Against Pokétourism.

I really love multi-use public space. Like, a lot. I am happy to tolerate and even celebrate a lot of the costs of sharing space with other people who are very different than me. Example: I once cheerfully reframed a semi-traumatic experience of having a man unzip his pants next to me at a local library, because PUBLIC SPACE! EVERYONE IS WELCOME! (clarification: not everyone is welcome to un-consentually realize their sexual desires in my company, but exhibitionists are people too, and LIBRARIES ARE PUBLICALLY FUNDED SANCTUARIES FOR EVERYONE AND I LOVE THEM).

My favorite public space for the last four years has been what I affectionally call “my beach” — the shore of Lake Michigan that stretches roughly the length of 6 blocks on the east side of Rogers Park from Pratt Boulevard to Touhy Ave. Of course, “my” here isn’t a possessive, but a deictic — the beach is mine because it’s close and the one I go to most often; after “my” grocery store, it’s probably the only other place in my community where I’m a “regular.” The physical beach, of course, belongs to the city, and is available to any member of the public.

But unlike some more downtown waterfronts, this stretch of the lake is mostly used by the neighborhood. And Rogers Park just happens to be one of the most diverse urban neighborhoods in the city, both culturally AND economically. The beach is a perfect illustration of this glorious heterogeneity. It’s regularly enjoyed by old Eastern European couples on afternoon strolls, African men fishing, Muslim families picnicking and swimming in Birquinis, Mexican paleta sellers, international soccer tournaments, dogs and their humans, yogis, swimmers, young people of various cultural affiliations drinking or flirting or playing volleyball, hula hoopers and kite fliers, children burying themselves in the sand, hare Krishna monks, nerdy LARPers, and the list goes on. At the same time, the beach is miraculously never too busy, even on the most beachy summer days. Only on 4th of July does it get super packed, when all the neighbors come out to grill and set off DIY fireworks. It actually makes me feel a real fondness for America, despite all of the complicated feelings I typically have about my adopted/adoptive country.

In the past 4 years since I moved to Chicago, this beach has been my sanctuary. I’ve come here to write and nap and meditate and make out and drink with friends and write in my journal. I spent several birthdays here, both mine and others’. I have a special tree by which I like to sit, a running loop I always follow, a favorite playground swing, a secret spot where I go swimming that’s deeper than the rest, and a patch of grass where we usually set up the grill. This beach and I, we’ve got a history.

So I’ve been having kind of a hard time dealing with an unwelcome invasion and occupation of MY beach by Pokémon Go players.

Hoards of them.

Every day, and every night.

This is what they look like. Sitting at my beach, staring at their phones. Catching the Pokémons. Not really talking to each other, or even looking out at a beautiful lake, but burning through their phone batteries in search of another augmented reality induced dopamine release. They don’t look that dissimilar to drug addicts swarming around a methodone clinic. Although drug addicts are people too, and definitely have a claim to public space. I’m not saying I wish drug addicts were less visible. But I AM wishing these Pokémon Go players would go away. Why do I feel this?

It’s not because I am some sort of luddite. I study technological literacy, and am endlessly fascinated by the way digital interaction mediates intimate encounters and relations. I have like 5 million apps installed on my phone. So I’m not just annoyed because these kids these days are staring at their damn devices. I’m glad the kids are leaving their houses to play a game, and I understand why it’s fun. I even downloaded it the first week it was in all the news, and talked to a bunch of random strangers about it on the CTA, and thought — oh how cool, shared culture, civic camaraderie! But it was before I saw what they were doing to my beach. Which was being on it, every day. But like, not really being on it.

But Natalia, Pokémon Go players are people too. What’s the big deal? Why are you so mad?

I couldn’t figure out, given my deep love for mixed-use public space and interactive technology, why the PokeZombies (an affectionate nickname that my allies and I gave to the invaders) were bothering me so much.

And then in dawned on me. These people are TOURISTS.


I’m not the only person who thinks this, right? When I was a Jersey teen and hung out in New York City, I remember trying to actively not look up at the buildings, “so I don’t look like a tourist.” Maybe you assume I was worried about getting mugged, which would be sensible. But that wasn’t it. I knew, for example, that I should never go to that wax people museum (I’ve still never been), because that would be a total tourist thing to do, and that would be totally lame. Then I lived in Philadelphia for 8 years and never went to the liberty bell. Because what’s the big deal about a not very big broken bell anyway?

Early on in life, maybe because of having to adapt in the world as a middle-school immigrant, I developed this principle: I should always, as much as I can, try to seem like I’m a local.

The definition of a tourist, it turns out, is rather innocuous: someone who travels for pleasure. But to me, a tourist equals someone who is: unfashionable, disrespectful, only interested in the obvious, in pursuit of the most shallow, temporary engagement with a place, and therefore not worth the investment of being treated like a real member of the public. Tourists get taken advantage of: charged more by street sellers and cab drivers, made fun of by the locals. A tourist is just someone who inevitably, tragically doesn’t fit in. Because a tourist doesn’t know the rules.

At the same time, tourists are obnoxious. They expect to be accommodated, welcomed into a tourist infrastructure that makes it easy and comfortable to enjoy their pleasure tour. Tourists don’t know the rules, so they don’t have to obey them. Tourists also don’t have to deal with the local shit. They can just consume and leave. They get to travel for THEIR pleasure.

The Pokémon Go tourists for example, kept rudely walking through a fenced off sections of the beach which was clearly marked off as off limits for pedestrians, to protect local endangered dune grasses. They claimed that they didn’t see the sign. Right, because they were staring at their phones and following their tourist herd.

Another reason my beach becoming a Pokestop made me angry, was that these occupiers weren’t appreciating my beach for the things I LOVED about it. They were there to consume a now arbitrarily famous part of it that wasn’t even PHYSICALLY there.

This beach has so much to love about it. Do you know you can see both the skylines of Evanston and Chicago from the pier? Do you know the mural wall gets repainted every year in June, by families and artists and local activist groups? Do you know on my 30th birthday there was a man with a braided beard flying a giant kite shaped like a dragon for hours? (Later he was buying groceries at Devon Market, so not only did I not make him up, but he’s a neighbor!).

This is the beach that baptized me into the Midwest.

Tourists, however, don’t actually consume a real place, but the idea of it. They’re here for the packaged experience, the photo opportunity. And the Pokémon players are more like Selfie-Stick Tourists than exhibitionists or drug addicts, categories that I’m clearly giving a preferential treatment in this case.

OF COURSE I’M A HYPOCRITE. This year, I was a tourist at least 4 times, in France, Spain, Singapore and Japan (mostly thanks to friends who are cooler than me and live in interesting places that make it way cheaper to visit). I definitely did a lot of tourist activities in all those locations. I ate baguettes in Paris and photographed kawaii things in Tokyo and made peace signs in front of Gaudi sculptures and Shinto shrines. And I wasn’t ashamed, because I was traveling for pleasure.

Totally Touristing in Tokyo

But sometimes, when I’d get to some destination that had too many OTHER tourists, more tourists than locals that is, I’d get super allergic and disturbed. Like at the Louvre or Château de Versailles, where tourists were aggressively photographing themselves in front of every famous item.

Tourist herds in front of Venus de Milo at the Louvre

The tourists in these places, it felt like they weren’t even stopping to LOOK at the actual artworks. They’re just there to catch all the clichés. (And I was there to catch all the tourists).

Tourists at Château de Versailles (I just hope in the future this giant archive of badly composed digital snapshots can serve to re-construct some of the current society in virtual 3D, after it all gets destroyed in the Trump-induced nuclear apocalypse. Then we can visit the art in second life, where it would natively co-exist with pokémonsters)

Because tourists are collectors of the obvious.

And the obvious is probably the least interesting thing about a place!

See, when I travel, I want to find the SECRET AUTHENTIC things. The stuff other people haven’t realized is cool yet. The interstitial neighborhood that has the best local cheap food and terrible service. The uncomfortably well-lit, super smoky pulque bar. The residential neighborhood ramen shop and the divey izakaya. The place where I’m not expected. I want to go to the party I would go to if I lived there and talk to the friends I would totally have if I was a local.

That’s right, because I don’t want to be just a tourist, I want to be a colonizer. I want to temporarily settle a place and extract its yet un-mined cultural resources. I want to come back with treasures you can’t buy at the airport. I totally expect to have this experience, and feel that I completely deserve it. Is it because as a Westernized White Person, I feel entitled to be welcomed into the secrets of every indigenous culture? Or because I was a teenage immigrant and continue to be a frequent re-settler, so quickly figuring out the rules of a new place is a necessary means of survival? I’d like to claim the latter, but maybe I’d be under-telling-the-truth a little.

Maybe I want the Pokémon tourists to go away because they remind me of tourism itself. It’s something I’m not so comfortable with, in others and in myself. Tourism feels pleasurable in the way the bad things feel good, like junk food and gossip. Which is why I propose that someone should at least set up a booth selling Pokémon keychains on the beach, to just acknowledge and quarantine this activity to a manageable area, before it gets worse. Before MORE Pokemon virtually migrate out here, and their hunters follow. To reflect the PokéToursists their tourist selves.

Signs directed at Pokemon Go players that have been installed on the beach in 2016

AN UPDATE: Since writing my rant this summer, the weather got colder and the Pokémon Go craze has subsided. There are still a few players regularly patrolling the beach for new/rare creatures, but my anger towards them has calmed. In fact, I now imagine missing the players if they completely disappeared, or telling new visitors to my beach: “FUN FACT, in 2016 this beach was one of the best pokéstops in the city!”

Maybe over time the tourist infrastructure becomes incorporated, and we can all co-exist with our multiple dimensions overlapping in the the same space; my memories and your monsters…

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