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Photo Essay

Street Vendors Activating L.A. Public Spaces: Abandoned Pay Phones at Pico-Union

4:45 PM PDT on April 3, 2023

A street vendor displays his wares in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, California on a December day, 2020.

A street vendor displays his wares in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, California on a December day, 2020.

On a busy corner of the Pico-Union district in Los Angeles stands what, at first glance, looks like an interactive conceptual art piece. 

It consists of a stylized mural painted against the stuccoed wall of a one-story commercial building near the Cuscatleca Bakery and the 99-cent store, an assortment of used wares from a local street vendor, and a pay phone.

The mural depicts the city and, presumably, the local neighborhood, and what looks like a trolley and trolley cart operator, a throwback to the Toluca Yard or the old Belmont Tunnel, all in a Dutch angle, in gray and sepia tones. 

The street vendor’s goods decorate the display at the foot of the pay phone with an assortment of men’s and women's shoes. Used but in good condition-dresses hang against the mural wall to the left and to the right of the pay phone, billowing from the gusts of wind created by the roaring traffic. 

But it is no conceptual art piece.

The pay phone is defunct, the mural, most likely part of a beautification project, and the street vendor’s wares are for sale. With some luck, some passerby may put a couple of dollars into his pocket if looking for a decent pair of used shoes or a nice non-descript blouse.

No coins can be deposited into the phone’s broken coin deposit slot. The meaning of its presence is left to posterity. 

Like other pay phones in the area, it stands there, who knows for how long, like buoys floating on the concrete sea dotting the landscape, only a handful still work to some capacity. 

In most cases, nothing is left to ID what’s left of them, save for the mounting pedestal or base. Sometimes, not even that. Only traces of the mounting studs and bolts are left to indicate that one existed in any given area. 

What’s new is the interaction between pay phones and the street vendors, who, in the cases documented here, appear to be nothing more than happenstance. 

I have often gotten a quizzical look or two whenever I’ve approached such street vendors to ask about how they came to set up shop around a given pay phone. 

“El telefono? Pues no se. Es un buen puesto,” one said in Spanish chuckling at my question.   

“The pay phone? I don’t know. It was just a good spot.”

The photos in this story attempt to capture and document these memories, street exhibits, and interactions—if anything, for posterity’s sake. Future volumes will delve slightly more in-depth with interviews with such street vendors at these locations and other details to come wherever possible.  

All photos by Jose Tobar for L.A. TACO.

A street vendor displays his wares in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, California on a December day, 2020.
A street vendor displays his wares in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, California, on December 2020.
A street vendor displays his wares in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, California on a December day, 2020.
Fake plastic Christmas trees and poinsettias adorn a defunct Payphone outside the Market Alas H., a home goods store in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles. (December 2020).
Fake plastic Christmas trees and poinsettias adorn a defunct Payphone outside the Market Alas H., a home goods store in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles. (December 2020).
Fake plastic Christmas trees and poinsettias adorn a defunct Payphone outside the Market Alas H., a home goods store in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles. (December 2020).
Merchandise from the Mercancia De Tiendas Reconocidas (Merchandise From Recognized Stores) spill out into the sidewalk around a payphone on West 7th Street and Hoover in the MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles. (Autumn 2020).
Merchandise from the Mercancia De Tiendas Reconocidas (Merchandise From Recognized Stores) spills out into the sidewalk around a payphone on West 7th Street and Hoover in the MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles. (Autumn 2020).
Merchandise from the Mercancia De Tiendas Reconocidas (Merchandise From Recognized Stores) spill out into the sidewalk around a payphone on West 7th Street and Hoover in the MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles. (Autumn 2020).
South Central, Los Angeles, California (Fall 2022).
South Central, Los Angeles, California (Fall 2022).
South Central, Los Angeles, California (Fall 2022).
“Deme dos de asada y tres al pastor para llevar,” (two asada tacos and three al pastor to go) a customer shouts over the noisy Olympic Boulevard traffic in Los Angeles.
“Deme dos de asada y tres al pastor para llevar,” (two asada tacos and three al pastor to go) a customer shouts over the noisy Olympic Boulevard traffic in Los Angeles.
“Deme dos de asada y tres al pastor para llevar,” (two asada tacos and three al pastor to go) a customer shouts over the noisy Olympic Boulevard traffic in Los Angeles.
South Central, Los Angeles Payphone. (April, 2021).
South Central, Los Angeles Payphone. (April 2021).
South Central, Los Angeles Payphone. (April, 2021).
A street vendor’s umbrella and merchandise shades the remains of what’s left of a Payphone on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Burns Avenue in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA. Aug. 10, 2021.
A street vendor’s umbrella and merchandise shade the remains of a Payphone on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Burns Avenue in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA. Aug. 10, 2021.
A street vendor’s umbrella and merchandise shades the remains of what’s left of a Payphone on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Burns Avenue in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA. Aug. 10, 2021.
Vermont Boulevard,East Hollywood. (Summer, 2021).
Vermont Boulevard, East Hollywood. (Summer, 2021).
Vermont Boulevard,East Hollywood. (Summer, 2021).
A busy January evening on the corner of 6th Street and Alvarado Street in the Westlake-MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles (2022).
A busy January evening on the corner of 6th Street and Alvarado Street in the Westlake-MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles (2022).
A busy January evening on the corner of 6th Street and Alvarado Street in the Westlake-MacArthur Park district of Los Angeles (2022).
A defunct Payphone outside the Westlake/MacArthur Park red line station in Los Angeles. “Hey, can I take a photo?,” I ask. “Orale!”
A defunct Payphone outside the Westlake/MacArthur Park red line station in Los Angeles. “Hey, can I take a photo?” I ask. “Orale!”
A defunct Payphone outside the Westlake/MacArthur Park red line station in Los Angeles. “Hey, can I take a photo?,” I ask. “Orale!”
Downtown Corporate buildings tower over the display of women’s clothing next to a broken down Payphone outside a parking lot in the garment district of Los Angeles, California. (May. 2022).
Downtown Corporate buildings tower over the display of women’s clothing next to a broken-down Payphone outside a parking lot in the Los Angeles garment district. (May. 2022).
Downtown Corporate buildings tower over the display of women’s clothing next to a broken down Payphone outside a parking lot in the garment district of Los Angeles, California. (May. 2022).
A street vendor sets up shop with her assortment of fruits and vegetables in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles.
A street vendor sets up shop with her assortment of fruits and vegetables in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles.
A street vendor sets up shop with her assortment of fruits and vegetables in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles.
A row of t-shirts put on display by a street vendor hangs along the fence of a shopping center on 8th Street and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (March 2022).
A row of t-shirts displayed by a street vendor hangs along the fence of a shopping center on 8th Street and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (March 2022).
A row of t-shirts put on display by a street vendor hangs along the fence of a shopping center on 8th Street and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (March 2022).
Koreatown, Los Angeles, California (2022).
Koreatown, Los Angeles, California (2022).
Koreatown, Los Angeles, California (2022).
“Calling it a Day on a cool December day in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (2022). “Can I take a picture?” I ask. “Can you spare a little something for a beer?” He asks.
“Calling it a Day on a cool December day in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (2022). “Can I take a picture?” I ask. “Can you spare a little something for a beer?” He asks.
“Calling it a Day on a cool December day in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California. (2022). “Can I take a picture?” I ask. “Can you spare a little something for a beer?” He asks.
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