I suspect everyone who’s wandered around New York — or any major city, really — has had the experience of walking past a payphone and wondering about its fate. Public phones often strike me as the ultimate objects in transition, relics from a pre-digital age dotting the cityscape. It may be a coincidental sign of the times that the vendor contracts for New York City’s more than 11,000 (!) payphones will expire next year.
But Hurricane Sandy was nothing if not a reminder that cell phones cannot conquer all. Payphones still provide a valuable public service, even if it’s not always clear what that service is or should be when we’re not in the immediate aftermath of a storm. So New York City is undertaking a massive and wonderfully forward-thinking initiative, to reinvent payphones.
They’re doing it in the form of an open call. In the official words, from the project’s website, “the City is inviting students, urban planners, designers, technologists, architects, creators and legal and policy experts to build physical and/or virtual prototypes imagining a new public utility through payphone infrastructure.” This isn’t, mind you, a call to get rid of payphones altogether, but rather a way to think about what the phones and their kiosks could off all the time that’s useful to more people (and that brings in more money for the city). Wifi? A place to charge your cell phone? Some kind of guide to city services? A space to lend and borrow books, à la architect John Locke’s ongoing phone-booth libraries project?
For those who are interested, there’s an info session happening next Wednesday, January 23, and the city is accepting submissions until February 18. More information about rules and how to enter is available on the project’s website.
I’m really excited to see what people come up with; hopefully, by next year, we’ll be transitioning from eye sores — albeit nostalgically beloved ones — to eye-catching, creative kiosks.