'Spree' event aims to break down barriers to city's neighborhoods

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Forget everything you thought you knew about a 5K race if you're planning to run in the one Adam Nelson devised. Called City Spree, the event is to be held Sunday in the East End.

You don't win by finishing first. Everyone starts at Bakery Square with maps of checkpoints in surrounding neighborhoods. Participants can choose which checkpoints to hit in whatever order they choose. Each stop adds to their score, but there's a catch: A checkpoint loses point value if it has a lot of hits.

Registration is open through this Friday at www.cityofplay.org. Click City Spree for the form.

The race -- which will not force closure of any streets -- is presented as a fun way to spend a morning, but there's a more purposeful undercurrent.

"We want to see where people are and aren't willing to run," said Mr. Nelson, the 26-year-old founder of City of Play. "We also want to know whether a game encourages them to go to places they wouldn't go normally."

A volunteer at each checkpoint will put a sticker on the runners' maps, which will later be analyzed.

The checkpoints are secret until race day, but he revealed one -- Octopus Garden in Friendship. He described it as a cool place. And Friendship is considered a desirable place to visit. There will be checkpoints in neighborhoods that many runners may not think are desirable.

City of Play is a loose organization of people who literally go outside to play with each other the way children do. Mr. Nelson invents a lot of games and recruits people to help him test the rules by playing them together. His motivation in 2009 for establishing what he then called Obscure Games was to reconnect adults to the concept of play as a social lubricant and a door to enchantment.

But the thing got legs and has become a whimsical form of community development.

In 2010, Mr. Nelson and other game enthusiasts played a game at the Geek Art/Green Innovator's Festival on Penn Avenue in Garfield in which they placed new identities on vacant storefronts. The point was to deliver packages from the Penn Avenue of real life to the one that could be. Each participant won if he completed his assigned tasks.

"That was a really great game," Mr. Nelson said. "People said, 'Yeah, that could be an ice cream shop,' and 'That'd be an awesome bike repair shop.' After that game, there were a bunch of new places that opened along Penn Avenue in Garfield. I don't know if the game had anything to do with it, but that's what pushed the change" to broaden the scope of City of Play and analyze the impact of games on neighborhoods.

Obscure Games remains a weekly event of City Of Play. Each is open to any adult who shows up, and most are free. People are encouraged to invent their own games and teach the rules to others at these events, too.

"I think people are figuring out ways to participate in community development without the house of a [community development corporation]," said Jeffrey Dorsey, executive director of the Union Project in Highland Park. "The city is primed for that."

In his previous job with the Friendship Development Association, he worked on the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative to make the abutting neighborhoods of Bloomfield, Friendship and Garfield more seamless. "I hope people can keep finding ways to reach across the street instead of seeing boundaries."

Mr. Nelson's day job is as an economic analyst. He is also the proprietor of Drop Kicker, a play-based mobile platform designed to help patients with physical therapy and nutrition.

A resident of East Liberty, he worked during college at a summer camp directing games for children.

"I realized then how long it had been since I had just gone out to play," he said. "The only opportunity was to join a league that costs a bunch of money and is somewhat serious." Trying to win wasn't what interested him, he said. "I was more interested in just getting out and playing."

While studying economics at the University of Pittsburgh, he established Obscure Games and recruited people to join him in game invention and testing. He submitted his own games to the Come Out and Play Festival in New York and has won several awards there.

"We are working hard to make Pittsburgh a place where people can make games," he said. "Games help people form relationships by breaking down barriers to interaction. Games help you see a place as slightly different, and that's a creative act and an act of power. The more we give people that feeling, the more encouraged they will be to feel connected to their neighborhood and the city."

Mr. Nelson said he expects 100 runners and scores of volunteers for City Spree.

Will any runners be new visitors to Larimer or choose a checkpoint in Homewood to score bigger points? After the race and the after-party, the map data will tell.

"As long as runners run to at least six checkpoints they will have run a 5K," Mr. Nelson said, adding that he hopes people will be intrigued enough to do better. "We hope to do this in different neighborhoods every year."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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