A group of USC students, community members and local artists in Leimert Park are bringing the pay phone back into service — and hoping to build and strengthen communities in the process.
Annenberg Professor François Bar, Kaos Network owner Ben Caldwell and doctoral candidates Benjamin Stokes and Karl Baumann launched the Leimert Phone Company this spring as a part of the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The five-week participatory design project aims to transform the pay phone from an obsolete relic into a portal that connects residents and visitors to local culture and history. The school purchased the 14 pay phones for their project from eBay.
“Our goal is to help the community re-imagine its future,” said Stokes, who studies in Annenberg. “We see these pay phones as a means to deepen the cultural identity of the neighborhood, and a way to help re-brand the neighborhood and let people know where local stores and local artists are.”
The project focuses on designing prototypes for Leimert Park, a South Los Angeles neighborhood known by community members and USC students for its art and community-based culture.
The neighborhood shows promise for economic development and business growth, yet also faces significant pressures, including gentrification and displacement. According to Curbed Los Angeles, in the coming days there will be a decision on whether or not to build a Metro stop in Leimert Park off of the Crenshaw light-rail line.
Caldwell said the team chose the pay phone to help connect the arts with the people in the community because they recognized the significance of retaining cultural roots in light of economic development and changing neighborhood makeup.
“[The pay phones] offer a portal for communicating in communities,” Caldwell said.
Most of the existing conversation about connecting public space to that of the digital world has focused on ideas such as providing Wi-Fi in parks.
Stokes said the team focused on ideas that reflected the many, nuanced layers of the community, including cultural assets and economic fabric. The resulting prototypes were thus designed to emulate the neighborhood’s distinct character and promote community building.
“We wanted the phones to reflect the people [of Leimert Park] that were coming to our design workshops,” Stokes said.
For instance, the team crafted a prototype called Dial-A-Track, a pay phone that is meant to promote businesses and local artists on Crenshaw Corridor. The pay phone, which will be strategically placed near the Crenshaw businesses where the music is being made, will provide a preview of an unreleased track. If listeners enjoy the track, they will be able to have the track sent wirelessly, in seconds, to their cellular phones.
In addition to designing prototypes that fit the community, the team feels these prototypes can help shape the community’s future as well. Stokes said the pay phone should embody what the community wants its future to be about. For example, if the community would like to focus its future around the arts, the phone should have a focus on the arts.
“I think it is cool to try to reuse something that already exists for a forward looking identity of a place,” said Alison Spindler, a first-year master’s degree of planning student at Price School of Public Policy. “I am also glad that they were very context specific. Since Leimert Park is an artist community, I am glad they took this into consideration when designing their prototypes.”
The repurposed phones can also help revitalize and strengthen the community, as well as bring new individuals into the community through common interests.
“The phones can be used to bring more people into the neighborhood,” said Baumann, who studies at the School of Cinematic Arts. “They can funnel individuals toward local businesses to bring them into the community.”
And just as public space is open to everyone, the team wants these phones to be accessible and usable for everyone in the community.
“It is not just thinking about the people who have money, but also the people who are underserved,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell would like the technology to be a free portal that everyone can use, regardless of socioeconomic status.
A notable aspect of this project is that it is being co-designed with community leaders and local artists in Leimert Park. From a planning perspective, Spindler feels this is very important to ensure that community voices are considered in the decision-making process.
Though the five-week lab has concluded, the team looks to expand the project. Its next stop is the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, and the team plans to hold workshop and discuss their strategy for a pay-phone redesign with a national audience.
Baumann and Stokes said they hope the phones will eventually become part of a nationwide movement to redesign phones that help spur economic and community development.
Two prototype phones will be installed within Annenberg, which Stokes believes can be a source of renewed connectivity between the university and the community. Stokes said though he currently believes the university is disconnecting from the community, the project can bridge that ever-increasing gap.
“What is really exciting,” Stokes said, “is this can be a place of ongoing conversation between the community and USC.”