neighborhood (including my downstairs neighbor, whose computer still echoes the words “You’ve Got Mail” through my floor in the morning).
I have always appreciated the idea of living in an area with old, pretty buildings (and also suspected that this is why things keep breaking in my apartment, etc.). But my incessant use of Pokémon Go has closed that disconnect, accomplishing the unlikely feat of teaching me local history. It began just around the corner from my house on Willow Street, where I discovered three brick homes laid in a style called “Flemish bond” (dope). In an extended blurb, the app explained that these homes are “the best surviving examples of Federal Style row houses of the early nineteenth century” (also dope) and that there is apparently an underground tunnel that runs below all of the buildings (dopest). I caught an Exeggcute while I was there. Not as rare as the row houses, but a nice perk.
That was just the beginning. Not far away, on the Promenade — a long walkway that is above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and faces the Manhattan skyline — I was alerted to a plaque that I’d never noticed because it is typically obscured by plants. It apparently marks a cliff where the British had built a bluff in 1776 during the Revolutionary War (a.k.a. the original Brexit). I’m sure my war with a feisty Spearow paled in comparison, but I couldn’t help but draw a parallel.
Another thing I learned from Pokémon Go: Brooklyn Heights has always been a haven for celebrities. Yes, these days we have stars like Björk, Lena Dunham, Keri Russell, Ethan Hawke, and Abbi Jacobson. But back in the day we had Truman Capote, Henry Miller, and W.H. Auden. In my wandering, I learned that Auden lived just a block away from me from 1939 to 1940, in a house where he wrote his critically acclaimed “New Year Letter” poem. A nice brownstone I always pass on my way to the gym apparently used to be Miller’s pad.
Discoveries like these have helped me establish a deeper connection with my surroundings, even if the game has simultaneously made it less likely that I notice stoplights and uneven sidewalks. The creators of Pokémon Go may have found a way to make distracted smartphone addicts like me care about municipal buildings and random goose carvings. Even with all of the game’s flaws, that’s something worth noticing.