What's happening with the old police and fire call boxes around Washington? They went out of service a long time ago, but beginning about two years back they started getting a fresh coat of primer. Has the city got some use in mind for them, or are they strictly ornamental? Maybe they could put a piece of cork inside and make them into community bulletin boards.

John Dowling, Arlington

When Answer Man looks at these old call boxes -- about six feet of cast iron set into the sidewalk near the corner; solid in the way that only something from a bygone time can be -- a notion springs into his head. And that notion is this: We often like to think that our forebears were a rather brutish, unenlightened bunch. I mean, how did people cope in the 1880s or the 1920s? Not only did they fall victim to ailments like rickets and neuralgia, they couldn't get a decent latte and weren't able to Tivo "Extreme Makeover."

And yet, somehow, they survived. They were quite clever, actually, and the call boxes you can still see around town are one example of that. Our great-grandparents didn't sit around moaning, waiting for the cell phone and the two-way radio to be invented. Instead, they wired the city with contraptions designed to speed word of crime or conflagration.

The first boxes were installed in the 1860s. There were two sorts: fire call boxes and police call boxes. They were lighted on top so they could be located more easily at night.

"The fire boxes were actually meant to be pulled by a citizen who saw a fire," said Paul Williams, a historian instrumental in the current call box renaissance. Breaking the glass and pulling a handle would send the box number by telegraph to a central station. "And then that would alert the fire station to go to that box. Hopefully, there would be a fire somewhere in that vicinity."

Police call boxes served a different purpose. They were mainly for police use, a way for an officer on foot -- as most were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- to check in regularly with the precinct.

"There were a number of call boxes on your beat," said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a 38-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department. "During the course of your beat, your sergeant would tell you to either call on the hour or call on the half."

The police boxes were locked, opened by a big brass key that officers carried. Inside was a telephone that automatically dialed the precinct's switchboard. Checking in regularly was a way to make sure the patrolman was doing his job, and also a way to make sure he was safe.

"If you missed your mark, they'd send cars out looking for you," said Sgt. Gentile. And if you nabbed a ne'er-do-well, you would use the call box to request a transport van to come and pick up the criminal.

Many of the boxes operated until 1976, when the 911 system made them obsolete. Dulled by the elements, covered in graffiti, knocked around by cars and trucks, they were a sorry sight. The city moved to take them down.

About five years ago, Paul Williams and the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition stepped in, asking that the boxes be saved. The city made funds available so neighborhoods could resurrect them as they saw fit. They aren't being turned into community bulletin boards, but they are being reborn as community icons, illustrating each neighborhood's unique heritage. The project is called Art on Call, part of Cultural Tourism D.C.

About 850 boxes are left. They have been stabilized and painted with primer. Many have already been adopted and transformed.

Artist Michael Ross created sculptures inside nine boxes in Mount Pleasant. They tell the history of the neighborhood, from the days of the Nacotchtank Indians to the present.

"I like the intimate scale of it, because it makes you sort of go up close," said Michael. "And if you don't want to look at it, you don't have to look at it."

If you want to look at it, check out the boxes in Mount Pleasant. Or plan on being at 20th and Massachusetts NW from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 10, when 22 refurbished call boxes in the Dupont Circle neighborhood will be formally unveiled.

And if you need a cop, dial 911.

Julia Feldmeier researched this column. Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Michael Ross has transformed this fire call box and eight others in Mount Pleasant as part of the Art on Call project. "I like the intimate scale of it, because it makes you sort of go up close," he said.