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)

Phone Booth Friday: Superman’s Changing Room in the Digital Age

As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying a little experiment on the blog where Fridays are reserved for posts about superheroes, since a number of my readers and followers are interested in this area of popular culture.  Thanks to a suggestion from one of you clever readers, I’ve decided to call this weekly installment, “Phone Booth Friday”, appropriately enough.  And to begin the official launch of this feature, I thought we’d take a look at Superman’s changing room itself, an object which in many parts of the world has largely ceased to serve its original purpose.

On Wednesday, London launched the first of a series of phone booth conversions, turning some of the city’s iconic red boxes from payphone shelters to green-painted, solar-powered charging stations for mobile phones and other devices.  With the advent of digital communications, many of these familiar pieces of London streetscape have fallen into disuse. Some are sitting in phone booth “graveyards”, waiting to be scooped up by collectors and designers seeking to find new uses for these objects.  In fact, roughly half of all phone boxes which once dotted the British landscape have disappeared over the last decade.

London is not alone, of course, in finding itself with a surfeit of phone booths it no longer needs.  Here in America, removal or repurposing in many cities is taking much longer, in part because there are so many phone companies responsible for the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of these objects.  There are still an estimated 10,000 phone booths on the streets of New York City alone, and various proposals floating around regarding what to do with them.

Although it’s good to see new and innovative ideas are bringing life back to some of these now largely superfluous bits of technology, one might also conclude that with fewer phone booths out there, the last son of Krypton might find himself in a bit of a quandary when he needs to spring into action. The old-fashioned, full-length phone booth is hard to find in many American cities anyway, as compared to the open, half-length style still to be seen in places like airports and train stations.  Except interestingly enough, the automatic association we all make regarding the phone booth as Superman’s changing room is not entirely accurate.

Originally, the phone booth was not an essential part of Superman’s modus operandi.  The first example of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman occurred not in the comic books, which were first published in 1939, but rather in a cartoon short from 1941.  In fact the use of the phone booth as part of one of his comic strip adventures didn’t appear until 1942.  As this article points out, over the years both in print and on film, Supes has changed clothes in all kinds of places; on the 1950’s TV series, for example, he most often used a broom closet at The Daily Planet, or an alleyway, and never once used a phone booth.

So rest assured, good citizens, whether from a repurposed phone booth, a storage cupboard, or behind a dumpster, there will always be somewhere for Superman to do what he needs to do to leap into action.  The more critical problem today, quite frankly, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras both inside and outside of buildings, on streets, highways, intersections, and so on, which run the risk of giving the entire game away.  Plus, you can imagine the size of the speeding tickets.

Superman Phone Booth