When Irene, an elderly woman who lives on the corner of 11th and M Streets NW, dares to venture out her front door at night, she steps into a criminal nether world inhabited by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and vagrants. Irene’s front stoop hosts just about every version of unsavory activity: nasty fights, constant yelling, trysts, and the occasional shooting. When morning comes, Irene takes inventory of the previous night’s goings-on, sweeping away the used condoms and empty crack bags strewn on her front lawn.
But Irene doesn’t blame the usual suspects—the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the city’s elected leaders—for the crime that hovers outside her windows. Instead, she points to a less animate culprit: “It’s that phone,” she says, gesturing disgustedly toward the black and silver box on the corner.
When the phone is broken, as it is now, Irene says, “I don’t have no problem.” When the phone is working, as it is most of the time, Irene has to shut herself in her bedroom upstairs to block out the street noise.
“They use that phone to sell their drugs and then give my address to tell whoever where they at,” she says. Two years ago, an MPD officer who had gotten Irene’s address in an investigation appeared at her door with his gun drawn.
Groups of prostitutes linger at the phone, waiting for it to ring and connect them with their next trick. And Irene says she often has to contend with their pimps, who watch over their women from her front lawn. “They’re out there sitting on the grass. They have a bucket of chicken and beer and they use the phone,” she explains.
Irene says that she and her neighbors once sent a complaint to the Public Service Commission (PSC), with over 30 signatures, asking that the phone outside her house be removed. It’s still there. In order to have a pay phone removed, District residents must submit a formal complaint to PSC, the agency that licenses pay phones to operators and rules on where they can be installed.
“They didn’t do nothing,” Irene says. So she and a neighbor took matters into their own hands: They got a wire cutter and severed the phone line. “I couldn’t sleep at night,” Irene says.
On a walking tour through Irene’s neighborhood, Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Beth Solomon delivers a tutorial on pay-phone encroachment. “There’s another one,” she says before gazing across the street. “There’s two more. How many is that now? Ten? As you can see, it’s just ridiculous. This neighborhood does not need this many phones.”
Along the way, Solomon calls attention to the shuttered businesses and proliferating “For Rent” signs that line the street, which at dusk radiates gloom like a Hughes brothers film. “There’s plenty of business going on here, but none of it is happening in the stores. By the way, that’s a crack dealership,” Solomon says nonchalantly, pointing to a thrift shop. “That guy in the glasses is a big crack dealer.” There’s a bank of pay phones outside the store, pushing the count to 14 in a two-block stretch.
“Our big problems here are between 9th and 11th Street, which are drug corridors and prostitution corridors,” says Solomon. “Exacerbating the problem are pay phones all over the place, like a cancer just taking over.”
Solomon, like her Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) colleagues, says her neighborhood’s pay phones serve as an operation center for local hoods. “Our policy is to oppose all new pay phones until the neighborhood’s cleaned up,” says Bill Selepack, executive director of the Logan Circle ANC. Sometimes the phones themselves become instruments of crime. Selepack says the one outside the Latrobe building at 15th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW is a source of unwanted phone sex.
“There is a pervert that when certain people walk by, he calls and lets the phone ring, and most people will stop and answer it,” Selepack explains. “Then he starts talking dirty to them and says he’s watching them and jacking off and all this stuff. I mean there’s all kinds of perverse people out there.”
Still, applications for new phones around Logan Circle persist. Selepack says he’s currently fighting to keep one off the corner of 15th and P Streets, outside Alberto’s Pizza. “That corner is so grossly disgusting and bad with vagrants right now,” he says. Another phone is set to go in at 11th and N Streets, on what Solomon considers the most embattled block in the neighborhood.
In their struggle to disconnect neighborhood pay phones, Logan Circle activists are bumping against area telecommunications companies determined to put a phone within crawling distance of every D.C. resident. Before 1982, the telephone industry was tightly regulated, and pay phones were hard to find in residential communities. But deregulation unleashed legions of fortune seekers onto the streets of D.C., scouting locations on every street corner and storefront where they could position their wired piggy banks. Along with strip malls and heavily treaded night spots, high-crime areas like 11th Street are prime pay-phone turf.
Ali Kheirandish runs a small company called Pay Phone Unlimited. While he says he doesn’t concentrate his business on crime-infested neighborhoods, he concedes that the quarter bins fill up a lot quicker in Logan Circle than they do in Georgetown. And he’s not at a loss to explain why: First, Logan Circle residents are more likely to figure among the 8 percent of the D.C. population who do not own a phone. And people who are interested in perpetrating like the anonymity a public phone promises.
“There are areas that you know if you put a pay phone there you can make tons of money,” says Kheirandish, who estimates that a good phone will yield $500 a month and an average one about $100. “But you know it’s only coming from the drug dealers. These are the types of things that you can easily look at and observe. It doesn’t take a year to find out.”
To get their phones up and running, vendors must first get approval from the owner of the land where the proposed phone is to be installed, usually by promising the landowner a percentage of the profits. The vendor must then submit an application to PSC, which in turn sends out copies of the document to members of the ANC and the police department in the area where the proposed phone is to be installed. The ANCs are then allowed 30 days to submit a written statement opposing the phone, thus setting up an “informal hearing,” where the opposing sides can do battle. If no complaint is filed, PSC usually approves the installation.
But many ANC commissioners say PSC’s approval procedures favor the pay-phone companies. Kheirandish agrees: Even if the ANC blocks a proposed phone, he notes, the vendor can request additional hearings, turning the approval process into a war of attrition pitting profit-motivated telephone entrepreneurs against weary community activists.
“The problem is, to tell you the truth, you can’t be running downtown all the time for these pay-phone hearings,” says Solomon. “It’s unrealistic to expect ANCs to do that. We’ve got enough meetings and activities and all this stuff going on without rushing down there all the time to talk about why we’re opposed to a phone. So what usually happens is that no one from the ANC shows up.”
Even though the Logan Circle ANC has apprised PSC of its blanket opposition to new pay phones, Solomon can’t cite one instance when the ANC has blocked a pay-phone installation. Chris McIver, PSC’s pay-phone complaint mediator, says that when the commission orders removal of a pay phone, no new units can be installed within a one-block radius for a year. Although McIver insists that PSC informs ANCs of proposed installations in their jurisdictions, many ANC commissioners complain that new phones pop up in their districts without warning.
“One of the concerns that I have is that there needs to be some kind of notification when they are looking to put new phones into a neighborhood,” says Roscoe Grant, an ANC commissioner in Anacostia who claims some success in blocking phone installations. “A lot of times we’ll wake up and we’ll look and there’s a new phone.”
Says Solomon, “In a place where there’s an overabundance of phones and where there’s heavy drug traffic, it sort of defies logic for the neighborhood to have to marshal a big opposition campaign for one more pay phone. What we find is, to an increasing degree, our neighborhood has only businesses like liquor stores, pay phones, and drugs.”
Neither MPD nor PSC buys into the view that the pay phones generate crime. “It’s not the phones, it’s the people who use them for what we believe to be criminal activity,” says Inspector Sonya Proctor of MPD’s 3rd District.
Presley Reed, PSC’s acting deputy general counsel, says pay phones provide a public service, not a gathering spot for criminals. “What the commission tries to address is increasing what we call the penetration rate of phone service in the District of Columbia, meaning taking whatever efforts to ensure as many people possible have at least just a very basic telephone service to meet some of just the basic needs of living in today’s society,” says Reed.
By Reed’s measure, Logan Circle residents are set—and then some—on basic needs. Selepack agrees: “My big problem is I work in D.C.,” he cracks. “I’m down on K Street. I can’t find a damn pay phone. In my neighborhood, there’s, like, five within walking distance, and there’s no need.”—Brett Anderson