Restoring neighborhoods, one box at a time
by Michael Perlman
Jan 28, 2015 | 0 views | 0 0 comments | 0 0 recommendations | email to a friend | print
If graffiti is plaguing your neighborhood, it might be overdue for a visit from John Colgan. Since summer 2012, this 39 year-old security guard from Woodside has restored over 50 fire alarm boxes. His mission? Civic responsibility! Restoring the cast-iron fire alarm call boxes that line New York City streets is Colgan’s passion. There is an estimated 15,077 fire alarm boxes in the city, with many of the ornate boxes dating to 1913, 1921, and 1931. The more nondescript boxes date as far back as 1957. “The hand craftsmanship that was applied to the early models is unbelievable, and it is a lost art form,” said Colgan. “I paint up to the millimeter, and when you work on one for as long as 18 hours, you learn to appreciate the craftsmanship.” Colgan pays homage to the color scheme of the fire trucks of the 1920s and 1930s. He applies two coats of traditional red paint to the fire alarm box pedestals, and its ornate craftsmanship he often accentuates with gold paint. On a few areas, he applies black paint for contrast and white paint to outline the letters. Sometimes he adds a touch of silver to represent the chrome on fire trucks. “Painting fire alarm boxes is like painting by number,” he said. “The artwork is already present, so you just need time and patience.” To date, Colgan has worked in Woodside, Jackson Heights, Astoria, and Long Island City. He has also painted over 100 hydrants and lampposts, over 20 mailboxes, 20 traffic signal boxes and four green relay boxes. He also plans to paint an American flag mural in commemoration of 9/11 victims on an Amtrak underpass in Woodside He is open to invites from community groups and businesses in Forest Hills, Rego Park, and nearby communities, where he can coordinate sessions to teach local residents how to creatively paint fire alarm boxes and other street furniture. Within days of learning about Colgan’s mission, Dimitry Benjamin, co-owner of Red Pipe Organic Café at 71-60 Austin Street, toured the neighborhood with him and they began exchanging ideas. “We are very fond of his work, and would like to fund him to do the same locally,” said Benjamin. Colgan has expressed an interest in painting a historic Bishop Crook style lamppost near the cafe and highlighting its stylistic features. He is also considering painting the fire alarm boxes in close proximity to the American Legion Continental Post 1424 at 107-15 Metropolitan Avenue. “Graffiti must be eliminated within 24 hours. If you don’t, the taggers will be encouraged,” said Colgan. “They communicate with each other, and if they know you are painting over graffiti in your neighborhood, they will go elsewhere. “If you want your neighborhood to look nice, do it yourself,” he continued. “Don’t just go to meetings, but buy a bucket of paint, since you cannot depend on the government for everything.” Colgan also offers some creative volunteer initiatives. “We can dedicate fire alarm boxes to our fallen heroes, including cops, firemen and the military,” he explained. “The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can have a paint-off, which would be similar to a dance-off, and local residents can also adopt and maintain them.” On a larger scale, he envisions a collaboration between residents and business owners assigning captains to a few-block radius, who can address graffiti issues. In addition to their Art Nouveau character, the vital function of the call boxes is sometimes overlooked. The Bloomberg administration called for the removal of the boxes to save money on their upkeep, citing a lack of use in the age of cell phones. But attorney Robert Stulberg responded in 2011 on behalf of the Civic Association of the Deaf of New York City. “By removing this system, the city would be leaving our clients with no way to report emergencies from the streets,” the lawyer argued. “Around 90 percent of the fire alarms on September 11th came in through these boxes, since cell phone service was largely out,” Colgan added. To volunteer or request a presentation, follow Colgan on Twitter at @firealarmguy75.
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