Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Downtown San Mateo artwork, such as the graffiti mural behind the Sandwich Spot on Fourth Avenue, and Central Park are popular Pokemon Go destinations that are attracting hoards of visitors night and day.
Nick Rose/Daily Journal
Part of me wishes I could claim I drew the short straw on this assignment; but the truth is I grasped for it, eagerly. My mission: go hunt for the elusive Pokemon in downtown San Mateo.
Amongst the flashy Twitter headlines warning about inattentive gamers getting injured since being roped into the international phenomenon that’s led to more than 7.5 million downloads of the Pokemon Go app, local artist Lorna Watt’s tweets caught my attention this week.
Watt, who’s immersed in the San Mateo art scene, discovered playing Pokemon Go in downtown is like a walking street art tour — even her well-known yarn-bombed squid tree on B Street is a Poke Stop.
“I was just really impressed that they took the time to single out something worth seeing on the street. They were featuring art instead of just businesses. For example, they could have been totally commercial about it, but not only did they decide to feature art, they took the time to find stuff that is kind of hidden, it’s like a little treasure hunt,” Watt said.
Although her two-year old squid was taken down last year, Watt said she’s been inspired to make a new Pokemon-themed dressing that should be up within a few weeks.
After hearing that hundreds of gamers gathered in Central Park Tuesday night — Watt described it as though a concert had just let out — my curiosity took over.
So I boldly went where no other Daily Journal editorial staff wanted to go; I downloaded the game, took some tips from Watt and ventured downtown.
Having covered art in San Mateo for several years — from efforts the city has undertaken to beautify empty lots slated for redevelopment, to local businesses hiring muralists to create one-of-a-kind works — I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
I was wrong.
The game took me to previously overlooked graffiti art sprucing up concrete barriers along the Caltrain line and intricately painted murals on utility boxes, sites that popped up as a place to catch any number of mythical Pokemon.
Now while I’d argue many of these local works of art should be admired on their own, there was something fascinating about seeking them through Pokemon Go’s augmented reality.
It blended colorful hand-painted murals and notable downtown landmarks with surreal interactive Pokemon characters all viewed through my iPhone camera. And I’ll admit, capturing a Bulbasaur or a Clefairy gave me a slight rush of adrenaline as well a faint feeling of accomplishment, so I can see how people might get addicted.
A novice in the game, I initiated my quest with a dry run outside our office after the temple next door beckoned as a Poke Stop.
Prior to walking out the door, our Editor in Chief Jon Mays shook his head, warned of trespassing, and balked, “the abdication of morality is what is killing our society!”
I said, “don’t you mean the abdication of reality?”
Nope, he meant what he said. As soon as I left and scuttled next door with our brave copy editor at my side, Mays sent me a text: “You are trespassing.”
But while we joked about Pokemon Go, doubting some players’ claims they are “enjoying time outdoors” yet at the same time walking around with their faces buried in their phones, gamers were clearly being drawn to San Mateo’s Central Park. Apparently, Pokemon “lures” were attracting more than just catchable cartoon creatures.
High school and college students on summer vacation, parents with their kids, construction workers on lunch break and hoards of players roamed the historic 16-acre park on the edge of downtown.
Jackson Gilmour returned to the park just hours after leaving the night before.
“We’ve been coming back almost daily,” Gilmour said, while congregating with his friends Eoin O’Driscoll and Connor Friedman.
The 16-year-old Burlingame High School students have traded digits with other players with whom they planned to meet up and admitted the game is what brought them outdoors on a sunny summer afternoon.
“It’s getting people out,” Gilmour said. “And they’re usually not the type of people you would see in the park.”
Luckily for me, I too wasn’t alone during my initial venture into the popular park turned Pokemon hunting ground. I teamed up with a Daily Journal photographer who gave me a rundown of how to play and his presence assuaged my initial embarrassment.
Eventually, we parted ways and my inquisitive eyes couldn’t help but glance at passing strangers’ cellphone screens — the vast majority were clearly indulging as well.
I strolled over to the Japanese Tea Garden, my favorite spot in the park. Another “unlikely” player was leaving and I noticed he too seemed to be trying to stay off the radar.
Tyler Hachmann was on his lunch break from working at a neighboring construction site and said Pokemon drew him to the park.
“Yesterday was the first time I got up from the [lunch] table and walked around. I see everyone on their phones, you look at each other and it’s like, ‘I know what you’re doing.’ You give a little smile. It’s a great thing, I’m moving around a little bit more. But yeah, people are kind of paying a little too much attention to their phone,” Hachmann said.
College sophomores Sam O’Neill and Josey Byrnes left their Redwood City homes and posted up in San Mateo after hearing the park was a happening Pokemon playground.
“I feel like it brings communities together,” O’Neill said. “If you saw us walking down the street, you wouldn’t think we’d like Pokemon and you wouldn’t talk to us about it. But since everybody’s playing it, people have something to talk about when you’re walking around with strangers.”
I myself was not well-versed in the original Pokemon fad that hooked my youngest sibling to the television before school and had him pleading with my parents to buy trading cards in the early 2000s. But the revival of the Japanese storyline and Nintendo media franchise is now clearly leaving a mark on players of all ages.
Although my delve into this captivating game may be fleeting — my smartphone vices are more in line with word games or escape the room puzzles — I must admit Pokemon Go showed this local reporter more of what downtown San Mateo has to offer.
And for Watt, a downtown resident who also rents studio space off Claremont Street, showing off local art and the community in any form is a good thing.
“People come downtown for movies and dinner and I don’t think they notice or take the time to see what else is happening. And now, they’re coming to play Pokemon,” Watt said. “It gets people downtown for another reason and then when they’re there, they discover there’s yet another reason to come. Exploring downtown really pays off.”
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