From Pall Mall to the Treasure Hunt Riots: how games have shaped our cities

Boys play football in the streets of the Garden Gloria neighborhood of Praia Grande, Brazil, in 2014. Image: Getty.

The games people play in a city are shaped by that city – and they shape the city in turn.

Most people, if you ask them, can remember a game they played as a kid that depended on the very precise shape of a very particular part of their home town – steps that were the perfect height for jumping into a flowerbed, or a basketball hoop you could just about chuck something through from the library window.

Play isn't just fun, or important for its own sake: it's also one of the key ways that we understand and interact with the world around us, and the games we invent depend on tiny precise details of what that world is like.

So, naturally enough, a hundred or more years ago, the games you could play in London were different to the games you can play there today. Streets were lit by gas, and lamp-posts had crossbars, so that the people who lit them had somewhere to rest their ladder.

That meant that children could throw ropes over the crossbars and use the lamps as makeshift swings. Look back a hundred years before that – or a hundred years before that – and everything was different again.

But the traces of these past games don't just vanish. Take Pell-Mell, a game played in the 1500s and 1600s. Pell-Mell is a bit like croquet, but a lot simpler – there's just one big hoop on a stick at the end of a long alley, and your aim is to get a ball through this hoop in as few hits as possible.

The name comes from the Italian word “pallamaglio”, which means “mallet ball”, and that's pretty much all the game is: you take a mallet and use it to hit a ball. In some versions, when you near the end of the course you're allowed to swap the mallet for a giant spoon so that you can flick the ball into the air.

Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes & Customs, published 1891. Image: Project Guttenberg.

It was never that all popular as a game, at least in England. But it was still popular enough that there were a few purpose-built courts, and in London, the fancy place to play was a specific alley near St James's Park – just about where Pall Mall is now. Yep, Pall Mall is named after this mallet-ball game; in the 1660s, the road was built on the site of what had previously been a Pell-Mell court.

Sometimes games have a more fleeting effect on their landscape. For example, there's the 1904 Treasure Hunt Riots, which cause a good few ruined gardens but no ongoing changes to city infrastructure.

The Riots – written about at length by Paul Slade here – came about as a result of a promotion by a newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch. The Dispatch decided it would be a good idea to hide medallions all around the country (but particularly in London), and award cash prizes to the people who found them. They printed clues to medallion locations in the paper – keeping it all quite vague, of course; it'd be no fun if people solved the puzzles too quickly. 


The obvious-in-retrospect downside to this was that the huge array of really vague clues turned every paving stone, garden or pathway into a potential treasure trove. Hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic puzzle-solvers dug up front gardens, parks, museum grounds, and pavements all across the city.

Rival solvers got into fights, sometimes – with each other, or with the owners of the land they were digging up. There were arrests. There were grave warnings to the paper from the Department of Public Prosecutions. (Nowadays the hundred-year-old damage is, of course, all gone, though we might be down a couple of delicate trees.)

In 18th century Wandsworth, a tiny public common gave rise to enormous fake elections in which – on the day of the general election – 80,000 participants would vote for candidates running, under made-up names like Squire Blowmedown and Lady Twankum, for the almost entirely imaginary role of mayor of Garratt. We make up games to play in the places that we live.

But the places that we live change in response to the games that we invent, too. Sometimes the changes help us to play. Sometimes they hinder us – “NO BALL GAMES” signs, say, or tiny obstructions bolted to street furniture to deter skateboarders (in the nineteenth century, the equivalent was the “hoop nuisance” – angry pedestrians across London complained about children rolling hoops along the pavement).

But either way, the changes happen; and our games, shaped by the city, shape it in turn.

Holly Gramazio is a game designer and half of Matheson Marcault.

The Now Play This festival, a part of the London GamesFestival, takes place at Somerset House from 1-3 April.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.