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Public Spaces

Are abandoned newspaper boxes micro blight?

It's been just a few years since graffiti sprawled across Washington's downtown buildings. While blight in DC used to be large-scale, marked by graffiti and vacant lots, improvements over the past several years mean that in many places around the city, we now look for blight with a microscope. Are abandoned newspaper boxes blight on this micro scale?

Newspaper boxes wrap the 12th & G Streets Metro Center entrance. Photo by author.

The December 9 article on DC's lack of newsstands elicited strong reader reactions about what does and does not belong on our city streets. From upper Connecticut Avenue to K Street to around the Anacostia Metro station, newspaper boxes in Washington are ubiquitous. And abandoned boxes are often seen as a subtle sign of urban disorder.

Across the city, newspaper boxes cluster together in numbers easily reaching into the double digits in a single location. The clusters reflect the diversity of locally-available publications, ranging from the Epoch Times and Washington City Paper to USA Today, El Tiempo Latino, and the Washington Blade. As a means of distribution, newspaper boxes are critical to any publication. But when jumbled together haphazardly in nearly every corner of the city, are they adding to or detracting from the streetscape?

An unscientific canvas of downtown shows that boxes are distributed indiscriminately, sometimes on the corner while other times curbside in the middle of the street. Large concentrations are bunched outside most Metro stations. In upper Northwest and parts of Capitol Hill, they are frequently lined up outside of coffee shops. Elsewhere throughout the city, they hover near bus stops, frequently commandeered as additional ad hoc seating.

There are nearly 30 boxes outside of the Metro Center entrance at 12th & G. At least three metal boxes, Our Town, Falls Church Free Press, and the Rock Creek Free Press, appear to be abandoned. A quick check of Rock Creek Free Press's website confirms, "The September 2011 edition will be our last. After 5 years, 50 issues, the Rock Creek Free Press has printed its final edition." Their boxes outside of Metro Center and Gallery-Place entrances, however, remain.

Photo by author.

Only one block down the street at the 13th & G Metro Center entrance, there are over 30 boxes, a dozen battered and vacant. From the looks of it, the box for Our Town is being used as makeshift storage locker for a homeless person's blanket, rather than newspapers.

Who is responsible for newspaper boxes?

Stocking or not stocking boxes is an independent decision by each publisher, but an inactive newspaper box has a similar effect on public space, albeit on a smaller scale, as that of a vacant storefront. In its own way, a vacant box is representative of physical and intellectual blight.

Earlier this year, Arl Now documented two of the usual suspects in vacant boxes: the publications Apartment Showcase and For Rent. In March, Prince of Petworth pondered who regulates boxes.

While DDOT's Public Space Policy Division has jurisdiction to regulate the abandoned boxes, removing the boxes from the streets clearly isn't very high on the city's priority list. "Just look around," said a man standing next to the line of boxes bordering the street at the 7th & F NW entrance to the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.

Boxes at Metro stations fall under WMATA's jurisdiction, beyond DDOT's reach. If the buildup of years-derelict boxes outside many stations is any indication, Metro isn't clamoring to clear things out, either.

Vacant boxes in Anacostia

Old and vacant Washington Post box outside Anacostia Warehouse Market. Photo by author.

Although there are 5 boxes for The Washington Post and a solitary box for The Washington Times outside the Anacostia Metro, it has been weeks if not months, maybe a year or more, since they have been stocked, according to my independent observations and those of many morning commuters.

Up and down MLK and Good Hope Road, sometimes across the street from each other, are the omnipresent yellow stand-up boxes of The Express. The boxes are usually empty, with bundles of the paper instead resting on the front doorsteps of buildings around the neighborhood.

At 14th & Good Hope Road, outside of the Anacostia Warehouse Market, a Washington Post box is vacant and chained shut. "I don't know how long it's been there, but it's probably close to whenever the paper started," said Earl Johns, an Anacostia resident as he entered the market. As an indefinite indication of its age, the daily paper is priced at a quarter.

What to do about vacant boxes

Given their negative influence on the urban fabric, it is worthwhile to explore potential ways to address abandoned boxes. In other cities, people have gotten creative. There have been examples of boxes serving as flower pots for guerrilla gardeners. Some have hosted small "parties"; others have featured benign street art dioramas.

Courtesy of The Pop-Up City.
In Boston, two friends launched an experiment in "direct reciprocity" by making one abandoned box a 24-hour dropbox that dictated, "1. Leave an item; 2. Take an Item; and 3. Don't be a Stranger." People have even suggested using old boxes as grills. In Toronto an arts organization, the 24 Hour Box Guerrilla Art Makeover Project, has taken up the cause of beautifying grimy boxes.

On New York City's Upper East Side a long-standing community group has worked with the city for years to remove abandoned "newsracks" from cluttered sidewalks. In 2004, New York enacted a law revising existing regulations of newsracks. In DC, no such laws appear to be on the books, and if they are, they are not enforced.

While many communities in the city suffer from structural unemployment and smothering rates of illiteracy, it is understandable the dumping of newspaper boxes has been ignored.

Of course, some see the boxes as an important part of the landscape. According to one Howard University student, "They make the outside of the metro more colorful. Without the boxes you'd be bored."

Public Spaces

Newsstands could help enliven Washington's streets

Lively public spaces are a vital part of a livable city. Although DC has street vendors, unlike Paris, Philadelphia, and New York, we don't have one element that can help create a vibrant place: the newsstand.

Newsstand in Paris. Photo by the author.

Although innocuous to some, the interaction every morning with vendors that pass out the Washington Examiner and Washington Post Express fosters a connectivity fundamental to urban life.

"I've had about three babies named after me. People bring me cards and food," a Washington Examiner vendor said recently. "People make our day and we make theirs."

Newspaper boxes are mechanized while newsstands are personalized. "In publishing lingo," wrote the Post in 1991, "a reader is said to have a 'relationship' with a newspaper or magazine when he buys it all the time, feels strongly about its editorial content and absorbs at least some of its advertising messages."

Food trucks have become popular and ubiquitous in the city, largely because of the feeling of relationship they engender. Wouldn't newsstands on the streets do the same for us cerebrally?

In DC, to pick up a copy of your favorite magazine or an out-of-town newspaper, you have to step through a door. What if DC had newsstands like other cities and you could grab a magazine on the run?

Newsstands "forcefully demonstrate that New York, unlike cities whose streets have lost their vitality to car culture, still teems with on-the-run pedestrians," according to the New York Times.

According to the same article, until 2003 newsstand operators owned their stands and paid the city $1,000 for two-year licenses. Then the city enacted Local Law 64, "which required owners to give up their stands but allowed them to operate city-owned structures at no cost." Not surprisingly, newsstands, the intellective apotheoses of city sidewalks, began to vanish.

The momentary relief newsstands can bring to the daily grind of DC life was wistfully immortalized in 1992's A Few Good Men. Tom Cruise's character, Daniel Kaffee, gets up with Luther, who runs a local newsstand, several times throughout the movie to match wits and exchange clichés. One memorable scene:

Kaffee: How's it goin', Luther?
Luther: Another day, another dollar, captain.
Kaffee: You gotta play 'em as they lay, Luther.
Luther: What comes around, goes around, you know what I'm sayin'.
Kaffee: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Luther: Hey, if you got your health, you got everything.
Kaffee: Love makes the world go round. I'll see you tomorrow, Luther.
As a unique commercial marker paying homage to the past heydays of newspaper boys and the ongoing intellectual gentrification of the city, newsstands could add authenticity by invigorating DC's public streets.
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