J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Catching All the Crowds at Fort Phoenix

Another news story with historic roots that’s been bouncing around the web this week has been the reported vandalism at Fort Phoenix, site of a Revolutionary War battery in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

On 13 July, the Fairhaven Historical Commission met to discuss an unexpected strain on the site: Pokémon Go players. Fort Phoenix has been designated a Pokémon Gym, one of many sites around the world where teams of players can meet to compete.

As public history professor David Hunter explained at Process, Pokémon Go “relies upon discrete public and semi-public landmarks. Sites that host gyms or stops seem to have migrated from Ingress, a place-based game that served as a Pokémon Go precursor, or are drawn from the Historical Marker Database.”

On 14 July, The New Bedford Guide’s Facebook page featured “a look at Fort Phoenix last night” with a message from a player saying, “Fort Phoenix is the best place for Pokemon Go, nice people and everyone’s friendly. Yesterday there was easily over 150 people.” However, the Historical Commission had asked the police to step up patrols of the area. Commenters on that post soon complained about officers telling people to leave and ticketing cars.

A week later, the website South Coast Today reported on the story:
The popular game Pokeman [sic] is having the side effect of drawing crowds and causing vandalism at Fort Phoenix. Wayne Oliveira of the Historical Commission said the game is drawing people often at night, where they are throwing trash and even jumping on cannons. He said they have photos of people doing back flips on the historic cannons.

Oliveira said the damage is mostly occurring “when it’s dark. That’s what we’re running into. We’re worried about all the plaques and the wood.” . . .

Historical Commission member Gary Lavalette said 400 to 600 people typically come every night and that 75-200 people “stay right through the night.” He said someone took a crowbar and chipped away at about 30-40 feet of a cement wall. “Pokeman lists it as one of the hot spots,” Lavalette said. “It’s overwhelming. A wheel to a 260-year-old cannon was destroyed and those are about $3,000 apiece.” Lavalette said someone, probably a child, drew figures in chalk on all over the wall and cannons.
The wall and the wheel are big costs, but I’m pretty sure that chalk will wash off. As for that “260-year-old cannon,” that might refer to the fort’s “John Paul Jones Cannon,” said (on what authority isn’t clear) to be over three centuries old, having spent the years 1882 to 1950 embedded mouth down in a town sidewalk. Or it might be one of the cannon considerably younger than 260 years.

On 5 August, a local television station covered the controversy, interviewing Lavalette and some Pokémon players. The next day, a report went out over the Associated Press wire. As a result, there’s been national attention to the story of “Pokémon Go players harming Revolutionary site.” That framing set up the situation as the suspiciously modern versus the venerated historic, self-absorbed gaming versus appreciation of the past.

But here’s the thing. Fort Phoenix isn’t just a historic site—it’s a public beach co-managed with the state. There are historic plaques and cannon mounted on a hilltop, but most of the area is a beach. It’s been a local recreation site for well over a century. In his 1892 history of the New Bedford area Leonard Bolles Ellis wrote of “The throngs of people who yearly picnic at the fort in the lovely summer days.”

Fairhaven promotes visits to Fort Phoenix, trying to bring in more people during the summer with public programs, including a Revolutionary War reenactment in May and pirate games for kids. The new challenge is that the site is attracting far more people than its budget was designed for.

There’s no direct link between Pokémon Go and the damage that caretakers have complained about. The competition between Pokémon teams takes place in the digital realm—people flicking at their smart phones. Nothing in the game encourages players to dig holes, pry at walls, draw with chalk, or drop cigarette butts, as the park’s caretakers have complained about. Those are just things some people do at public beaches, perhaps especially at night.

It’s telling that one form of reported harm is trashcans filling up more quickly than expected. Which means most of this summer’s visitors are using the trashcans. But there are more of those visitors than expected, thus more trash, and thus a need for more staff to empty the trash cans. Likewise, the problem of public urination at night is based less on the rules for Pokémon Go than on the fact that the beach’s restrooms close at 5:00 P.M.

Of course, ramping up services for this summer’s larger, later crowds will be an unexpected hit on the budgets of Fairhaven and Massachusetts. No one, including the makers of Pokémon Go, expected that game to become so popular and bring so many people to the public sites in its database. But for historic Fort Phoenix and the neighboring beach, this problem is too much of a good thing.

(Photo at top by A Midnight Rider via Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children.)


Judy said...

Pokemon Go could be the best thing to happen for historic sites if they are just willing to think outside the box. I have met several players who have found historic sites in their town that they never knew were there. Some historical organizations have embraced this and offered tours blending history and Pokestops. This is such a great opportunity to get people interested and invested in local history but alas most towns are missing it.

D.M. Dunlap said...

I agree thoroughly with Judy. There's definitely an irrational prejudice against the game, whether because of its popularity or generational gaps I don't know. I feel for the staff due to the logistical problems this creates for them, but it's always a frustration to me that historic sites (including many I've worked at) veer between the rigidly protectionist and a painful desire to be hip and edgy.