By MAYA RAJAMANI
August 30, 2016
CHELSEA — When he arrived in Chelsea with nearly an hour to spare on Thursday, Upper West Sider Michael Lalime stopped at one of the city’s new LinkNYC kiosks.
“It’s awesome,” the 35-year-old said of the kiosk’s free Wi-Fi. “I’m on my way to the first day of a new job, and my phone is almost dead, so I’m charging my phone.”
Still, even the self-avowed fan acknowledged that the kiosks have become something of a hub for the city’s homeless — a common refrain for many critics of the city’s new online portals.
“I mean, yeah, homeless people set up shop around them, but it’s New York City so what do you expect?” he added.
Since the city began replacing telephone booths with the kiosks — which provide free Wi-Fi and allow users to charge their phones, surf the web on a touch screen and make free phone calls — locals have flooded Councilman Corey Johnson’s office with complaints about kiosk “abuse” throughout his district, which includes Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
Users have been “creating personal spaces for themselves, engaging in activities that include playing loud, explicit music, consuming drugs and alcohol, and… viewing… pornography,” Johnson wrote in a letter to the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees the kiosks.
“I have personally observed individuals watching pornography on the kiosk screens, in view of nearby children,” he added.
On a recent visit to Eighth Avenue — which is slated for a dozen kiosks between West 26th and 31st streets alone — users at multiple sites had propped overturned newspaper boxes and upside-down buckets in front of the screens to use as makeshift chairs.
While users like Lalime see the new devices as welcome amenities, some Chelsea residents say they have become gathering places for people who camp out around the stations on makeshift furniture, take up sidewalk space and watch everything from YouTube videos to pornography on their screens.
“I think it kind of encourages people to hang out,” said Simone Weissman, a Chelsea resident of more than three decades. “The ability to play videos and movies — why do we need that in the street?”
Homeless people use the kiosks as “meeting points” where they smoke pot and drink alcohol, added a Chelsea resident of nearly 25 years.
“They are begging for money while they harass the local residents, creating a disturbance many are afraid to approach,” said Tory, who asked that her last name be withheld.
Like Johnson’s office, Community Board 4 has received “numerous” complaints from residents, business owners and even the NYPD that the kiosks are becoming “a source of inequity, congestion and uncleanliness,” board chairwoman Delores Rubin noted in CB4’s own letter to DoITT at the beginning of August.
Upper East Side residents voiced similar concerns about the kiosks in their neighborhood earlier this summer.
CB4 transportation committee co-chairman Ernest Modarelli said he sees the issues as “unintended consequences” of the kiosks’ installation.
“The real problem is not what they’re watching,” he said. “It’s that we’ve given them an entertainment system with unlimited access to the internet.”
In its letter to DoITT, CB4 suggested changes including installing time limits on the kiosks, reducing their volume capabilities and restricting users’ access to functions like calling 311 and 911 and looking up directions.
A DoITT spokeswoman did respond to questions about the complaints, saying her office was in communication with Johnson regarding his concerns.
Melissa Stern, a representative for the West 20th Street Block Association, said she felt the devices should be redesigned “from top to bottom.”
“It’s a noble experiment,” she said. “But I think it has been shown that it isn’t working well.”
Lifelong Chelsea resident Andrew Rai, however, called the kiosks a “valuable public facility,” adding that a decreased police presence on Eighth Avenue could be contributing to problems with loitering more than the kiosks themselves.
Lalime agreed, adding that concerns about users watching pornography on the kiosk screens seemed unreasonable, given their proximity to adult stores like Rainbow Station and The Blue Store.
“Come on, Chelsea,” Lalime said. “Don’t look if it’s bothering you.”