The classic newspaper vending boxes have always played role in the city larger than their designated one. At their peak, when each box was filled with that day’s issue, even the most hurried urban citizen running for the bus could get an analogue news feed of current events by scanning the headlines as they ran past. They were infomatic barometers of an area – you could tell a lot about the average population of an area by the number of financial newspaper boxes vs. daily tabloid boxes on a given street corner. For the enterprising street merchant, they were a quick entrepreneurial resource – for the investment of a few quarters, you could grab that day’s entire stack of papers and go around the corner to increase your investment ten-fold. Even before Craigslist the business model of the daily newspaper had its weaknesses.
When I was in Chicago a couple weeks ago to speak at the Future of the City Conference, I was waiting to cross the street when I found myself next to one of the last innovations these form of vending will see – the unified newspaper box. Saddened by the lack of papers still populating these boxes, I stole a quick glance of the headline of that day’s FT to get a bite of the news. “Bush seeks remaining $350bn of rescue fund” the headline told me, and I crossed the street. I chewed over the headline for a while – “Bush? In the news today?” I thought to myself. Then, thinking about the $350bn referenced, the only thought I had was maybe that was how he was funding his retirement. Nothing about this made sense, so I doubled back across the street, and looked again – the issue of the FT I was referencing was dated January 13, 2009. My instinctive bite of the daily headlines was drawing information from 2 and a half years earlier.
While it was unfortunate that another newspaper box had been abandoned, the interesting thing for me was that my perception of the information delivery vehicle, the newspaper box, was still wired to an outdated model. Now, I’m about as much of a RSS feed addict as it is possible to be, and no luddite by any definition, but in my rushed moment of stealing a glance of the news in the hustle of crossing a busy street, I was drawing on an almost subconscious wiring formed during my student days in Boston when this would be my quick news feed on my way to class. My relationship with the newspaper box had already been formed, but instead of having to re-learn a relationship with this object, the responsibility now seemed to “un-learn”, essentially to have no relationship with this function-less object. That’s a tough thing to do – to change an existing relationship with an element of the urban landscape not into a new one, but into a non relationship.
Back home in London, I was sitting outside at a cafe thinking about this when a uniquely London game of cat and mouse was unfolding in front of me that linked with my thoughts. A public maintenance worker had just finished cleaning out one of London’s iconic red phone booths, with a pile of garish escort cards being swept up into his cart before he walked around the corner to tackle the next booth. As the sounds of his wheels faded into the next street, a man stepped into the clean phone booth, took a stack of cards from his pocket and began pasting a new batch of escort cards throughout the booth.
With the near universal adoption of mobile phones and almost total abandonment of using public phones, particularly in London, this has become something of the default function of these public booths – a street-level adult services directory. There is a slight sophistication to this use of the dormant phone booths, as each booth displays cards from locally based escorts; in this way, each booth becomes something of a local directory of services, and provides a private booth from which to make a call on your mobile phone. While it is easy to dismiss or discard this notion of use of these phone booths, the booths retain an informational function within the urban landscape by hosting these cards. The cleaners, while respectfully doing their job and removing the cards, also remove the booths of their new function. Yet within minutes, the cards come back and the modified function returns.
We are at a fascinating moment in our physical relationship with the city. As our relationship to information, news and communication channels have become deeply individual in both use and access, the public icons and objects anchored to our streets and shared spaces remain as memorials to when these services were points in the urban landscape. At times, we are left with no choice but to try and train ourselves to un-learn our existing relationships with these objects, such as with the American newspaper boxes, or to accept the informal re-purposing of these objects in the case of the London phone booths.
The instinct of most cities is simply to remove these physical embodiments of past behaviors. I’d like to think in a different manner – to think of re-programming these analogue structures into serving new functions in the city. A re-programmed, re-purposed object still retains its link with its original use, and there is value in that. There is a balance between sentimentality and breaking the commonality of relationship that we had with our physical urban icons. When we remove these tributes to objects of common use, our notion of common relationships with our physical surroundings is removed slightly as well.