Psst. Have you heard? In a modern twist on an old telephone game, three magical pay phones with mysterious properties have popped up in Houston's Third Ward.
The magic isn't that they're free, though that part is cool. Walk up to one phone, press the handset to ear, push a button and voila: the unmistakable sound of a Third Ward rapper. Dubbed El Mix-Tape, this phone not only functions as a jukebox — with recordings by Brandon Willis, Jewetta Boney, T Lee, Blessed Child 100, Global Gospel's Stacey, Jalen Baker, Roderick Felder and J Free — but also allows the user to make a recording.
"The innards have been reprogrammed. Pop in an SD card and change the recordings," says Jeanette Degollado, one of the collaborators on this Project Row Houses public art installation. "One through nine is a different track or recording. The star is record, the zero is playback. One can record their voice, rap music or speak over field recordings. The pound is the colophon that thanks the sponsors and partners."
"The TréPhonos" were created by three artists (Degollado with Matt Fries and Julian Luna), in partnership with three ambassadors (Kofi Taharka, Marc Furi and Sunny Smith) and 18 Third Ward residents.
All of the phones are solar powered and the second one will play stories recorded by longtime residents of the neighborhood. "What we’re doing is multigenerational. So that’s our reach, we’re trying to connect generations," says Degollado. "Millennials or earlier — six-, seven-, eight-year-olds and teenagers — to the elders in the community.
"Because of gentrification there have been challenges with resources and just throughout the history of Third Ward. At one point in history African Americans had their own dentists, their own medical clinics; everything was confined to what is the Third Ward area. And then when integration started happening those businesses started dwindling and going away. At the end of segregation African Americans started using white dentists. There was a lot of disinvestment," says Degollado.
"Gentrification is like the other element that is now removing the older generation, who don't have the means to pay higher rents or higher property taxes and are literally being pushed out of their homes.
The third phone draws from work by artists and creatives through PRH's Strategic Art Plan, a new endeavor that began this year, made possible through funding from the Houston Endowment. We could hear field recordings, the sound of the drive through lane at Frenchy's Chicken, or collected oral histories.
Degollado says they're "super stoked" about the project. She says the neighbors are the stakeholders and the pay phones are designed to become hubs in the neighborhood.
"As time goes on our goal is for the community to embrace these phones and make their own recordings. It could be specific to Juneteenth or an anthology," says Degollado. "We really want to highlight the voices and the perspectives that are in the community."
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"The TréPhonos" runs September 1 through December 31; phones are positioned at Wolf’s Pawn (2701 Emancipation), Crumbville (2316 Elgin) and S.H.A.P.E. Community Center (3815 Live Oak). For information, call 713-526-7662 or visit projectrowhouses.org/calendar/the-trfonos.
Companion events for "The TréPhonos:"
TréPhonos Love, “We Sound so Good on the Phone”, 6-8 p.m. August 24, Project Row Houses, 2521 Holman
TréPhonos bike tours, sponsored by Tour da Hood and Let’s Do This Houston, 6:30 p.m. and 7:13 p.m. September 1, El Dorado Ballroom parking lot, 2310 Elgin; sign up at LetsDoThisHouston.com