Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
It’s asking New Yorkers, “What does Eric Garner mean to you?”
When news of Eric Garner’s death went viral, people had a lot to say: about the New York police department’s use of chokeholds, about racial profiling, and about police brutality in general. Some went to Facebook and Twitter, others to their local radio station.
As July 17 approaches—marking the one-year anniversary of Garner’s death—the public radio station WNYC and the architecture firm SHoP are partnering to offer one more way for people to share their thoughts: a pay phone.
The TalkBox, as it’s being called, is an old pay phone purchased on eBay. WNYC and SHoP fixed it up, rigged it up like a mini sound booth, then placed it in Staten Island to capture the reflections of local residents. The question at hand: What does Eric Garner mean to you?
TalkBox’s “On Air” sign shines brightly, and it caught the attention of passersby on Wednesday (the first day it was installed) at the St. George Ferry Terminal—just a block from where Garner died. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, anyone can leave a voicemail with their comment, or simply listen to their neighbors’ stories. Testimonials made through the TalkBox will be shared via the booth’s Twitter account @WNYCTalkBox, and some will be played on air.
The response has been tremendous, says Paula Szuchman, vice president of on-demand content at WNYC. By the end of the day Wednesday, she says, 30 messages had been recorded.
”Eric Garner to me means a new start to a new civil rights movement,” one person commented. ”He was a good, innocent person. He was trying to do it all, trying to find a way to feed our families,” said another.
Here are some of the messages left on TalkBox, courtesy of WNYC.
From Mark, who used to pass by Garner all the time:
From Ben, who commented on finding a solution:
And from young Amaya, from Florida:
Starting Friday, the pay phone will be placed at a local bookstore called Every Thing Goes Book Cafe and Neighborhood Stage. For those not in Staten Island, there’s a call-in number—though Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal architect at SHoP, says the pay phone itself is a key part of this endeavor.
“By creating something that is part of the everyday landscape and then making it noticeable, it’s meant to encourage people to use it in a way that I don’t think it would if people just had a call-in number,” he says.
When it came to the design of the phone, the team went with something simple. “It’s an iconic piece of communication device,” Szuchman says. Plus, it’ll be easy enough for other public radio stations to replicate in their cities.
“We changed it just enough so that there’s something special about it and makes you want to engage with it,” says Matthew Clarke, project manager at SHoP.
The project, supported by a Knight Foundation Prototype Grant, is geared toward communities that public radio can’t always reach, Szuchman says. In a way, the TalkBox is the station’s “proxy reporter” who can be on the ground all day gathering local voices. Staten Island is only the first stop, Clarke adds. WNYC is looking to take the pay phone to different communities to encourage public dialogue about other hot-button issues.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Chakrabarti says about the project. “It’s deployed in the face of a tragedy, which is something that is terrible for the entire city. But at the same time, this demands public dialogue.”