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COVER STORYMarch 17, 2006

News You Can Abuse

It’s a toboggan. It’s an armoire. It’s a terrarium. It only looks like a newspaper box.

By Huan Hsu. Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

The average District resident may not be familiar with the Employment Guide, a free tabloid listing local job opportunities. But surely everyone recognizes the signature plastic boxes that distribute the weekly publication. They’re everywhere, strewn seemingly willy-nilly on street corners and around bus stops, often tipped over, broken, or vandalized—sometimes all three. The flimsy plastic tubs were glossy once but have since dulled and warped in Washington’s rain and shine and grime. They have hollow bases and thin polycarbonate doors and can carry a stack of papers 15 inches high. And they have many other uses.

Over the years, Richard Jamin, vice president and general manager for the Employment Guide, has seen his boxes used as toboggans during snowstorms, armoires for the homeless, and even a dresser for a college student.

You can ram Employment Guide box lookalikes in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. According to Jamin, an Employment Guide staffer thought he spotted one while playing the game and stopped shooting cops and running over drug dealers long enough to pull his car up to inspect it. Rockstar Games didn’t re-create the exact boxes in the game, but anyone familiar with the real-life boxes will recognize the ones in GTA. You can watch an Employment Guide box get blown up in Grosse Pointe Blank. Jamin once fielded a call from a New Orleans city official who had happened to see Employment Guide boxes along his route to and from work. The official said the city didn’t want any newspaper boxes at all and that there was a fee if the Employment Guide wanted to distribute there. No such policy existed, of course. “With the reputation that New Orleans had, we weren’t sure what that meant,” Jamin chuckles. “We didn’t do anything.”

The Employment Guide owns more than 55,000 boxes nationwide, approximately 900 in the D.C. metro area. To keep up with the maintenance of all those boxes, the company employs 65 full-time circulation managers, two of whom are assigned to Washington, who spend their days on the road looking for and attending to broken or vandalized boxes. Each box is sprayed with Armor All to ease cleaning and bears a decal with a phone number for people to report graffiti, but that obviously doesn’t stop vandals or thieves. And just because they’re plastic doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Jamin says he pays around $100 for each box. “That’s a lot for a plastic box,” he says. “There’s another reason to make sure your investment is protected. Now, do we have challenges to make sure we find all the locations? Yes. Imagine you get to 20 stops a day—it’s a month to get them all, and then who knows what happened to the first batch you worked on. It’s an ongoing battle.”

What did newspaper boxes ever do to deserve this? Used, abused, and unappreciated, they are broken into and knocked over. They are stacked to create makeshift housing structures. Their cavities are sometimes filled with nesting material for small animals. They serve as bulletin boards for bands, activists, and anarchists. They are stolen by college kids. They are tattooed with graffiti. On one block below Dupont Circle, someone has scrawled, “You Lie, People Die” on a USA Today box and “Neo nazi Rag” on a Washington Times box. Another Washington Times box states that “BUSH IS STILL A DUMBASS,” and a third proclaims that “HARRIET MIERS IS AN INEXPERIENCE [sic] COCKSUCKING CRACKER WHORE.” Even the Washington Post isn’t off the hook, with “Media Lies” inked across the faceplate of one of its boxes. Talk about shooting the messenger.

Takoma Voice publisher and Editor-in-Chief Eric Bond remembers when anarchy reigned in the Washington newspaper-box business. Although the First Amendment ensures the right for all publications to distribute their material in public spaces, the competition for prime box space around Washington has always been vicious.

Bond says there used to be distribution hooligans connected to certain papers.Their job was to make sure their publication’s boxes were located where they wanted them to be located no matter what. If a box showed up without their approval, it suffered the consequences. Or they would move a whole line of boxes except one, which would look like a lost, neglected child and get picked up by the city. Several years ago, Bond got a call informing him that all of his boxes at the Takoma Metro station were in a Dumpster.

Another time, Bond noticed an empty space at the station. Normally, he wouldn’t have just plopped one of his boxes in the space, but since the station was right in his paper’s neighborhood, he felt it had a right to be there. When he showed up with his rack, a man who seemed to be there solely to watch the boxes approached him and threatened to kick his ass for taking the spot. The man also told Bond he was going to throw his box in a nearby creek. “That’s when I decided—with newspaper boxes—to live and let live,” says Bond.

Bond encountered what amounted to a protection racket for coveted spots at Metro stations. It made sense: Every self-respecting newspaper publisher in this region has jostled for prime box position at Metro stations, the gold coast for print distribution. Few other locations get the same kind of foot traffic of ready readers.

Publishers, however, are never content merely to have a box at a Metro station. Once there, they agitate for the ideal position. A common move is to leapfrog other titles to get a spot at the end of the line—for some reason, boxes on the ends of the line seem to get more customers than those stuck in the middle. Another is to get closest to an entrance. And if you fail to score one of those spots, a place next to a Washington Post box is desirable.

The region’s business-improvement districts (BIDs), as they try to scrub their streets clean of any sign of urban grit, have curtailed some of the position-mongering. In the Golden Triangle BID, which patrols western downtown, publishers have signed a voluntary agreement to abide by certain standards of order and cleanliness, basically promising to monitor themselves so the government doesn’t have to get involved. The regulations range from the straightforward—no more than seven boxes in a row along a curb; space is first come, first served; priority is given to the dailies—to the convoluted—newsracks must not be placed within five feet of crosswalks and fire hydrants, nor within two feet from the edge of the curb, nor within one foot of trash and cigarette receptacles. Fail to make repairs in a timely manner and the box gets booted. If someone steps out of line, everyone looks bad. Voluntary agreements also lord over news distribution in Montgomery County, Ballston, Old Town Alexandria, and Vienna.

Signing on to a voluntary arrangement fosters a degree of civility among competitors. Betsey Odell of the Gotham Writers’ Workshop manages about 2,000 boxes in New York and about two dozen in Washington. In the District, Odell says, the publications look out for one another. If a box is moved or turned around, someone will usually move it back. “It’s a really interesting dynamic,” she says. “There’s something to be said about the D.C. area, where freedom of speech is so well-guarded. It’s really great. I probably get 10 to 15 messages a month from other publishers just out of the D.C. area alone, asking if you’re missing a box here and telling you how to find it.”

During the various protests, parades, and presidential inaugurations that occur in Washington, publishers are forced to pull their boxes from certain areas, lest the racks be used as projectiles or house bombs. If left in place, the boxes will be swept away by the city and dumped who knows where. Publishers usually wait until the last minute, trying to milk as many coins as they can, so they rush onto the streets en masse in the middle of the night, working like halibut fishermen on the last day of the season. “There’s a fun camaraderie,” says Adam Draper, the Washington-area single-copy manager for USA Today. “Everyone’s out together.”

The protest cleanup also serves the same purpose as the occasional forest fire—burning off all the dead undergrowth that has accumulated over the years. Sometimes papers go out of business and don’t bother to remove their empty boxes. The Los Angeles Times pulled out of the city in 2004, but its boxes remain out on the streets, empty and rusting.

Still, voluntary agreements and camaraderie go only so far in curtailing the scramble among publishers. The minute the protests are over, publishers hustle to return their boxes so they don’t lose their positions. From time to time, free boxes disappear from Metro stations while the paid circulation boxes remain, according to Washington City Paper Circulation Manager Kris Koth. And if you keep losing boxes and it’s always the same paper’s box showing up in its place, you can’t help but be suspicious. “We’re in this together, but we’re also looking over our shoulders,” Koth says.

In February, a row of newspaper boxes disappeared from the northwest corner of 28th and M Streets in Georgetown, in front of Furin’s Restaurant. One of them was a Common Denominator dispenser. For Kathy Sinzinger, who publishes the Common Denominator, it was the second box she had lost that month; the other was taken from the Congress Heights Metro station. Losing two boxes, which cost up to $500 a piece to replace, was a tough pill to swallow for Sinzinger, a small publisher with only about 60 boxes on the street.

Getting a newspaper box into Georgetown isn’t easy, what with the neighborhood’s almost neurotic fixation on cleanliness and charm, but Sinzinger had scored an invitation from the Georgetown Partnership to participate in its new streetscape initiative. She and a few other publishers placed their boxes in one of the corrals the neighborhood had set up in an effort to clean up the clutter of boxes on the sidewalk. A month later, the corral where the Common Denominator box once stood is still empty. Sinzinger called the District’s Department of Transportation but never received a response. She then tried a Georgetown ANC commissioner, who didn’t return her call. The Georgetown Partnership said its people didn’t move it. An employee at Don Lobo’s, a restaurant a couple of doors down from the corral, told Sinzinger she saw someone in a blue truck pick up the boxes and drive away.

As for the Congress Heights box, Sinzinger went to the police department’s 7th District station to file a report. The police resisted making an incident report but eventually wrote down that the box had been stolen from an intersection. When Sinzinger asked why they had written that, they explained that if they said it was stolen from a Metro station, their supervisor would admonish them for not having sent her to Metro police.

Sinzinger, who in addition to her editorial duties also pitches in as coffee maker, janitor, and repairwoman, is hesitant to replace her boxes. “I haven’t been able to figure out what happened to either of them,” she says, sighing. “Why does nobody who was involved seem to care?”

The problem of stolen boxes has been around as long as the containers have existed. The majority of Washington’s metal newspaper boxes can trace their roots back to Shiner, Texas, where Arthur Kaspar manufactured wire baskets, shelving, and racks. In 1956, he went to San Antonio to try to sell wire racks to the San Antonio Light newspaper. At the time, most newspapers were sold on honor racks, basically a cigar box for coins atop a stack of papers, a distribution method with obvious shortcomings. The Light asked Kaspar to make a coin-operated rack that would hold 100 newspapers and secure a nickel before a buyer could get his hands on a paper. Kaspar’s company came up with a wire box with a coin mechanism that released a pull-down door when money was inserted. Before Kaspar could present the San Antonio Light with his prototype, however, a man showed up in Shiner, claiming to work for the newspaper. He loaded the box into his truck and took off. The San Antonio Sheriff’s Office eventually caught him and recovered the rack. No charges were filed, and the Light ordered 50 racks.

Newspaper boxes have been part of Washington streets for decades. But some would just as soon see the boxes go the way of the mastodon and the phone booth.

In Silver Spring, an unincorporated town, the downtown development area is controlled by a private company that won’t allow the Takoma Voice to distribute its papers there, so a bustling street in new Silver Spring’s agora, Ellsworth Drive, is short on community news. “They called us one day and said, ‘Take your boxes off Ellsworth, because they look junky on the street,’ ” says Bond, who manages a small fleet of 20 boxes. “It’s all private property, and they can do whatever they want, so we put them across the street. But they’re kind of lost; it would have been great to have them on Ellsworth.”

Newspaper publishers almost unanimously blame the publishers of Employment Guide–style leaflets for spoiling the party. The plastic boxes don’t look substantial and don’t clean or refurbish well, which tends to attract the unwanted attention of city planners. And since most of those boxes are owned by out-of-town companies, there’s less oversight and even less incentive to keep things friendly with the community and other publishers. They are such a pet peeve for USA Today’s Draper that he will pick them up and try to make them look presentable, even when he’s out with friends. “The problem with the free boxes is that they don’t understand; they don’t follow any rules or guidelines for vending in the city,” says Courtney Northrop, who manages about 400 boxes for Southwest Distribution, a D.C.-based news distributor. “They just throw boxes out there, or wrap five boxes around a lightpost, or swamp the paid-circulation boxes. They’re a little overzealous.”

The Employment Guide’s Jamin understands that his publication isn’t always welcome, so he picks his battles carefully. When the Upper East Side of New York made it difficult for him to distribute on its streets, he didn’t protest. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to be there in the first place, he reasoned. But if it’s a bus stop or a sidewalk, Jamin insists on his right to distribute. “As long as the New York Times gets there, we’ll put a box right next door,” says Jamin. “If they can get in there, we can get in there.”

He’s got a point. In 1993, the Supreme Court wrote an opinion that invalidated a Cincinnati ordinance banning newsracks for commercial publications from public property.

Steve Moore, the departing deputy executive director of marketing and communications for the Downtown D.C. BID, wishes there were more ways to restrict or confine newspaper boxes. “Right now, it’s just horrendous,” he says. “They’re just unsightly.”

The BID, which includes 138 blocks in mid- and eastern downtown, currently has no voluntary agreement with publishers about their boxes. “What I find most objectionable is around outdoor cafes,” says Moore. “I think it really deteriorates from the experience of sitting at the cafe. These things really clutter the streetscape and make it difficult to walk by. I’m surprised that the staff at Jaleo, or some place with outdoor seating, doesn’t just throw [the boxes] all out at 2 a.m.”

Moore, who admits that he gets his Saturday paper from a box, is wary of taking on the publishers, who he says will turn a debate about aesthetics into one about the First Amendment. Still, he doesn’t see why boxes are such a big deal. “I find it hard to believe that if you had a premium product, that you’d use [boxes] as your distribution method, crammed up against the wall, stuck among 15 others,” he says. “It seems wildly behind the times, given that most of us get our information electronically. There’s got to be a better way.”

One day, the BID hopes to take a page from its neighbor to the west. As part of the Golden Triangle voluntary agreement, publishers have agreed to move some of their papers into modular vending boxes, drab multi-unit machines that resemble oversized pigeon coops. BID representatives think the modulars are the answer to disarray, and want to consolidate all paper boxes into them, but publishers are less than ecstatic about the move. While it might relieve some areas of clutter, it doesn’t do much for distribution. Publishers rely on their boxes, painted with bold, eye-catching colors and graphics, as important marketing devices, miniature billboards advertising their companies. They view the modulars as a necessary concession to make for the sake of playing nice with the neighborhood. “It knocks the personality and style out of anything you’re trying to do,” says Odell. “I’m not as psyched about those. I don’t think it really helps anybody.”

“I think they have a great solution,” says Moore of the Golden Triangle’s modulars.

Aesthetically, Golden Triangle might seem like paradise to people like Moore, but it lags far behind the Madison Avenue BID in New York City. In an effort to beautify the stretch from 57th Street to 86th Street, the BID sought to move all of its papers from individual boxes into modular units, which other New York BIDs have done. This being Madison Avenue, though, just any old modular unit wouldn’t do, so the BID commissioned designer Karim Rashid to create a box that would meet the neighborhood’s standards for form as well as function.

In the fall of 2004, the first box was installed in front of the Issey Miyake store on the corner of 77th and Madison, a long, low piece of metallic silver (it looks like sheet metal but is actually brushed fiberglass) with a curved top sitting on a cantilevered base, and offering its faceplate at a slight upward angle. From the street, it appears to be tilting its head back to look at the mannequins in the Issey Miyake display. So far, it’s weathered two New York winters and one summer without problem. By this summer, the BID hopes to install boxes throughout its territory. BID president Matt Bauer isn’t sure how many boxes will actually hit the street—it will be approximately 70—but says that $475,000 has been budgeted for the project.

And what if some ne’er-do-well decides he’d like to have a Karim Rashid piece of his own?

“That would never happen,” says Bauer. “New York City law requires that multiracks be bolted to the sidewalk.”

Circulation managers throughout the D.C. area cheered when roving tagger Borf was caught. He nailed Sinzinger’s boxes on a regular basis, and shortly after Borf went to jail, Sinzinger saw a flurry of posts on an Internet message board about how to support him and help get him through his incarceration. Sinzinger had never before posted, but she was compelled to fire off a message saying that some people didn’t find anything socially redeeming about vandalizing a small business. The Borf supporters jumped all over her.

“I gotta tell you, as supportive as I may be personally of the political stances of the folks who put up posters of protests, it really makes me angry when they paper over our boxes and put stickers on them, because they’re making work for me and costing me money,” says Sinzinger. “I don’t know if they think just because we have a box…we’re some big company.”

Vandals with far less artistic flair than Borf are the real bane of box owners. Draper finds “Lies” written on his USA Today boxes all the time. He’s wiped off that word so often that he’s pretty sure he can recognize the handwriting. “I swear he’s got a route planned out,” says Draper. “I know this is a very politically minded place, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just the quickest thing he can write. I’d love to meet him.”

Draper has about eight people charged with managing boxes inside the Beltway. They look after 600 boxes in D.C. and Arlington, and while the turnaround time for cleaning a box is fairly quick, sometimes all the work just seems to provide vandals with clean canvases. “It drives me nuts when we fix one and two days later it’s been vandalized again,” says Draper. “Dupont Circle is the toughest for political messages and graffiti. You’ve just got a lot of pedestrians, politically active people, people out at the bars until 3 a.m., too. Some people, they’ve just got a marker, and they’re just drunk or mad.”

According to Draper, a USA Today box collects anywhere from $1.50 to $20 each day. The boxes have a pretty solid lock on them, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to break in. Usually, they’re unsuccessful—they can get into the papers but not into the coin box—but they don’t give up. For certain areas, Draper has had to abandon the rack and try to get inside the nearest deli. Down at Union Station, one of his boxes was an almost daily target, so he had to move all his papers into an Au Bon Pain. “I used to manage Fairfax County, and we very rarely had these problems,” says Draper.

Of course, it’s much easier to distribute from inside a store or a deli. Every paper would probably rather be indoors. But as soon as a paper gains a foothold in a store, others follow. It’s a universal rule of newsrack placement: If someone else’s paper can be there, then mine can, too. The problem is that shop owners aren’t keen on getting colonized by a raft of papers, especially once those ubiquitous auto, apartment, and job publications ride in with the horde. Once the clutter reaches a certain threshold, an owner will often get fed up and order everyone out, which means it’s back to the street boxes.

George Malios, owner of Trio Restaurant at 17th and Q Streets NW, last year kicked all community paper racks out of his entryway. “I’d come in in the morning, I’d straighten out the mess,” says Malios. “On my way out, I’d straighten out the mess. Then one day, I got tired of it and threw them all out. Now everyone who’s anyone has moved into boxes outside.”

Stolen and vandalized boxes are even more sensitive issues for gay newspapers. Anytime something happens to a Metro Weekly box, Editor-in-Chief Sean Bugg can’t help but wonder about the subtext. “When you’re a gay publication, you’re always worried that if suddenly your paper is going really quickly whether it’s because it’s really that popular, or if someone is grabbing them all,” he says.

For Bugg, street vending is all the more important because his publication, a magazine with unapologetically gay advertisements, isn’t exactly something a lot of retail proprietors want in their stores. Even when Bugg makes it into a store, he sometimes finds his papers covered up by someone else’s. If Metro Weekly is going to grow, it will do it primarily on the street in D.C. and not, say, at supermarkets in Manassas. Street boxes account for approximately one-quarter of Bugg’s circulation, a figure that will increase when he doubles his inventory of boxes.

One of Bugg’s boxes sat beside a USA Today box and others on a corner in front of a downtown office building at 14th and L Streets, not far from the Metro Weekly offices. One day, he noticed that the box had somehow been moved to the trash bin out back. He sent someone to return it to the corner, but the next day it was back in the trash. Finally, Bugg called the building management, who gave him a song and dance about how his publication wasn’t appropriate for their building. Bugg went into full offensive mode and barked that there was no way in hell that building management had control over the sidewalk, and that if they ever touched the box again, he would call the police. “It was just so shocking,” says Bugg. “Dude, it’s 2006, not 1985.”

Courtney Northrop has been around newspaper boxes for as long as he can remember. In 1974, his father established Southwest Distribution, a company that handles marketing and circulation for publishers. Northrop was a paperboy as a child and a newspaper box repairman when he got older, and he’s now the president of Southwest Distribution’s vending department, where he handles accounts for clients that include the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald.

News distribution is a racket that has landed Northrop in some odd places. He’s had to pull his boxes out of massive piles of other boxes from under a bridge at 11th and D Streets SE down by the Navy Yard. He’s caught his own carriers stealing papers from boxes to sell to other accounts, for which they were summarily fired. Most recently, someone went on a rampage in Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill, dragging boxes into alleys and smashing them open. He’s had to clean out boxes commandeered by the homeless. “Numerous times we’ve found bags of drugs and needles,” he says. “Or people use them for toilets. Some of the things in there, it’s not pretty. We’re not real eager to stick our hands inside.”

Managing his fleet of boxes is a nonstop chore. There’s a morning crew of two that works the street from 4:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. The “afternoon” crew, also two people, goes from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., cleaning and moving boxes, collecting coins, and taking street surveys. According to Northrop, the publishers, at least the big ones that can afford to pay a distributor, haven’t been putting much effort into their vending operations. “It’s not a large money-making operation,” he says. “It’s basically a sheer convenience to the general public. We’ve been going a number of years where we don’t make any profit but actually lose money.”

For all his doom and gloom, Northrop doesn’t see boxes becoming obsolete, especially in major cities. In fact, the demand for newspaper boxes is such that there is even a secondary market for them. Mike and Christine Grabowski are a husband-and-wife team that refurbishes used boxes out of a shop in Baltimore. The Grabowskis, circulation managers for the Baltimore City Paper by day, buy used street boxes from dailies or papers going out of business and sell the refurbished ones to papers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, including the Washington City Paper, which sends about 15 boxes to the Grabowskis to refurbish each month. The Grabowski shop does brisk business, turning out 25 to 30 boxes a week at about $110 a pop. They work only with metal boxes, which Mike sands, primes, and repaints. “Lots of papers have gone to plastic boxes, but after the first year, it’s over,” says Christine. “They’re hard to repair. With metal, you can always buy a new door, shelf, or spring.”

Christine expects no letup in business, in part because people love to haul away newspaper boxes. In her job with the Baltimore City Paper, Christine always counts on losing a few boxes each fall near the Johns Hopkins University campus. Sometimes she gets them back in the spring, when landlords call her to say that they think they’ve got something of hers. The worst stretch for the Washington City Paper’s Koth was 22 lost boxes in 18 months. She still can’t keep a box at Gallery Place; every time she puts one there, it disappears. After replacing it eight times, she’s given up. “Maybe some loony is just determined not to let City Paper have a box there,” she says. “It’s a big mystery what happens to boxes in this town.”

There may be hope for those Gallery Place boxes, though. As the Common Denominator’s Sinzinger has discovered, these things can turn up when least expected. The first box Sinzinger ever lost was in 2000, when one disappeared from the McPherson Square Metro station. For the hell of it, she reported it to the police. Nothing came of it, and Sinzinger wrote it off. Three years later, she happened to be heading home from her office, which was then located at a shopping center on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she spotted a Common Denominator box sitting at the McDonald’s a block away. She knew the paper already had a box there, but the one she spied seemed to be out of place. She pulled in and, sure enough, it was the box from McPherson Square. Inside, it still had the papers from the day it disappeared three years earlier. “That’s the sort of thing that happens with newspaper boxes,” says Sinzinger. “You don’t know who took it, or who brought it back, or why.” CP