New York’s Alternative Public Library

There are 13,659 payphones on NYC sidewalks, even though there are over 17 million cell phones. Is the pay phone an anachronism or an opportunity…” reads a poster graphic designed by New York architect John Locke. Locke is the architect behind the ‘Department of Urban Betterment,’ a New York-based interventionist project that is repurposing phone booths into communal libraries or book drops through the installation of hanging bookshelves milled from single sheets of plywood. According to Designboom, Locke’s easily replicable shelf hangs securely to the interior of the payphone without the aid of additional fasteners, and, importantly, it leaves the pay phone completely unobstructed and operable. Now miniature public libraries are popping up in Manhattan Valley and Morningside Heights

Locke was intrigued by the phenomenon of the pay phone, which he described as “dead technology perched on the edge of obsolescence.” Though seemingly trampled by the advent of cell phones and thoroughly crushed by the influx of smart phones, the pay phone remains a relic of shared public space that has been long lost, quotidian urban infrastructure that goes largely unused and unnoticed. Locke sought to ‘reprogram’ these vestigial emblems into objects that could inspire and facilitate and new variety of shared space, that of neighbors sharing tangible media with one another. 

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