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)

Show Me Who You Are

Today the Spanish press is reporting on a new exhibition that has opened at the Fine Arts Museum in the Basque city of Vitoria, showcasing 100 years of photography from Vanity Fair magazine on the occasion of that publication’s centenary. Examining the work of seminal photographers like Edward Steichen and Man Ray, as well as contemporary fashion and portrait photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber, the show displays images of some of the most famous people in the world, including one of my favorite pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan, dancing, taken by Scottish photographer Harry Benson at The White House in 1985. While the show itself is interesting, as is the exhibition catalogue that accompanies it, the subject gives us a chance to reflect on the issue of how we choose to be shown in social media, and by which I hope to encourage the creativity of my readers.

It is difficult, though technically not impossible, to be active online these days and not have at least one image of yourself attached to your online presence. At a very basic level, email providers like Gmail ask you to upload a thumbnail image for your account, which will then appear attached to your emails, online comments, and in programs like GChat. The generally accepted term for this image, as you probably know, is an “avatar”, though it may be be called other things as well. On Twitter, for example, most users refer to such an image as one’s “AVI”, while on Facebook it is commonly referred to as one’s “Profile Picture”.

Some people are reluctant to use an image of themselves online, for various reasons. They may be worried that others will be less inclined to communicate with them given their appearance. Or they may worry that they are posting on matters which could get them into trouble, if their personal opinions were to become widely known. In these cases people will turn to various types of avatars to represent them – anything from a cartoon character to a still from a film to an inanimate object, whereby they can have an image that others will associate with their account, but still be able to maintain some degree of anonymity online. Other users of course are quite the reverse of this, and relish putting up new avatars depicting themselves in real life whenever a new, good one comes along; I even keep a small but growing list on Twitter of friends who have excellent AVI’s, whether static or frequently updated.

An interesting point for us to consider is that the concept of the avatar is by no means a new one, when it comes to trying to put across a public image. Portraiture is, of course, the most obvious example of this: busts of the ruling emperor were displayed all over the Roman world, and paintings of the reigning monarch are still displayed in public buildings of modern monarchies such as Spain and Great Britain. Bees were carved on buildings in Paris to represent Napoleon Bonaparte, while the same animal depicted the Barberini Popes in Rome.  With the advent of modern telecommunications and print media, it is difficult not to know who the important people are, because their faces appear in front of us all the time, but the tradition still remains, even in this country where photographs of the sitting President are displayed at government offices from cabinet level all the way down to small, local post offices.

All of that being said, most of us have not achieved such a level of fame as to be able to symbolize ourselves through the use of a single object, like Napoleon Bonaparte’s bee or Mick Jagger’s lips. We need to attach our mug to our accounts, because we are normal people, and normal people still need to see each other and look each other in the eye, in order to be able to effectively communicate. While the avatar is, of course, nothing more than some data, it still provides the reader of our communications with the idea that they are speaking to another human being, with good points and bad points just the same as their own.  True, probably most of us are reluctant to put up any old picture of ourselves, but it always surprises me how often very interesting people have such poorly chosen, or completely non-representational avatars.

We ought to have some fun with the image we choose to display. The idea that it is better to look out at the world via your online avatar does not mean that you are limited to the straight-forward, full face portrait photo. There are plenty of times of year – Halloween, Christmas, weddings, etc. – when we may choose to dress up, in either the stylish or the costume sense, and these can be occasions for creating avatars in which either we look like ladies and gentlemen, or where we show that we can have some fun, and not take ourselves too seriously.

Chances are, if you are reading this post, you are not a head of state, a pop star, or a major celebrity. With all due respect to those of you who are – and please let me know how on earth you found your way to this blog – your choice of avatar is important not because you have a public image to protect, but rather because you want to connect to other people.  A well-chosen avatar gives those of us who interact with you a window onto what sort of person you are in real life, and it may make the difference between whether you are someone we will want to meet, or someone we keep at arm’s length.

Rather then being something that you should fret over, picking an avatar that actually shows you, instead of someone or something else, gives the impression that you are approachable, and straightforward, instead of someone hiding behind a mask. It can express your humor, your creativity, your personality, and so on.  Yet it must be said, at least from my perspective if no one else’s, that if you are not willing to stand behind your thoughts and opinions by connecting your actual image to them when you post on blogs and social media, then perhaps cyberspace is not really the best place for you.


Part of the “Vanity Fair 100 Years: Masters of Photography” exhibition
Museo de Bellas Artes, Vitoria

Cutting Twitter Some Slack

Last evening I caught the first episode of Ken Burns’ new documentary, “Prohibition” – on which more anon, as the series progresses – and noted that one of the commentators on the program was Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman.  I have been familiar with Prof. Feldman for a number of years, from the excessive amount of time I have spent watching C-Span Book TV on lazy, Sunday afternoons.  Weekend C-Span is a place where those of us who like to listen to discussions of history, culture, and public policy tend to gather from the comfort of our couches, and drift in and out of consciousness, as we hear debates on topics such as whether Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder.   Prof. Feldman is also inevitably one of the more nattily dressed people on C-Span, and even though I often disagree with his conclusions about the future of American foreign policy, as something of a clotheshorse myself I have often tipped my hat to him on that score.

Among Prof. Feldman’s contributions to the first episode of “Prohibition”, were some particularly interesting insights with respect to how key changes in other laws had to take place in order for the 18th Amendment to become legally and fiscally practicable.  As a Catholic of Iberian descent, I have always found the entire concept of the prohibition of alcohol and its rationale – such as the notion that Jesus and the early Christians drank non-alcoholic grape juice – to be completely ludicrous.  Then again, I did not live in 1900 America where there were saloons on every corner, and drunken louts fighting in the streets.

After the first episode ended, I decided to see if Prof. Feldman was on Twitter, so that I might drop him a line to compliment his work on the film.  As it turns out, he is not, or if he is he does not use his proper name as his Twitter handle.  However what I did find, curiously enough, was an article of his published yesterday in Business Week on the subject of Twitter and its applicability in the future of political movements.  [N.B. Ah, the vagaries of Twitter: how very randomly interconnected it is, if you make the effort to spend some time there.]

Essentially, Prof. Feldman’s thesis is that while Twitter can bring people together for events, whether social or political, it is not yet a substitute for the hardscrabble work of real political action, nor does it possess in virtual form enough of the human element of charisma that is a necessary part of bringing a movement to fruition.  Indeed, as Ken Burns’ documentary showed last evening, there were many fits and starts by various groups before Prohibition finally became a viable political movement.  It took real organization – in an age long before Twitter – to make that truly odd chapter of American history happen.

In this respect, and following somewhat along Prof. Feldman’s lines, one can see how Twitter is something like a virtual saloon from Ken Burns’ film.  Here one can gather with those of like opinions, and attack those who disagree with those opinions, but with hashtag insults and blocking, rather than with drunken fisticuffs and dueling with broken beer bottles.  There is always plenty of talk of politics on Twitter, of course.  And there is also plenty of talk about entertainment – particularly sports, which sends me away from Twitter for many hours, as I have written about previously.  Yet there seems to be very little in the way of deep conversation.

Is this a bad thing?  Does it mean that those of us who enjoy spending time on Twitter are incapable of forming more complex thoughts?  Is it impossible for the average tweeter to engage in meaningful conversations at a deeper level than what passes for humor in the Twitterverse?

Perhaps for some people on Twitter this is true.  It has been appalling to discover that thousands of people with access to digital technology are incapable of using proper spelling or grammar within a limit of 140 characters.  Lindsay Lohan is the Twitter equivalent of Mrs. Gaskell, by comparison to many of these individuals.

However, Twitter at its best can also be something akin to an artistic forum, when it is used by those who appreciate the flexibility of words for creative purposes.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not something which many are capable of doing well; this requires a certain appreciation for the English language that is often lacking today.  The bon mot, so long vanished from most of today’s rather banal entertainments, is very much alive on Twitter.

And a bit more frequently than the perfect turn of phrase, which has always been elusive, I find that some of the best tweets come from the unexpected connections or juxtapositions that arise from a particularly observant tweeter keeping his wits about him.  Take for example, this example of an observational tweet from my youngest brother, or this equally observant but unexpected juxtaposition from Georgetown Patch Editor-in-Chief Shaun Courtney.  True, neither of these good people plans – so far as I am aware – to ignite a political movement, but then, it does not seem to me as though there is a requirement that they do so.

Twitter can be a tool, and a very effective one when used well, but we need to cut it some slack.  Prof. Feldman would argue that, at least in its current incarnation, and on this point at least I would have to agree, Twitter cannot substitute for real political action when attempting to change a government or a policy.  Yet that being said, one can and should allow Twitter to be what it is, i.e. a kind of giant text messaging machine, and leave it at that.  Fortunately, the more I use Twitter, the more I realize what a profoundly useful tool it is for connecting people of like interests incredibly quickly, so long as Twitter is simply the means by which to come to be introduced to such people, rather than an end unto itself.

Imagine if temperance vigilante Carrie Nation had access to Twitter back in the day…