The old fire alarm boxes that dot our neighborhoods -- the subject of a Sept. 6 letter from Hugh M. Neill -- may be an eyesore, but there is interest throughout the city in restoring them for new uses.

The D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition, made up of 75 heritage and cultural groups from all the city's wards, is working on a plan to involve local historians and artists in turning these fascinating artifacts into neighborhood icons. We are working with the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, the D.C. Fire Department and other city agencies. Residents of Capitol Hill, Cleveland Park, Shaw and Georgetown want to be involved in this undertaking.

Next year is the city's 200th birthday as the nation's capital -- a great time to use these alarm boxes to tell some of our rich history.


Executive Director

DC Heritage Tourism Coalition


Like Hugh M. Neill, I recall when the fire alarm boxes worked. At that time, blue shield-shaped alarm boxes summoned police. The fire boxes were topped with red lights, and the police boxes were topped with blue lights. On some blocks, both police and fire boxes can be seen side by side. These are not trash. They may be rusted, but they are not eyesores.

Instead, they are part of our urban archaeology. They are rather nicely crafted cast-iron street architecture. They also are a potentially viable method for our city to increase police and fire department presence in our neighborhoods without hiring additional staff. These call boxes could be rehabilitated and retrofitted with electronics to summon help from a nearby squad car, precinct, firehouse or rescue squad. The cost of false alarms and maintenance would be more than compensated for by the value of timely assistance to victims of street crime or accidents.

We must do something about these relics before they deteriorate beyond repair. But don't destroy them. Let them remain as reminders of an earlier era of police and fire service and adapt them for future use. They were and still are a good idea.



I like seeing the old fire alarm pedestals and skeleton boxes on some D.C. corners. Hugh M. Neill says they are an eyesore and should be removed at public expense. I disagree. If we were to spend money, I would prefer that we simply repaint them.

Next, we will get a proposal to remove all the cobblestones and trolley tracks in Georgetown. They are a hazard, yet they also remind one of the past.

I believe Mayor Anthony Williams can find more valid uses for the District's limited funds. I urge Mr. Neill to value the past when it is harmless.



Hugh Neill was right on target.

Let me add two additional items that ought to go:

(1) The dead and dying trees that line the streets of Washington. Like the fireboxes, they are everywhere.

(2) The extraordinary numbers of twisted, bent and destroyed signs that govern traffic within the District, and a similar number of bent and damaged street signs.

Like the fireboxes, the dead trees and twisted signs are not just health and safety hazards; they underscore a malaise still evident in the District's governance. They are discouraging evidence that nobody cares about the city's appearance, and they go to the core of the people's faith in those who govern, because these eyesores say, "No one is in charge here."

Even if our magnificent trees cannot be replaced, dead trees should be removed, and damaged or destroyed street and parking-regulations signs should be restored or replaced. This does not require huge infusions of money to accomplish, but it requires the creation of a management mode to focus on these three problem areas and get them addressed.