Pokémon Go in the Lower Ninth Ward

Photo via Rob Walker/Medium

One man's 'shitty PokéStop' is another's historical marker.

A pickup creeps toward the spot where Jourdan Avenue dead ends on the north side of the St. Claude Avenue bridge in New Orleans. Like many pockets—and, let’s be honest, swaths—of the Lower Ninth Ward, there’s no obvious reason to be here. So what’s this guy doing? There’s no other traffic, or person, in sight. Except for me.

I watch from the corner of my eye as, slowly, the truck moves past. Possibly the driver wonders what I’m doing, leaning on a bike at the end of an overgrown stretch of neutral ground. The answer is that I am thinking about why Pokémon Go wants me to be here.

My interest in digital games peaked in the era of Intellivision, and until recently I’d never even considered downloading a trendy game to my phone. No disrespect to you gamers—it just doesn’t happen to be my thing.

And really, I didn’t even want to “play” Pokémon Go. I wanted to play with it.

This was several weeks ago. A sliver of the saturation coverage of the game at the time suggested it was somehow awakening players to aspects of their environs that they’d previously overlooked. The game requires moving around physical space, often on foot. This, it was argued, “could be an interesting way to tour a city” and “you may get to know new places or people.” Not only that, the urban techno-utopian case continued, Pokémon Go fosters “a kind of civic engagement” that is actually making cities better places.” “For better or for worse,” one assessment contended, “the Pokémon Go player is a new kind of flâneurthat French literary term for those who stroll city streets with no aim but to gather observations and ideas.”

I prefer the idea of a kind of Bizarro-world version of Pokémon Go, leading players not to their geography’s most laudable features but rather to the ones they’d prefer to ignore or avoid.

That last remark, however lighthearted, made my eyes roll: a great example of how the term “flâneur” has been so worn out and abused in the last 10 years. And really, all this stuff was written by people in New York or other cities thick with compelling features and robust urbanist cultures celebrating them, so it seems you’d hardly need a game to discover that, yeah, cool stuff abounds in the modern metropolis. Even so, if a game helped people notice the world, that’s great.

But what really got me interested was reading more about which parts of the world the game helps you notice. A handful of articles pointed out that it’s notably more limited in rural areas, for instance, and in predominantly black neighborhoods.

That made me wonder what, if anything, it might offer to someone who wanted to “tour” the neighborhood where E and I live, the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. What previously unknown landmarks would it reveal? And how, in real life, would whatever technology guides the geography of Pokémon Go mesh with the geography of the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward?

Here’s the part where I should briefly explain the actual game. Sadly, my ability to do so is limited. I skimmed a few primers, but the details beyond raw basics gave me a headache. (“When an item gives you straight-up double XP for thirty minutes, you’re going to want to take full advantage of it, and there are several ways you can do this for Lucky Eggs.” Okay, got it, and please kill me now?)

The Pokémon Go world, as seen from a newish restaurant in a popular stretch of The Bywater (not the Lower Ninth Ward) in New Orleans. The blue cubes represent PokéStops: There are more in these few square blocks than in the entirety of Holy Cross.

The Pokémon Go world, as seen from a newish restaurant in a popular stretch of The Bywater (not the Lower Ninth Ward) in New Orleans. The blue cubes represent PokéStops: There are more in these few square blocks than in the entirety of Holy Cross. Photo via Rob Walker

The Pokémon Go world, as seen from a newish restaurant on a popular stretch of The Bywater (not the Lower Ninth Ward) in New Orleans. The blue cubes represent PokéStops: There are more in these few square blocks than in the entirety of Holy Cross.

Here are the two relevant things I absorbed. First: The broad concept is to roam about, hunting for and “catching” little digital creatures. When these are nearby, you can only see them through your device—you look (in effect) through your phone’s camera, and in addition to the actual world, you see a silly cartoon character jumping up and down. This is what the buzz-phrase “augmented reality” boils down to.

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Second: There are two varieties of locations you can set out to visit, PokéStops, and Gyms. PokéStops correspond with the real-world sites that the enthusiasts I’d been reading described as landmarks. If you’re close to one, you see it on a digital map, and you can tap to learn what it is. (And now you’re a flâneur!) Gyms are also landmark-ish locales, but their function involves attaining a certain “level” within the game, and entering creatures you have “caught” and “trained” into “fights” … and I feel a headache coming so let’s move on.

Just outside St. Maurice Church in Holy Cross.

Just outside St. Maurice Church in Holy Cross. Photo via Rob Walker

I installed the game, and it presented a map depicting the few blocks around me. There was a PokéStop right nearby: the St. Maurice Church. This is not an active church anymore, but it’s a terrific building and sometimes hosts special events. Tap, and you get an image of the plaque out front. I walk our dog Russell past this site on at least a weekly basis, so this wasn’t a major discovery, but it seemed like a promising start.

In recent months I’ve been in the habit of riding my bike around Holy Cross in the early morning, mostly to try to get in at least 20 minutes of physical activity in before I chain myself to the desk. So, while doing this, I started checking my phone here and there to see what Pokémon Go revealed.

And here’s the part where I should briefly explain the actual neighborhood.

Photo via Rob Walker

Holy Cross is a rectangle bounded by the industrial canal, the Mississippi River, the St. Barnard Parish line, and St. Claude Avenue. We moved here almost a year ago, and I’ve described the general vibe previously, but in a nutshell, it’s a quiet (mostly) residential area that certainly shows lingering signs of having endured the 2005 flooding that followed Katrina but is steadily improving; we like it quite a bit.

Here are some additional facts. Holy Cross covers about a square mile, according to Wikipedia, and the streets are arranged in a straightforward grid. If you don’t count the handful of businesses on St. Claude and enterprises related to the Port of New Orleans terminal along the river, there are maybe two or three commercial operations in the entire neighborhood. According to census figures, the population was around 5,500 in 2000, and about 2,700 in 2010. As the post-Katrina recovery has continued, I assume it’s higher now, but I doubt it’s at 2000 levels; there are still plenty of vacant houses around, some of them basically just shells. In 2010, Holy Cross was 89.3 percent black; our best guess is that it’s more like 75 percent black today. More anecdotally, there’s practically no car traffic when I’m riding around in the morning, and not much foot or bike traffic. (So far: one unicyclist.)

At the Industrial Canal end of Holy Cross.

At the Industrial Canal end of Holy Cross. Photo via Rob Walker

By my count, there are eight PokéStops in Holy Cross. Compared to a square mile of Manhattan (or to the French Quarter or other areas of New Orleans I’ve spot-checked), that’s not much. Often when I’d pause in my ride to see what was nearby, I got a blank map.

But this was still more than I expected. Aside from St. Maurice, there are three more churches. All are much smaller, more neighborhood-style structures, with no plaques; Pokémon Go offers no further information about any of them. Another stop is a community garden, and another is one of the Steamboat Houses—notable local architecture that happens to be private residences. The most amusing stop, to me, is a “Saints Mural,” which is on the side of a convenience store on St. Claude.

There certainly could be more. There are at least two more quite nice community gardens, for instance, that Pokémon Go ignores. And a couple of playgrounds, and a Little Free Library or two. The benches on the levee at the end of Reynes seem like a worthy landmark. There’s some nice mural work on the Lower Ninth Ward Village building, although that’s defunct at the moment. Global Green’s Holy Cross Project includes a clutch of architecturally interesting houses, plus a “visitor center” (although that, too, is currently empty).

Photo via Rob Walker

Anyway, the most mysterious Holy Cross PokéStop was the “Lower Ninth Water Tower.” I knew immediately what that was—an ancient-looking, rusty water tower by the river. Its significance? I have no idea. Pokémon Go offered only a terrible picture, taken at night. I doubt there’s a plaque, but since the tower is actually on the property of one of the shipping concerns connected to the Alabo Street Wharf, I can’t be certain. I was curious enough to Google it and found nothing but a couple of photographs. While I assume it’s nonfunctional, I can’t even be sure of that.

I rode up to the gate, at the corner of two streets there is absolutely no reason to be on if you’re not involved in port business (or trying to get some exercise). I looked around and saw zero other humans in any direction.

All in all, a curious choice for a landmark.

“Lower Ninth Water Tower.” (Also: Lower Ninth cell tower.)

“Lower Ninth Water Tower.” (Also: Lower Ninth cell tower.) Photo via Rob Walker

So who picks these places? What are the criteria? The answer (as the Pokémon Go-ologists among you know) goes back to an earlier game made by the same company. That game is called Ingress. I will not attempt to explain the details, but it, too, is location-based. To build an inventory of “portal” locations—which, if you think about it, is an astonishing task for a game meant to be playable almost anyplace—the company reportedly started with a crowdsourced historical marker database and “a data set of public artwork mined from geo-tagged photos on Google.”
I started thinking of the game as basically a photo app.

Then it asked Ingress players to submit their own ideas for “places they thought were worthy of being portals.” Between 2011 and 2015, there were 15 million suggestions, 5 million of which were accepted. This combined collection of locales was evidently used to populate the geography of Pokéworld with game-relevant landmarks. Motherboard notes that it is “not always clear why some [locations] get approved when others don’t,” and links to a subreddit called “Shitty Pokestops.”

But the upshot, as a recent Urban Institute report on Pokémon Go (you read that right) explains, is that the demographics of Ingress players and the real-world territories they inhabited and traveled in those years helped determine the specific physical realities that its successor game augments today.

This background explains the occasional anecdotes about PokéStops at locations that used to be landmarks of some sort—for instance, a water tower in Iowa that’s actually been torn down since it made it into the Ingress database. And of course, it helps explain the relative paucity of Poképlaces here.

Lower Ninth Ward, lakeside of St. Claude.

Lower Ninth Ward, lakeside of St. Claude. Photo via Rob Walker

Checking out stops meant breaking my momentum, which defeats my biking purpose. So I gave up on the official game and started making up my own. Because the most useful rules are the ones you invent yourself. I daydreamed about what I would like to put on the game’s map—the points of interest that interest me. Evidently you can’t suggest locations for Ingress anymore, and while there was briefly an option to do so in Pokémon Go, it no longer exists. Too bad, but just because a game tries to tell you what to look at doesn’t mean you can’t have your own ideas. In fact, it means you should.

If the Ninth Ward Water Tower is worth highlighting for urban explorers and mobile-game players, might they also be interested in the cell tower right next to it? The old Holy Cross School building is pretty spectacular, even if it’s now basically a ruin serving as a site for graffiti practice. There are probably 10 empty commercial spaces scattered around the neighborhood that are worth a look, some almost as impressive (and neglected) as the school. I know at least one spot in Holy Cross where you can find one of the DIY replacement street signs that people put up after the 2005 flooding. And there’s one house, otherwise refurbished, that still has a plea for help, of the style you will recall from Katrina press coverage, on the roof.

Maybe some of that sounds like a downer. Then again, as I was writing this, I read that an organization called Levee.org is looking to “preserve” a house in the Gentilly neighborhood that was “flooded to the rafters” and ruined after the Katrina levee failures. They don’t want to fix it up, exactly. They want it to serve as a kind of historic monument, an “authentic flooding artifact” and stark reminder of the design and engineering flaws at the root of that disaster.

That’s a fascinating idea, but I was surprised that an article about the plan claimed that it is now “increasingly uncommon to come upon a blighted house in New Orleans that has been virtually untouched since Hurricane Katrina. Most damaged homes have been renovated or were demolished.”

Yeah? Well, if there’s some newfound curiosity about such houses, then Holy Cross could at least triple its PokéStops overnight. Sure, there’s been a lot of rebuilding here, but I’ll be happy to provide my top 10 area residential ruins that still bear the Katrina X. I’m sure extending this landmark-creation program elsewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward would yield many more candidates.

One challenge might be sorting out which houses were actually ruined by the floods, and which ones were abandoned beforehand, or have crumbled in the years since. But maybe we could expand on this and highlight landmark blight in general. I can locate the remnants of two or three abandoned cars that haven’t moved in a year, a couple of defunct pay phones, several tire piles, and at least one trashed couch that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Okay, okay, I’m making Holy Cross sound like a disaster area, which it definitely isn’t. But I prefer the idea of a kind of Bizarro-world version of Pokémon Go, leading players not to their geography’s most laudable features but rather to the ones they’d prefer to ignore or avoid.

Mostly my rides keep me on the river side of St. Claude, which is actually a somewhat busy thoroughfare; I don’t like to pause for stoplights or traffic because, again, momentum is the point. But I’d noticed there was a PokéStop just on the other side of St. Claude, described as “Jourdan Ave Canal Enclosure.” It nagged at me.

Photo via Rob Walker

To be honest, I had continued to poke at Pokémon Go. I belatedly figured out that creatures could be found lurking in seemingly random places away from official sites, so now and then I left the game on in my pocket while riding and stopped to take pictures when it buzzed. Later still, I finally came to understand that what you’re really supposed to do at PokéStops is gather Pokésupplies, and these include something called Incense, which you can use to attract the monsters to wherever you are. Something about seeing these silly characters in unlikely settings brought out my giggly inner 4-year-old. I rarely bothered to try to “catch” anything; I started thinking of the game as basically a photo app.

As for civic engagement, I didn’t experience much of that. Admittedly I ride early in the day, when there aren’t many people around in general, but I never interacted with anybody playing the game. I did see one woman looking searchingly into her phone as she walked, but she seemed so lost in her own world I couldn’t bring myself to ask if she was stalking digital creatures. And I certainly never spotted anything resembling the clutches of earnest youth, working together on their great augmented enterprise, that I’d seen documented in press coverage.

I hope its true that other players are really attending to their environs in some fresh way. But the real action, for earnest gamers, seems to be on and within the phone. (I was amused to read this tip in one primer: “The Augmented Reality (AR) setting might be the coolest part of the game, since it allows you to see Pokémon ‘interacting’ with the real world; but it’s a drain on your battery, and it can wreak havoc with your ability to aim in the game. Turn it off.” Nuff said.)

Jourdan Ave., lakeside of St. Claude. En route to the “enclosure,” by the bridge.

Jourdan Ave., lakeside of St. Claude. En route to the “enclosure,” by the bridge. Photo via Rob Walker

Still, I eventually decided I’d make one last Poképilgramage and see just what this “Jourdan Ave Canal Enclosure” might be. That’s how I ended up loitering at the end of an unmowed neutral ground, eyeballing a suspicious pickup truck.
I am here to tell you that there are no “shitty” PokéStops.

Pokémon Go said I would find a “historical marker,” and I suppose I did. Surrounded by high grass, there was a modest stone block, a stumpy little thing, inlaid with a plaque. “Jourdan Avenue Enclosure” it read, along with the year 1985, and a list of city officials. That was all; no explanation, no other information.

Historical marker?

Historical marker? Photo via Rob Walker

I looked around, trying to deduce what it referred to. Part of the bridge? Something else? The area seemed singularly bereft of interest. As I took in my surroundings, I tried to imagine a gaggle of excitable gamers gathered here, furiously swiping and tapping their phones. And I actually laughed out loud at the perfect foolishness of my mission.

That is not, however, a bad thing. I am here to tell you that there are no “shitty” PokéStops. There are absurd landmarks, yes, and there are ridiculous places to find yourself. These are deceptively elusive, and occasionally sublime. I still didn’t know how to play Pokémon Go, which seems already to be fading away into the hot-fad afterlife. But I had my own rules. And the game that I was playing, I had just won.

I turned off my phone, waited for that truck to crawl out of sight, and rode home, without stopping.

Rob Walker (@notrobwalker) is the author of Letters From New Orleans and Buying In, and the co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of Significant Objects. This post, which first appeared on Medium, is part of the series Letters From Here.   

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