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You can get lots of things from the Play newsbox outside the Art Store on M Street NW in Georgetown. Open the steel cabinet and you’ll find empty cigarette cartons, foam coffee cups, glass and plastic bottles, old take-out menus, crumpled napkins, and a stained and faded copy of the Aug. 7 Georgetown Current.
Play itself is nowhere to be seen. The Web site listed on the box is down, and the telephone has been disconnected. Rebecca Pichardo, an assistant manager at the art shop, says new papers stopped showing up six months ago. But the box remains, a monument to the defunct publication.
While many cities set strict rules about the placement and maintenance of newspaper boxes, District officials say D.C. currently has no policy about removing seemingly abandoned street boxes. “It’s something that we are looking into,” says Department of Transportation spokesperson Bill Rice.
The tricky thing, Rice says, is making sure that they’re abandoned. “If you’re a once-a-month publication,” Rice says, “you don’t use it for most of the time it’s there.”
Like D.C.’s obsolete emergency call boxes, which are now being decorated and turned into public art, the disused and underused paper boxes have been finding new purposes. The relics serve as street furniture: convenient outdoor lockers, cupboards, and trash bins. Especially trash bins.
Despite the boxes’ penchant for collecting garbage, Department of Public Works spokesperson Mary Myers says that’s “not necessarily” a reason to supplement them with a greater number of actual trash cans. “It simply means that some people are irresponsible and use whatever receptacle is handy,” Myers says.
Until recently, “clean team ambassadors” routinely emptied out trash-stuffed street boxes within the 38-block Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, which spans 16th through 21st Streets NW from Pennsylvania Avenue up to Dupont Circle. But that service was scrapped out of concerns about workers’ safety, according to Marcia Rosenthall, executive director of the improvement district.
“They’ve come across needles. They’ve come across feces. They’ve come across lots of interesting things,” Rosenthall says.
Rosenthall’s organization is brokering a voluntary agreement with publications—including the Washington City Paper—to standardize the size and placement of newsracks in the business district, and to get owners to keep them clean. The Georgetown Partnership is working on similar measures in its neighborhood.
Until those plans are implemented, the boxes will remain, with the public putting them to whatever use it can. A survey of District sidewalks turned up the following:
* In a Play box outside the Dupont Circle north Metro exit: a crusty cream-colored sweater, a pair of black jeans, a single size-10 sneaker, and one leather sandal, size 9 1/2.
* In a Play box at Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street SE: a plastic beverage pitcher and assorted cups.
* In an unmarked black box at 600 Maryland Avenue SW: an empty can of SpaghettiOs, with a plastic spoon resting inside.
* In a Play box at 17th and Church Streets NW: bottles, cans, plastic bags, old newspapers, and an empty condom carton.
* In a Washington Wit box near the corner of 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE: a brown-stained Styrofoam take-out box, wrapped in a plastic bag, on top of an April 5, 2002 issue of the New York Daily News.
* In a rusty white box near the corner of S and 18th Streets NW, lying on its side and marked with decals for the Learning Annex and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B01: bottles, a moldy take-out box, rotting newspapers, and one AA battery. Neither the Learning Annex nor the commission is willing to accept responsibility. “It is not one of the places that either I or the previous ANC commissioner had used for posting notices,” says 2B01 commissioner Norma Chaplain. CP