Leimert Phone Company project brings cultural hubs – and new life for old pay phones


A group of USC Annenberg researchers, collaborating with local neighborhood activists and artists, are introducing creative ways to get the most out of old, unused pay phones – and bring hotspots of community interaction to the area at the same time.

The Leimert Phone Company, an interdisciplinary, multi-platform project that aims to redesign pay phones into community-focused cultural hubs in Leimert Park, is gearing up to present their project at the four-day 2013 National Allied Media Conference, a gathering focused on media for community justice, in Detroit June 20 – June 23.

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

Francois Bar Leimert Phone Company 

The Leimert Phone Company came together under the collaborative efforts of USC faculty and students and Leimert Park artists, residents and community members. Stokes, Baumann and The Leimert Phone Company 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 Leimert Phone Company will demonstrate their model in a workshop titled Phone Booths Against Gentrification. They emphasize investing in process, including participatory design and transmedia storytelling. The workshop will challenge representatives from communities nationwide to apply the model hands-on, redesigning a payphone for their own city 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 phone company idea was sparked when Ben Caldwell, founder of the Leimert-based arts collective KAOS Network and co-founder of The Leimert Phone Company, 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 immediately thought, “Wow, how can we as social practice artists engage our communities in a similar way?”


The Leimert Phone Company from Karl Baumann on Vimeo.

Caldwell turned to USC Annenberg Communication Professor François Bar to help turn his idea into reality. They gathered a group of young people, artists and residents of Leimert Park and 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 of 2013, 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 deep 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."

 Benjamin Stokes

After the E-bay purchase of 12 used payphones, three teams collaborated on different ideas based on personal passions. Each team created a concept they 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 Leimert Phone Company for the resources to actually build a prototype.

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

The second concept, titled 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 the Wi-Fi, the login page takes them to a map that then 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 exhibit inside the phone booth. The payphone’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 predominately 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,” said Stokes. “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, Stokes said. 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, creative and still sustains 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 describes the idea behind The Leimert Park Phone Company 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 possess a wide spectrum of possibility. Payphone 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 payphone that acts as a cultural hotspot that brings the past into public space, spurring new conversations, treasure hunts, and supporting local business.

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

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

Ben Caldwell Leimert Phone Company