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'Pokemon Go' adds new life to some L.A. neighborhoods by forcing players outside

'Pokemon Go' adds new life to some L.A. neighborhoods by forcing players outside
Friends Franco, left, and Kyle play "Pokemon Go" at the Watts Towers. (Harrison Hill / Los Angeles Times)

The little girl with chipped pink polish nails stopped short of a picnic table outside of the Jordan Downs Recreational Center in Watts, scaring a cat as she approached — hands glued to a phone — in search of a magical creature.

Visiting from South Gate, her babysitter, Julian Campos, 20, watched from a distance, reflecting on a neighborhood that he left two years before a game called "Pokemon Go" sent the young and not so young questing for digital beings.

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"Back in my day," Campos began, sounding much older than his years, "I would've had to be right behind her."

A mile away, Kofi Washington, 23, of Inglewood and Jose Zapata, 16, a resident of the Jordan Downs public housing project, held tight to their phones beneath the iconic Watts Towers. In their hunt for Pokemon, they humorously wondered whether the game was delivering a cryptic message about the neighborhood.

"Why do I only keep seeing snakes in the hood?" Washington said. "What are they trying to say?"

"It's rats, bats or snakes," Zapata chimed in, who said he recently, without enough context, told his grandmother that he caught a snake.

"Ay sacalo!' she screamed in Spanish, he said. "Get it out!"

  • Op-Ed

In the less than two weeks that the viral game "Pokemon Go" has been out, it has already produced a litany of odd doings and mishaps — including former Marines helping to capture an attempted murder suspect while playing the game in Fullerton and two men falling off a cliff in north San Diego County.

But it is also provoking some people to get acquainted with their neighborhood by forcing them to get out into the streets if they want to play. In some of the neighborhoods of L.A. with tougher reputations, it's also bringing a bit of extra life to places that oddly had more vibrant street scenes during the city's more violent 1980s and early '90s.

Gustavo Garcia, 44, a longtime Boyle Heights resident, said there was a time in the years that followed when only a few people dared to stay out past sundown in his neighborhood.

"You couldn't even walk to the store," he said.

A few years ago, the neighborhood started to feel much safer. He saw more people jogging and walking around the 19th-century Evergreen Cemetery across the street from his home. Now, even more are showing up, he said, staring at smartphones as they scour for "that Pokemon Pikachu or whatever."

For Washington and Zapata, the game has made them reflect on where they're willing to go — and at what time — to catch Pokemon.

"I usually go out in the morning," Zapata said. "It's at night that I don't go out at all."

"That's why it's good to be around a group of people," Washington said.

Ivan Gonzalez, 22, a security guard at a park that is part of the Watts Tower monument, said that since "Pokemon Go" launched, the park has seen more visitors — even on a recent Tuesday night.

"The park was pretty packed," he said. "It's unique, because a lot of people normally don't show up. It's the area. It's Watts."

Sitting on a brown bench, Arthur Jenkins, 54, can remember the dark days. He said there were shootings, stabbings, robberies and rapes at the park at night.

"Things have turned around," Jenkins said. "You have people who can walk around here without worrying about getting robbed or crazy things like that."

"It gives me a good feeling," he added. "The kids are bringing life to this park."

At Evergreen Park in Boyle Heights, Alma Miranda, 70, said she suddenly began noticing more children walking around with their phones, playing the game.

"I thinks it's great," she said. "It's funny to watch them. They're willing to walk for miles for a little thing."

Kofi Washington, 23, of Inglewood shows off his tattoo of a Pokemon at the Watts Towers.
Kofi Washington, 23, of Inglewood shows off his tattoo of a Pokemon at the Watts Towers. (Harrison Hill)

For more Southern California news, follow @latvives on Twitter.

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