Can a Re-Purposed Pay Phone Stave Off Gentrification in Leimert Park?

Artist Rudy Rude speaks about the design of the Leimert Phone Company’s prototype at the launch in Leimert Park on Saturday. Ben Caldwell, founder of the KAOS Network, stands to the right of the phone. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Gesturing towards the re-purposed pay phone prototype, KAOS Network founder Ben Caldwell said he looked at the Leimert Phone Company project as a way to exact “a handshake between 20th century objects and 21st century objects.”

Just because we were living in an era of rapid change, he continued, there was no need to throw the babies out with the bathwater or cut all ties to what came before.

It was an apt metaphor for where Leimert Park finds itself at this moment.

The area has undergone significant changes in recent years, some of which have been hastened by the speculation (and, finally, confirmation) that the area would host a train station along the new Crenshaw Line.

While the station will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, many fear that gentrification, rising rents, and developers will push out the very people and culture the station was intended to showcase. You can already find a number of empty storefronts around the plaza in buildings that were recently purchased by developers and important cultural and artistic hubs like The World Stage are struggling to scrape together funds and support so they can stay where they are.

All of which is what makes the Leimert Phone Company project — a unique collaboration between USC, the KAOS Network, and artists from Leimert Park — so timely.

When I first connected Caldwell with Professor François Bar of USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab at a get-to-know-you meeting at USC last year, it was in the hopes of setting up a collaborative spoken word bike- or walking-tour-cum-mapping project of Leimert Park. I knew that Caldwell, an artist and filmmaker with a love for history and a unique ability to bridge past and present, had long been interested in recording the stories of the area. Meanwhile, Bar and his team had only recently concluded a community-based assets-mapping project in Watts. While the final output — a colorful map — hadn’t necessarily led people to see their neighborhood in a new light, as the team had hoped, I found the community-specific map to be an incredibly useful tool for starting conversations about people’s longer-term aspirations for their communities or inviting them to participate in community bike rides.

I figured that, together, Caldwell and Bar might be able to create something along the lines of a digital map populated with artists’ interpretations or recollections of particular locations and tours that could be built around site-based performances. Such a project, I hoped, would help capture the essential culture and history of the place in the voices of those who lived it, while giving outsiders the context they needed to explore and appreciate the neighborhood.

Clearly, I wasn’t thinking big enough.

Within just a few months of that meeting, I would hear that they were collaborating on a design studio that would be centered around hacking into and re-purposing public pay phones.

Francois Bar discusses the features of the phone, which include a cellphone charging station. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Francois Bar discusses the features of the phone (made possible thanks to the technological wizardry of Andrew Schrock (center, back, in glasses)) and amenities like a cellphone charging station (designed by Wesley Groves (not pictured)). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The inspiration had come, Caldwell said, from a story he had heard about how public phones had been re-purposed into ATMs. He had looked at the lonely phone sitting outside his door at KAOS and asked himself that age-old question, “What would artists do?”

How could they populate obsolete urban furniture with storytelling, music, art, images, video, or information about local businesses in a way that would both enhance users’ relationship to the public space and benefit the community?

During the 5-week course held this past spring, USC students and Leimert Park artists and neighbors worked to answer those questions. Working in teams, they envisioned ways the phone booth could record and play stories from residents, offer up selections from local musicians, preview art for sale in the area, or serve as a wi-fi hotspot that would make local businesses more attractive.

They presented their final concepts for how the phones could be transformed into community assets at a pitch session this past April. Then, in June, they took their show on the road, heading to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit to give a presentation entitled, “Phone Booths Against Gentrification.”

And, while you might be right to wonder about the extent to which a funkified phone booth can stave off gentrification, the unveiling of the prototype this past weekend hinted at how its mere existence could spark the imagination of community members.

When artist Janet Dandridge kicked off the launch by pressing a button on the phone and playing a story from a woman who spoke frankly of being concerned about the changes Leimert Park was experiencing, I saw people sit up a little straighter in their chairs.

They clearly hadn’t expected that the very first “story” showcased would be one questioning gentrification.

Janet Dandridge kicks off the launch by listening to community stories. Matt Gibson, stage manager of the World Stage, observes at right. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Artist Janet Dandridge kicks off the launch by demonstrating how a user might listen to community stories. Matt Gibson, stage manager of the World Stage, observes at right. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Matt Gibson, photographer, stage manager for The World Stage, and drum circle regular, who had happened to stop by the Vision Theater just before the launch began, took up the microphone and declared the art piece was “hitting me like a ton of bricks.”

The idea that the phone could give community members the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own way, he said, was so essential in a world in which “media only lets certain stories be told.”

“We need to tell our own stories…” he reiterated, “…so they don’t become wives’ tales.”

After the formal presentation concluded, I spoke with Gibson at length about the project, the possibility of recording stories at the World Stage’s writers’ workshop, and balancing the need to collaborate with organizations from outside the area to survive with that of remaining true to what the area is and represents. Artists like those at the World Stage have operated outside the mainstream for so long and, in the case of the writers that found a home there after the 1992 uprisings, have both been so critical of it and survived in spite of it, that finding ways to build partnerships outside the community is a whole new frontier. And not one they necessarily relish needing to explore.

But Leimert is changing. Quickly. Without collaborations and injections of new resources into the area, it is entirely possible that some of the cultural mainstays will not survive the transition.

That doesn’t mean that a cool, post-apocalyptic-looking phone that plays community stories is going to single-handedly save the day, of course. What it represents, however — a potential model for unique, innovative, and mutually-beneficial collaborations in which the community is understood as a resource — just might be the key to residents being able to have a say in the transformation of their neighborhood. And that is exciting.

More on the Leimert Phone Company can be found here. More about the technology (the Raspberry Pi) used to power the phone and a look at its guts can be found here.

  • ubrayj02

    Replying only to the headline: no.

    The people of Leimert Park would have to form a trust fund to buy and manage property in the area, each a shareholder of the trust or granted shares and voting rights once the trust was established. It would be sustained through the collection of rents and borrowing against that income.

    Otherwise, the turnover in property ownership signals the hasty exit of those who thrived in a low-rent environment.

  • sahra

    True, and I am not making the case that the payphone is enough. But one of the things that came out of my conversations the other day was the idea that many of the residents of Leimert also need to be re-introduced to their cultural/artistic heritage so they recognize the value of it. But the community can be very divided… Crenshaw and Leimert are two very different communities, despite rubbing shoulders, and even within the artistic community of Leimert, you have divisions. So the beauty of collaborative projects like these are that they open channels for communication that might have been closed or more complicated previously. And that is important. You need cohesiveness for a community to move forward together… So, you’re right — land ownership is crucial — but solutions have to come from a variety of sources for the place to survive as a community.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    Very cool and exciting project.

  • A noble idea. But fraught with dangers. Could bring the community together or fracture into cliques etc. All you have to do is know the history of Old Town Pasadena, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Arts District in downtown L.A. to realize this is often the fate of districts built on small businesses whose vibe created the revitalization only to be shunted aside by property owners seeking higher rents by bringing in chains that create faux facades mimicking the vibe that was authentic but now just a marketing ploy. UGH!

  • janetrr

    ubray hits the nail on the head. The root cause of gentrification is market speculation on land and housing. Unless an intervention operates on level of land and housing values it will NOT ultimately affect gentrification. The telephone project could and should have an intermediate benefit – building a stronger network of relationships between people facing displacement, so they have the capacity to fight for a Community Land Trust or something like it. Use this powerful moment and go deeper Leimert. If the fight does not move towards removing land and housing from the speculative marketplace, the phone project will be a bright moment at sundown, and in 10 years the phones will be a gravestone to a community that no longer exists.

  • sahra

    No doubt that land ownership matters… but the problem is that buildings like some of those along Degnan have already been bought. That’s a done deal. There has already been a lot of turnover in housing in some areas. And so many of the businesses along Crenshaw are barely hanging on…ownership is almost out of the question. So yes, controlling speculation could help, but to mitigate some of the damage already done, it would be great to see more assistance for small businesses, art/cultural spaces, eateries/cafes, and non-profits so that they can weather the changes or to see technical and financial support for local entrepreneurs that would like to launch ventures, fill some of those vacant store fronts, and hire locally.

    My hope is that things like the phone project can help raise the profile of the community in ways that will attract those kind of resources from individuals, organizations, and even institutions interested in nurturing the growth of and celebrating the existing community. But you’re unfortunately right in that, it is entirely possible that without deeper economic support of some form from the city or other powers that be, it could all be for naught.

  • andrelot

    They should have bought their properties. Ownership is the only reasonable guarantee against displacement, and for good reasons. Renting is always a precarious situation, and so it should be (after all, you don’t OWN a place, you are just paying to use it for a limited time).

  • ubrayj02

    To say , “They should have bought their properties.” is taking things too far. I don’t know if you’ve tried to buy a commercial building, but it is NOTHING like buying a house. First of all, lenders get no loan guarantees from the government. This means that the buyer will have to secure 20% to 50% of the cash for the sale up front and borrow the rest. The term for repayment will be 5 to 10 years – none of this ridiculous 30 year mortgage stuff.

    Additionally, that building will need to provide a serious cash income to pay for its own maintenance and cover the expenses of servicing debt and taxes.

    Someone running a low-rent creative space for marginal economic activity is not going to have access to the capital that would allow the purchase of even a small commercial building.

    Maybe there should be government assistance program to turn commercial renters into owners (heck, the increases in assessed property values alone might pay for the program) but you are going to run into some angry property owners groups trying to institute a program like that.

    So, yeah, saying that people “should” buy the properties they rent in is sort of absurd. I pay commercial rent for a business and I cannot see the day I’d be able to buy the whole building (3 store fronts and 4 apartments above) I am in. It is a huge economic hurdle and a bunch of poets and artists are usually not going to be the types to be able to jump over it – though they often create value that property owners bank on when asking higher rents, etc.

  • jk2001

    I read that the world stage was trying to buy it but they never got info about it being for sale.

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