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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Detroit has a new old-school payphone that's free to use

Posted By on Tue, Nov 19, 2019 at 10:39 AM

click to enlarge COURTESY OF FUTEL
  • Courtesy of Futel

As mobile technology has proliferated, old-school payphones are vanishing around the world. (Kids, ask your parents about them.) Finding one that still works can be difficult, as many are just busted, empty boxes with dangling wires at this point.

That's why Karl Anderson founded the Portland, Oregon-based Futel in 2014. The nonprofit has dedicated itself to keeping the old-school phone booth alive, with 10 free-to-use phones installed across the country, mostly in Portland. And now Detroit has its first, which was recently installed in the Core City neighborhood at 23rd Street and Breckenridge Street.

"In the beginning, I just wanted to put up a payphone because they were disappearing," Anderson says by phone. "The payphone is a such an interesting and important part of urban history, and hacker history. So I just wanted to kind of play around with that and make an art project around it — to see who would use it just for the phone itself. And I found that a lot of people were using it, much more than I expected."

Anderson says Futel is mostly funded by grants, and also relies on a lot of volunteers.

"Everyone wants to say that the payphone is dead," he says. "Yeah, I mean, largely it's completely winnowed down, but then every once in a while you read about a phone that a community keeps, or a payphone that still gets used a lot for whatever reason. These things still exist. And I'll tell you that my phones have got a lot of use."

The Futel phones have a menu with options for voicemail, a directory of social services, and even the ability to speak to a live (volunteer) operator. But there are other functions meant to be fun or thought-provoking — "part-political statement, part-art project," Anderson says.

Take, for example, the "wildcard line" — where users can contribute and listen to stories that are later collected as part of an "audio zine."

"It's like a call-in a radio show, but not live," Anderson says. "It's like a non-realtime call-in radio show where you can hear previous callers and then make your own contribution."

There's also a function that will dial up a random ICE detention facility.

"This is a historical moment," Anderson says when asked why he created that function. "I like to ask them if they're aware of what happens to prison guards when human rights tribunals happen, and if they have a plan for that, when that day comes around."

He says he has also offered to sell them used children's toys at a discount — a reminder of the horrors faced by migrant children that have been detained.

All it takes to host a Futel phone is a publicly accessible site with an internet connection. (There's also a Futel phone in Ypsilanti, on Pearl Street west of Washington Street.) Anderson says he's always looking for new hosts to spread his network.

"I really want to expand in Detroit 'cause I love Detroit," he says. "I'm always looking for sites, and I'm also always looking for local artistic collaborations. I like to get local neighborhood-strengthening stuff — you know, people talking about their neighborhoods, people talking about the history or the future of their neighborhoods, and stuff like that."

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