Our street corner friends

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I’ve always wondered what these large cast iron posts are and I imagine you have too. In the case of the above, someone has beautified the vestiges of what was Philadelphia’s early 20th century police and fire communication system. Judging by the height, on the top of this post would have sat a police telegraph box. I would have never known what these posts were if I hadn’t come across Citizenship in Philadelphia (1919), a wonderful book that credits city achievements in the way of urban health and welfare while calling for all sorts of municipal improvements in the Progressive vein.

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While modern commentary seems to suggest that Philadelphia lagged behind other cities who more avidly embraced the nascent health and welfare movements or implemented City Beautiful projects, the presence of these “street corner friends” in many parts revealed that the city did value a baseline level of civic security. Police and fire boxes, which in places like New York are still ubiquitious and functional parts of everyday life, were the necessary eyes and ears of the city’s command and control apparatus. Philadelphia was, and continues to be, a city dedicated to the preservation of life, liberty, and property–with a keen emphasis on the last of this series. Though fire had never ravaged the city like San Francisco (1906) or our neighbor to the south Baltimore in their often overlooked inferno of 1904, the prospect of a cataclysmic fire was not improbable. And if we wanted to interpret these boxes as means of social control, the possibility of large scale urban revolt was never out of the question, either. Old-timers could recall the urban unrest in 1877 and even before that the ghosts of the riots of 1844 still lingered.

On a more pedestrian level, however, these devices on streetcorners constituted more than an electronic panopticon but instead cast a kind of technological blanket of security across the city. Silent and almost robotic, they bespoke modernity to a city that had only known corruption, police somnolence, and general backwardness. They represent Philadelphia’s first attempt to become “wired” though their abandonment also reflects the hazards of making huge outlays for telecommuncations systems that are almost perpetual obsolete.

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