Pokémon GO? More like Pokémon STOP. Philly Free Streets 2017

(Oh, hey there. You might be wondering “Why hasn’t Jordan written anything since August?” Feel free to scroll down to the end of this post for the answer to that.)

But maybe you’re just here because you wanna know about Philly Free Streets this year. In that case, read on.

I was pumped for this year’s event. I even wrote a feature about this year’s Philly Free Streets over on Fitt Philly. I’d checked my bike tires, woke up early (well, for a Saturday), suited up, and rode over with my pal Sammy. We were hype to take a power walk with Mayor Jim Kenney before riding our bikes along the 3.5 mile route.

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The kickoff schedule

Best laid plans, amirite?

The hour of 9 came and went, and then so did 9:30. We actually stuck it out until 9:40 before deciding it was time to get busy living, but this was an inauspicious start…

Let’s break it down a little bit:

THE GOOD

Free Streets – not much can be bad about that, right? The weather was crisp and wonderful, there were different city groups and services out doing demos, offering goodies, and beautifying spaces.

I really loved the Pedestrian Plaza by the Al Aqsa Islamic Society, Parks & Rec, and Mural Arts Philadelphia – adirondack chairs, chalk, lots of conversations and connections.

People brought their A-game for riding (loved this skeleton from the Kidical Mass ride, and penny-farthing in blue – snaps to this guy for balance!)

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There was an area at the end of the route, El Centro de Oro in the Fairhill neighborhood that I can almost guarantee I never would’ve explored otherwise. I jumped into a Zumba dance class with strangers. I helped paint a mural. It was wonderful.

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Shoutout to Mural Arts!

 

THE BAD

Two words:

Pokémon

GO.

This app was released in summer 2016. I vaguely remember some friends and peers getting obsessed, and then losing steam & interest, and then never discussing it again. Flash in the pan, right?

Wrong.

Pokémon GO’s creators, Niantic, Inc., partnered with Philly Free Streets for an epic Pokémon GO integration along the route. And, up until about two weeks before the event, this was the ONLY information available on the PFS “Program Details” Page. Neverthless, I was shocked at the sheer volume of Pokémon GO players, teams, swag, etc that clogged the event. People were walking around armed with maps, portable chargers, wearing Pokémon swag, and meeting up with their “teammates” from around the country. The event was listed on the Niantic, Inc. website, and considering the game still has about 65 million active monthly users, that brought folks from far and wide.

Being on a bike during the 3 hours that I was out at the event was incredibly challenging, as clusters of players would stop in the middle of the streets, intently staring at their phones, enjoying this augmented reality. They wouldn’t look up, they rarely reacted to calls of “on your left” and it felt dangerous.

 

 

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Thanks to @joey4017 for this shot of folks glued to their phones, catching them all.

I don’t know if there was some sort of benefit the city got from this Pokémon partnership, but as someone trying to enjoy the event without the app, it was painful. I almost think I would’ve been supportive of cutting my “free streets” time down by an hour and giving these Poké-people an hour all to themselves, if it meant they weren’t clustering in the streets for the other 4 hours.

THE UGLY

Trash trucks – not vehicles that I spend much time around on a regular basis, but I respect the hell out of them. They keep our streets cleaner than several other cities I have visited.

Unfortunately, they served as the barrier between the (mostly) free streets. The new route was not TRULY a car-free 3.5 miles, as the north-south path crossed several major intersections that were not shut down. Good for traffic, but also challenging as a rider, a walker, and for anyone with strollers. The space they left on the road was about 2 people wide on either side, so there was a lot of stop and go along the way.

They were smelly, which I guess is the nature of trash cans, but it’s worth noting the aroma of garbage is what my mind recalls when thinking of sensory experiences at Free Streets.

Final thoughts

Did I have fun? Sure.

Could it be improved? Well, what event couldn’t.

Full disclosure: I am on the planning team for Dîner en Blanc Philadelphia and we spend at least a month following each event reviewing what went wrong, right, and what we could do better, and several months leading up to the next one reviewing those same issues.

But this Pokémon thing REALLY tainted the vibe of Philly Free Streets to me. I thought this year was supposed to be all about connecting neighborhoods (last year’s was mostly along South Street, connecting pretty much the same folks that go to all the summer festivals already). And, to an extent, I felt some of that. But mostly I felt like I was imposing on a Pokémon GO convention with the occasional table for IndeGo or the Philly Water Department.

Here’s hoping that some good times this year turn into better ones next year.

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****UPDATE: I have actually been writing more than ever. Someone just decided that I could make a part-time gig out of it…. I’ve been channeling many of my words and social time to Fitt Philadelphia, so if you’re ever wondering what fitness events you should do each month, or when the new megaformer studio is opening, or where to find the most innovative workout spots in the city, I’d recommend hopping over there. ****

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