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.


Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1968)

Watching the “Watchmen”: A Beautiful Film from France

If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”.  I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media.  [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]

No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day.  Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence.  The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.

If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar.  Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality.  The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.

Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors.  This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.

Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose.  They work for God.  As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world.  So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S.  In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980’s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989.  To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.

No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians.  Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor.  Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer



Confessions of a Bad Neighbor

Perhaps some of you still experience the phenomenon known as “the nosy neighbor”. Like a stock character from an old New Yorker cartoon or a 1930’s slapstick comedy, the nosy neighbor was always insatiably curious about what you were doing and why.  They were such a recognizable component of the American experience that they showed up in all sorts of places, from Stephanie Crawford in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, to Mrs. Kravitz on the classic television series “Bewitched”.

These days however, with the oft-lamented decline in community life in this country, it is said that in many cases we no longer know our neighbors, and that this is a bad thing.  Suburban houses are designed to be as inward-facing as possible, and in urban environments security concerns are such that one hardly ever sees residents of the same apartment complex associating with one another.  Even on communally-shared rooftops here in the Washington area for example, groups of people from the same building tend to segregate themselves, rather than mix together.

Yet as Americans grow more divided with respect to the issues that define who we are, spending more time apart fromone other seems almost inevitable.  The less we have in common, and the more we can find our own echo chambers through other outlets, such as in online communities, we have less of an incentive to try to get along with those with whom we disagree – including neighbors whom we are suspicious of.

Take for example a recent pair of my neighbors, since departed for suburbia a few years ago. I lived next door to them for years, and knew her first name but not his.  They were an unmarried couple living together in the Biblical sense.  Don’t ask how I know.  She worked for some sort of ecological concern, and I have no idea what he did.

Thanks to the perennial laziness of our substitute mailman, I would from time to time get pieces of their mail pushed through my letterbox.  And every so often, these would be dispatches from leftist organizations which I abhor.  I fully expect that my neighbors received some mail of mine which they themselves probably winced at, as much as I did when accidentally receiving theirs.

Although we would always say hello to one another if we saw each other, and would occasionally carry on a very brief conversation, there was no effort on either side to get to know one another, even after living alongside each other for several years.  In a way, I suppose receiving each others’ mail probably poisoned the well, convincing each household that it would be better to engage with the other as little as possible.   Our surreptitious form of nosiness, made possible by the Federal government, convinced us that we did not want to know very much about each other; all we had to do was walk next door and push the mail through the correct letter box, and that was the end of it.

For many Americans, the decline of neighborliness and even the disappearance of the nosy neighbor may be lamentable.  Yet at the same time we have to acknowledge the fact that we may be living next door to people whose views are absolutely antipathetic to our own.  We may be deeply divided as a society, yet that does not mean that for the sake of neighborliness I have to buy Girl Scout cookies from my neighbor’s daughter for example, or sponsor someone’s run for the Susan Komen Foundation, knowing full well that these organizations have chosen to align themselves with Planned Parenthood.  True, such occasions offer a brief chance for me to say why I cannot participate, and perhaps in time that will open the door to further conversation, although in my experience to date it usually leads to little more than future awkwardness when the parties run into each other at the Safeway.

Being polite and neighborly is a good thing, whether it is returning someone else’s mail, putting the lid back on their trash can in the morning after the garbage truck has come through for the pickup, bringing back a ball that has managed to fly into your back yard, etc.  It is another to wish that one could go back to some more halcyon age, when neighbors generally agreed on a common set of beliefs and values, and spent time together because, frankly, they had no other choice.  The combination of a growing societal celebration of selfishness, with the greater degree of personalization afforded us through a myriad of choices in technology, media, and consumerism, makes it unlikely that this trend will reverse itself in America any time soon.


“Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight, With a Young Man Peering over Her Shoulder”
by Joseph Wright of Derby (c.1760-62)
Private collection