New Yorkers take to the streets for childhood games

November 24, 2005|By MAGGIE FARLEY | MAGGIE FARLEY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- A man loping down Fifth Avenue in a furry jackalope costume the weekend after Halloween usually wouldn't turn a head in New York. But curious police stopped the hybrid mascot that Saturday night, and underneath the antlers found A.J. Ortiz Jr., 16, who was late for a scavenger hunt.

"They let me go after a while," he said. "But you know what's worse? I had to sign up to be the school mascot to get the costume. I have to wear it for the rest of the year."

Ortiz is part of a loose network of hundreds of New Yorkers who meet through the Internet to play games every week in the city's streets: capture the flag, manhunt - a glorified version of tag - and, most recently, the scavenger hunt.

Most have never met before they encounter each other at the game sites that organizers post online, but many become friends - an unexpected connection in a disjointed city.

This is the game version of a "flash mob" - strangers meeting up for political action, or instant crowds gathering to do something random. But mostly, it's about reclaiming New York's streets, and a bit of childhood.

"We wanted to take back New York," said Michael Diroma, 21, a software engineer who is one of the organizers of NYGames.net, which set up the scavenger hunt.

For city dwellers who grew up halting stickball games for passing cars, playing in the street provides a flashback to youth.

Kevin Bracken, original organizer of the New York games, brought the idea back after playing a game of manhunt in Toronto, where he attends college. To help spread the concept of transforming cities into playgrounds - metromorphosis, he calls it - he offers manuals and game rule books on the Web site newmindspace.com.

"We are creating a culture of people who are willing to assemble and do silly things. It's kind of a social phenomenon," Bracken said by phone from Toronto.

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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