Still a City Fixture, Many Call Boxes Overstay Their Welcome

NY Times - August 25, 2011

by COREY KILGANNON

Eddie Colon, 52, of Harlem, hopped off his bicycle, casually leaned the bike against a rectangular post of red metal and browsed the flavors at an Italian-ice cart tended by a sidewalk vendor.

This was the northwest corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard on Wednesday night, and the red post Mr. Colon used as a bike stand was a type found every few blocks in New York City: a shoulder-high device with two metal flaps: a red one with an icon of a flame -- "Fire" -- and a blue one with an icon of a badge -- "Police." Each flap flips up to reveal a button to press for emergency help.

About 15,000 emergency-help boxes like this dot the cityscape in New York, yet with the proliferation of cellphones, they have become nearly obsolete and unnecessarily costly to maintain, say city officials who have been trying for decades to get rid of them.

In fact, a federal judge recently rejected the city's latest attempt to do just that.

"The call boxes -- the city took them out already, no?" said Mr. Colon, when asked about them. After it was pointed out that he had just leaned his bicycle against one, he chuckled and said: "You see, you stare right at them all the time and you don't even notice them."

This may sum up the prominence these pieces of street furniture hold in the minds of many New Yorkers. The alarm boxes have been dispersed across the city's sidewalks for so long that many otherwise observant residents look right past them, the way one would ignore a lamppost or some lonely pay phone.

Consider another call box, at 37th Avenue and 75th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. It is more than a half-century old: a heavy cast-iron stanchion with ornamental curves and details in the Art Nouveau style. It seems ready for a museum. Still, it failed to catch the eye of Seema Ahmed, until she was asked about it.

"I can tell you that I've lived in this neighborhood all my life and I've never really noticed it," said Ms. Ahmed, a community outreach staffer who works and lives nearby. "I've passed it by a million times, but I guess I just never paid attention to it. I thought maybe they were some kind of button for the traffic light, I don't know."

But if you ignore their utilitarian function and simply look at the boxes as objets de street art, they are intriguing in their variations of age, style and condition.

There is one in Hell's Kitchen that has been bashed over in such a way that it looks poised to leap on a pedestrian, as if imbued with a kinetic energy by a master sculptor. There is the leaning tower of Shore Front Parkway across from Rockaway Beach in Queens that looks like it is perpetually tilted into the ocean breeze. There are the birdhouse-size versions mounted on lampposts along some city parkways and in neighborhoods of single-family homes, like the Country Club section of the Bronx.

Rare is the box that is free of graffiti, stickers, rust or some kind of damage. There are many hollow-headed ones that have been stuffed with trash where the electronic mechanism used to be housed. Some have been painted by neighbors. Last winter, MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village was brightened by an old box decorated for Christmas, complete with ribbons and tinsel and a topping of snow.

But many are imbued with a pitiable quality for their neglect. Like an aging back-bencher in the dugout, they have quite simply overstayed their usefulness.

The box on the southeast corner of Newtown Avenue and 21st Street in Queens, is a battered thing surrounded by a patch of high grass, as if it had sprouted straight out of the sidewalk. The upper unit has an old-fashioned heavy lever, to be pulled down like the handle of a water pump in order to summon help. Its support pole is a more recently made shaft made of sheet metal. The box keeps getting hit by big trucks turning the corner too closely, said Jaime Soto, 49, of the Bronx, who is president of the Asbestos Workers union, whose offices are a few doors down.

"I'd be surprised if the thing is even connected to any emergency line," Mr. Soto said.

Fire Department officials did not respond to requests for comment or information about the state of some of the emergency-help boxes.

Patrick Harris, 20, an after-school attendant from Long Island City, Queens, said he believed the boxes still served a purpose.

"Not everyone has a cellphone, and there are fewer pay phones around these days," he said. "So what happens when someone sees a fire and has no way to call?"

Tariq Hamid, who owns Shaheen, a Pakistani restaurant at Broadway and 72nd Street in Jackson Heights, said he would hate to see the city deactivate the old iron pull-handle box outside his business. When Kebabish, a restaurant across the street, caught fire about eight years ago, he used the box to call the Fire Department, he said.

"I didn't have my cellphone on me, and the couple minutes I saved with this box prevented a lot of damage," Mr. Hamid said, patting the box affectionately.