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Pay Phones Are About to Make a Third Ward Comeback

The so-called TréPhonos hack the outmoded technology to reflect the music, history, and ambiance of the Third Ward community.

By Brittanie Shey August 17, 2018

One of the hacked TréPhonos pay phones.

Think back to the last time you used a pay phone. The once-ubiquitous structures have been supplanted by cell phones, but a few remaining booths in the Third Ward will soon find new life as art objects, thanks to Project Row Houses.

Three phone booths, sprinkled across North Third Ward, will feature the voices and sounds of The Tre. The booths have been hacked electronically, and transformed into sculptures through painting and metalwork. Now callers can press buttons 1-9 to hear recordings, or press the star button, zero, or pound sign to record and hear messages from other callers, plus the project's statement of purpose. The phones create a new kind of connection.

TréMixTape, outside Wolf's Pawn, features musicians from the neighborhood and has been transformed to look like a vintage radio. The recordings include various genres and generations of local music. The booth also has speakers that play externally when the coin release lever is held down.

TréSonic, outside Crumbville, TX, is an abstract hexagonal sculpture that features ambient noise of the neighborhood recorded by artist Marc Furi as part of his soundscape anthropology project.

The third booth, TréSankofa, at the SHAPE Community Center, features the voices and stories of Third Ward residents. The word "sankofa" comes from the Akan tribe of Ghana and literally means "go back and get it." Its usage refers to protecting the history and oral traditions of African American culture for future generations. TréSankofa is shaped like a giant ear.

Jeanette Degollado, one of the artists working on the project, says the idea came about through a series of hangouts in the neighborhood.

TréPhonos artists and ambassadors at one of their BBQ Tré meetings in Third Ward. From top, L-R, are Marc Furi, Kofi Taharka, Julian Luna, Matt Fries, Jeanette Degollado, and Sunny Smith.

"No one person owns the project or ideas, simply because it is implausible to pinpoint the beginning or end of an idea in a collaborative setting," she says. "We have managed to create a feedback loop, where community self-determination, artist, activist, and Third Ward residents are both the input and output, informing each other, creating synergy."

Degollado said that even though pay phones have become an obsolete technology, their usage makes sense because they already exist in the community—and they can be easily hacked. In addition to hacking the phones' audio components, the artists also altered the phones to run on solar energy.

Degollado's background is in street art, which makes use of existing infrastructure as a canvas that is then available for public consumption. It's not a stretch to see how this translates to the TréPhonos project.

"The pay phone is a symbol of public and private space," she says. "They symbolize connection, distance, emotion, infrastructure, and socialization. They hold space for people, and where pay phones exist, so do people."

Aside from Degollado, collaborative partners Matt Fries and Julian Lua worked together on the booths. Fries and Lua have previously built art cars and sculptures utilizing sound, experience that lends itself to the TréPhonos project.

Ambassadors from the neighborhood, including activist Kofi Taharka, musician Sunshine Smith, and Marc Furi helped curate the recordings.

"They are embedded and very well respected in the neighborhood," Degollado says of the ambassadors. "Their role is the most essential part of the whole project. Our vision is to continue the project, where the ambassadors take the lead and continue to curate the TréPhonos."

To kick off the project's installation, PRH is hosting two events. The first is a concert called "We Sound So Good On The Phone," featuring artist talks and a performance from Big Brandon Willis on August 24 at 6 p.m. at PRH's headquarters, 2521 Holman Street.

The second is a series of bike tours co-sponsored by Tour de Hood and Let's Do This Houston, taking place at 6:13 and 7:13 pm on September 1, starting from the El Dorado Ballroom.

Just like other infrastructure, the TréPhonos are expected to evolve along with the community.

"The installation will run indefinitely, as long as the TréPhonos sculptures function properly, and are aesthetically pleasing," Degollado says. "We hope to find other partners, sponsors, and donors that will give generously to continue this project, in order to continue the good work in the Third Ward Community."

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