Repurposed Urbanism: New Uses for Old Technology in New York, DC

In a few weeks, I’m looking forward to finally seeing American artist Richard Estes’ masterpiece, “Telephone Booths”, which is in the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. This is one of the greatest examples of Photorealism, a genre developed back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s by American artists like Estes and Chuck Close, and one of the few movements in Modern Art where one can be genuinely dazzled by the technical skill of the artist. Sadly, scenes such as that painted by Estes in this work are no longer as common as they once were, because the phone booth has become obsolete. (If you’ve ever tried to find one so that you can change and spring into action, you know what I’m talking about.)

Interestingly though, phone booths are making something of a comeback in New York City of late. Long abandoned to the whims of vandals and street artists – though I repeat myself – these formerly ubiquitous sentinels of urbanism are finding new life as WiFi kiosks. When I was in New York two weeks ago, I noticed one directly outside my favorite pizza place in Murray Hill.

Yet even as they are repurposed, it is nevertheless stunning to learn that there are only four proper, glass phone booths left on the streets of Manhattan. It is impossible to imagine movies like “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” without these objects, yet now they have become as elusive as Fabergé eggs. Telephone booths, be they open or glass-enclosed, are what we might call “urban furniture”, which always changes when technology changes.

For example, there are no lamplighters patrolling America’s streets anymore, lighting gas street lamps at twilight and putting them out at dawn. Coming across a working gas streetlamp in most major cities today would be something exceedingly rare. An unusual variant of the gas lamp persisted for quite awhile in the Nation’s capital, however.

Here in DC, many of the thousands of former police and fire call boxes, which were first installed in the city around the time of the Civil War, did not require the assistance of lamplighters. They were permanently lit by gas lamps from within, so that the public could see to contact authorities in any weather, any time of day or night. Thus, even in the thick fog that sometimes rolls in off the Potomac in Winter, or the torrential downpours of our standard Summer, the lamps of these boxes would still be visible.

By the 1920’s, all of the call boxes had been converted to electric; by the 1960’s, thanks to acts of vandalism and the generally poor behavior and bad taste of the Baby Boomers, they began to be taken out of service. Today, many are being converted for use as historic district markers, or as permanent display stands for commissioned art. Here is a terrific history of both the boxes and the efforts to repurpose them for the benefit of the communities and visitors who come across them.

Like the phone booth, albeit in a more limited fashion, the call box served the purpose of communicating the need for aid. Today, the overwhelming majority of members of the public carry around individual devices which serve this purpose, and more. Yet while phone booths and call boxes allowed a certain degree of safety and communication to be shared among residents and visitors to particular neighborhoods, even with the degree of individual privacy afforded by the glass telephone booth, now these common spaces have been eliminated in favor of a kind of individual responsibility. I don’t have to share space or technology, let alone seek safety merely by being in proximity to anyone else, because I’m expected to carry my own device for that purpose.

What will be interesting to see in the future, after WiFi is replaced with the next big development in technology – Skynet, anyone? – is what will become of the repurposed phone booths, once they are no longer needed for this new purpose. Will they become community plant stands? Rentable spaces in which to conduct (legal) business transactions?

My guess is that, more likely than not, they will they finally be removed for scrap, the detritus of an earlier, seemingly more primitive, but in some ways infinitely better-connected society.

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Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1968)

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