Portlanders are slow to part with public relics. Rather than phase out the iron hitching rings that line our curbs from the days when people actually rode horses in Portland, the city repairs and replaces them so creative types can tie up plastic toys. Rather than install new water fountains that can be turned on and off, we allow the Benson Bubblers to endlessly burble treated water into our sewage system. And rather than remove our old pay phones, as cities like Boulder and the entire state of Alaska have done, we allow blue-and-yellow dinosaurs to sit mostly unnoticed.
"There's a phone booth there?" asks Gino, a self-proclaimed old-timer at Belmont Inn, sipping a pale ale through his graying mustache on a recent weekday afternoon. "I didn't even know—thought they took those out a long time ago."
Last September, "they" almost did. Though unprofitable pay phones have been steadily removed by the companies that own them, the City Council voted on a proposal to terminate Portland's contract with two companies running its public phones. In the end, the city renewed both contracts, cashing in on a $4,000 cut of the quarters and foiling groups like the Irvington Community Association, which had rallied to have a booth beside the 15th Avenue Hophouse removed because it's allegedly used by drug dealers.
No one pays much attention to the phones—neither City Hall nor either contracting company could even provide a list of current pay-phone locations—but a recent project by the New Museum in New York grabbed our attention.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star employs 5,000 pay phones across New York to relay what life in the city was like in 1993. Callers there dial a 1-800 number from each location and hear a monologue from someone like chef Mario Batali, porn star Robin Byrd, legendary club kid James St. James, actor Chazz Palminteri or Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott.
Portland is not so large nor nearly so dense with celebrity and history as New York, and Willamette Week has fewer resources than the New Museum. But we were inspired to transform five Portland pay phones into little portals to the past.
You could, we know, dial these numbers from anywhere to hear locals tell tales of turn-of-the-century murders, clandestine communist meet-ups, and '90s crackheads. But, trust us, it's more fun from the pay phones themselves—even if it does cost a couple quarters.
Pioneer Courthouse Square: Next to the bike racks on the corner of Southwest Broadway and Morrison Street, near the entrance to Abercrombie & Fitch, are three phone booths. Dial in to hear about the corner's haunting history, which includes the time when Pioneer Courthouse Square was "Villard's Ruins" and a mysterious blood trail led into the half-built Portland Hotel. Dial 503-445-3648.
Portland State University: Learn about Michael J. Smith, the man for whom Portland State University's student union is named, a trivia genius with cystic fibrosis and an affinity for horse meat. The booth stands beside the Smith Memorial Student Union, on the west side of Southwest Broadway, where it meets Harrison Street, below an overpass that reads, "Let knowledge serve the city." Dial 503-445-2751.
Belmont: The phone is on the southeast corner of Southeast 34th Avenue and Belmont Street. You'll hear about the old days along Belmont, once a line of dingy bars and light industry. Dial 503-445-3653.
Paranoid Park: If O'Bryant Square doesn't ring a bell, its other name might. Through the pay phone mounted next to Smart Park's entrance on Southwest Stark Street, between 9th and Park avenues, a throng of "transient folks" smelling of bong smoke will explain the square's nickname. We don't recommend visiting it alone at night. Dial 503-445-1534.
Tom Burns' soapbox: In the 1920s, Tom Burns, the "Mayor of Burnside," ran socialist meetings and delivered soapbox rants on this corner. Hear about this Occupy precursor denouncing city fathers. Call from two phone booths at the southeast corner of Southwest 4th Avenue and Alder Street. Dial 503-445-2756.