Friday, December 19, 2008

A Brown Refrigerator On Every Corner

Because the Inquirer sometimes chooses the oddest photos to go with my Friday column (I won't even mention headlines.), I thought I'd share some of my shots here. In case you haven't been wandering around the east side of Broad Street in Center City recently, the neighborhood has been sprouting refrigerator size boxes at every signalized intersection. They're part of a Streets Department project to digitize the traffic signals throughout the city, but thanks to the Department of Homeland Security the new system is three times the size of the old pole-mounted controls, requiring a 67-inch free-standing box. The reason? The boxes were made bigger so they could hold the computer equipment for a future surveillance network. Just what we need - a security camera on every corner!

In the first photo, workmen are installing one of the big behemoths next to Marjorie Amrom's early 19th Century home at 10th and Lombard. The box partially blocks one of the doorways to the historically certified house. Amrom told me she couldn't understand why they didn't locate the signal controller catercorner from her house, alongside the Seger Playground fence. There are already two postboxes there and another big brown installation would have blended right in.

As a point of reference, here is one of the pole-mounted signal boxes. This one is located on the west side of Broad Street. While it also contains the digital equipment, you can see it is much smaller and less intrusive. That's because it was installed in the first phase of the digitization project, before the federal government began require intensive surveillance monitoring of our little rowhouse neighborhoods.

I wonder what impact this box is having on Albert Maranca's antiques business at 10th and Pine? Didn't anyone notice that the box was blocking his shop window? One of the common complaints about the boxes is that their blank canvases are an irresistible siren call to graffiti artists. The project, which covers South to Market Streets, isn't complete yet, but already many boxes have been tagged.

Here's another window blocked by the box. This is the new Marathon Grill at 10th and Walnut, which has become a mecca for Jefferson Hospital employees. This corner used to be a real dump, but when Marathon decided to open a location at the intersection it hired Sandvold Blanda Architecture + Interiors to give the building a face lift. Although the structure isn't historic, they did research showing it once featured huge loft-style windows with cast iron detailing. The used that idiom to guide their splendid recreation of the exterior. It looks like the signal box has wrecked the best table in the house.

Even when the boxes aren't flush against Society Hill's historic, colonial-era homes, they often make a big statement on the street. Center City's streets are already so overpopulated with sign poles, hydrants, bus shelters, bollards, bicycle racks and honor boxes, there's just not much room to add any more urban equipment. Could these signal boxes be the tipping point?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would anything intended for future computer equipment be made larger?

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Europeans bury space stealing eyesores like this underground.Yes its costlier, yes its harder to maintain but Soceity Hill is one of the few neighborhoods that this measure would be justified.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Center City's streets are already so overpopulated with sign poles, hydrants, bus shelters, bollards, bicycle racks and honor boxes, there's just not much room to add any more urban equipment." And not a trash can in sight!

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said it, bulldog! It's crazy to think that this digitization project is underway when there aren't trash cans on the street. Simple "broken windows" theory says the city will be safer if it looks cleaner, and then less of a need for security cameras.

Speaking of stuff that exists on every corner, has anyone looked into having the buses stop on every other block instead on every block? That would make the buses go so much faster and free up some space on the streets.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"future surveillance equipment"? That's kind of scary...

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that the National Park Service is complaining about the installation of the boxes around Independence National Historic Park when they were the ones who wanted to intrusively close off Chestnut Street and fence off that whole area with a huge wall.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How was this accomplished in other cities? I imagine Philadelphia isn't the only one that has to cope with the onerous requirements of the HOmeland Security Department.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great. Orwell's dystopia, with surveillance cameras soon to loom over every nook and cranny of Philadelphia. This will be the culmination of years of incremental encroachments on personal privacy and freedom (e.g., police cameras on Broad Street, and red light cameras on Roosevelt Boulevard). I am certainly not in favor of lawlessness (such as the drug dealing and running of red lights that current cameras are designed to thwart), but there seems to be hardly *anyone* who will stand up and say, "No, I don't want every move I make outside my front door, however lawful, to be scrutinized by government." And I'm sick of hearing people justify these tactics with statements like, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," or the more legalistic but equally noxious, "You don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces." Through the putative advancement of "safety," American freedom and quality of life are dying on the streets of Philadelphia and elsewhere in this country, and sadly, few people seem to care.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I were Ms. Armrom I would be really p***ed about the box being placed up against my house. There's got to be a better way to install them. And why brown, so ugly! they could have been a better color to blend in with the historic and vintage buildings. Why do cities have beautification projects costing millions, then do something ugly and stupid like this? If it's an issue with Homeland Security requiring all boxes be the same color, why not negotiate which color would be most pleasing to the city where they are being placed. Big Brother reigns again.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the cameras go up, they'll be taken down just as fast. The police state will advance even faster as the existing ponzi scheme of a monetary system goes down in flames and the new administration gears up for war against Pakistan and Iran.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The boxes are clearly too big, especially given the certainty of future miniaturization. But why couldn't they have been incorporated into the base of the traffic lights themselves?

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is Dr. Who?

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Dept of Homeland security isn't concerned with your safety, their concerned with the governments safety and control. Why is the first time I'm hearing about this in a column about aesthetics? Is anyone doing their job at the Inky?

11:49 AM  
Blogger Scott Morgan Lewis said...

Before I completed the first sentence of this post, I was thinking that these things are going to be graffiti magnets. Instead of wasting time trying to get the New World Order to compromise on their size and placement, it would be more productive and satisfying just to launch a direct action campaign of civilly disobedient artistic redesigns of each and every box. Some could be painted to blend in to surroundings. Others could say things like, "Eat the rich!"

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What did you think 'facial reconnication' software was going to used for??

Big Brother is alive and well!

A traffic Engineer

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i actually ran right into one of these things on my usual walk home i turned the corner with my head down and bamn! way to protect the public

8:51 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

I finally saw one of these boxes on the street. They are worse, if that's possible, than the photos. Unbelievable!

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why Inga, these boxes are as fashionable as the Verizon fios badass beige boxes. One word UGH.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

inga, your article is based on false information and you know it. the department of homeland security has NOTHING to do with this project. good job completely making up this story.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe these large boxes were "required" so that union people would have something to do. What a shame.

8:15 AM  

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