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USC Annenberg project leads to new use of old pay phones

by Kristen Villarreal
François Bar speaks during the first week of the Leimert Phone Co. project. (Photo/Karl Baumann and Benjamin Stokes)
François Bar speaks during the first week of the Leimert Phone Co. project. (Photo/Karl Baumann and Benjamin Stokes)

Collaborating with local neighborhood activists and artists, researchers at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism are introducing innovative ways to get the most out of old, unused pay phones and create hotspots of community interaction at the same time.

The Leimert Phone Co., an interdisciplinary, multiplatform project that aims to repurpose pay phones into cultural portals to local history and arts in Leimert Park, will be presented at the four-day National Allied Media Conference, to be held in Detroit  June 20-23.

According to co-founders Benjamin Stokes and Karl Baumann, two PhD candidates at USC, their trip to Michigan is an ideal way to test their model in a city that has become a national center in the debate on how to revitalize troubled cities. In Detroit, the Leimert team will introduce “pay phone redesign” as a creative use of media for social justice.

The Leimert Phone Co. project came together under the collaborative efforts of USC faculty and students and Leimert Park artists, residents and community members. Stokes, Baumann and the Leimert team aim to create a model for community engagement and design that can be taken up across the country.

During the conference on June 22, the model will be demonstrated in a workshop titled “Phone Booths Against Gentrification.” The team will emphasize investing in process, including participatory design and transmedia storytelling. The workshop will challenge representatives from communities across the country to apply the model hands on, redesigning a pay phone for cities with their own social priorities.

“Whether they are from Detroit or visiting from Atlanta or New York,” Baumann said about the workshop, “everyone will learn through physical role-play and rapid prototyping.”

The idea was sparked when Ben Caldwell, founder of the Leimert-based arts collective KAOS Network and co-founder of the Leimert Phone Co., heard an NPR piece about repurposing New York phone booths into ATMs. Caldwell, who is also on the board of the Greater Leimert Park/Crenshaw Corridor Business Improvement District, said he heard the piece and promptly thought, “Wow, how can we as social practice artists engage our communities in a similar way?”

Caldwell turned to USC Annenberg Professor François Bar to help turn his idea into reality. The scholars gathered a group of young people, artists and residents of Leimert Park, as well as USC PhD and master’s students, who collectively came up with the idea of repurposing public phone booths into open portals that could be used as incubators in various communities.

“Just as Facebook and Google are free formats, I want these booths to be open portals similar to the Internet,” Caldwell said, describing his hopes for the project. “With their presence, we can do a lot of things to help invigorate Leimert Park businesses.”

With that goal in mind, the group met every Wednesday at USC and every Saturday at the KAOS Network in Leimert Park as part of a five-week pilot period for a future course with a similar structure. The test course, held for the first time in the spring semester, was made up of USC students in technology and media programs, as well as local artists and youth groups associated with the KAOS Network.

The class was co-taught by USC experts in technology, design and business innovation along with neighborhood organizers and artists with expertise in neighborhood strengths, culture and strategy.

“This project represents a unique opportunity for constructive engagement between USC and the neighboring community residents,” Bar said. “The resulting prototypes reflect the combined skills and ideas of local artists, community activists and USC students. New ways to learn and create emerge from this innovative process.”

After the E-bay purchase of 12 used pay phones, three teams collaborated on different ideas based on personal passions. Each team created a concept that it felt accurately represented the cultural richness of Leimert Park and would give newcomers the tools to explore the neighborhood.

Groups then created pitch “concept videos” to spark community interest in funding the resources to build a prototype.

The first team pitched Dial-A-Track, a concept that allows listeners to hear music from Leimert Park musicians and upcoming music and art events in addition to learning about the neighborhood’s musical history.

The second concept, which focused on transmedia storytelling, aims to connect tourists with local businesses through a Sankofa Search, which is similar to a treasure hunt. Businesses would host a phone that, for a quarter, enables a Wi-Fi hotspot. When users connect to Wi-Fi, the login page takes them to a map that guides them through the neighborhood in search of Sankofa birds, which indicate locations where stories can be heard or told.

The third idea, smARTphone, hosts a mini art exhibition inside the phone booth. The pay phone’s coin slot acts as a viewfinder through which guests can see slideshows of local art. With the press of a button, guests receive information on where to view or purchase local art and can hear a list of upcoming local events.

Each idea is an attempt to merge the physical and digital worlds in a way that creatively depicts Leimert Park, a predominantly black neighborhood that was once home to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and former LA Mayor Tom Bradley.

The recent approval of a Leimert Park station on the forthcoming Crenshaw light rail has heightened the threat of gentrification for the neighborhood. The light rail will run along Crenshaw Boulevard, intersect the Exposition line and transport tourists and Angelenos alike to and from Los Angeles International Airport.

“It’s not just about protecting the past,” Stokes said. “This is a group that wants to go somewhere in the future. They all want to grow their businesses while remaining tied to their cultural history.”

Leimert Park residents are not interested in defensively resisting the change the new metro station will bring, he noted. Instead, residents want to adapt with it in the right way. The new station will undoubtedly bring visitors to the neighborhood, and residents want to create an environment that is inviting and creative while sustaining the historic core.

“If there is going to be change,” Baumann said, “it’s going to be change on their terms to strengthen what is already there.”

Baumann described the overall idea as providing residents of any neighborhood a vehicle in which the cultural aspects and strengths of the community can be pushed into the public and further.

Stokes considers the project to be rife with possibilities. Pay phone redesign can be as simple as a sticker beside the coin slot that provides guests a number to call to get a list of libraries or upcoming events in the neighborhood. The other side of the spectrum is a completely redesigned pay phone that acts as a cultural hotspot that brings the past into public space, spurring new conversations, treasure hunts and supporting local business.

“A shared vision is a very tangible outcome,” Stokes said. “If this project helps Leimert Park articulate what kind of community it will fight to be, even without any pay phones at all, it can help the fight on gentrification.”

The group’s blog will post updates on conference activities here.