As digital technologies facilitate the transformation of many one-time affordable residences into short-term rentals, we can train ourselves to look for various street level, material markers of our neighborhoods’ virtualization and volatility. We might observe the week-by-week or month-by-month rotation of new tenants climbing the stairs of low-rise apartment buildings — or the propagating clusters of boxy receptacles dangling from railings or public infrastructures. Documented below in a portfolio by photographer Anna Shteynshleyger, these lockboxes represent the externalization of domestic security from the residential threshold to the public domain, while also symbolizing the frictions inherent in “moving house” and reassembling neighborly conviviality both on the street and in the cloud. – SM
Click on any image for a portfolio of photographs of Brooklyn lockboxes.
They appear one by one, hanging from a door handle, or more likely from the black bars of a railing or a gate. They appear two at a time, or three, or a dozen, hanging from a window box like a steel and vinyl sidewalk chandelier. On a Williamsburg window casing, one is decorated with hearts and flowers, a companion painted a robin’s egg blue. Another sports a yellow sticker with the phone number for a 24/7 locksmith. Just above are three Hebrew letters, an acronym for an Aramaic phrase which many Orthodox Jews place at the start of any written document. “Besiyata Dishmaya,” it reads: with the help of heaven. At the bottom of the sticker is a word in Cyrillic: the Russian for “plumber.”
Like the sticker affixed to it, the lockbox, variously known as a key safe or hide-a-key, speaks more than one language. There is the secret code to open it: four numbers between zero and nine, 10,000 combinations. Still, further indications are required. Released from the chamber, what door does the key unlock? With so many lockboxes tucked into the city’s thresholds, they may spell out a larger, cumulative message, too. An indicator species in vinyl and metal, the lockboxes appear in a certain density in certain neighborhoods — areas with low-rise housing and stoops and gates, without doormen, and with a high concentration of short-term rentals available on Airbnb.
The lockbox serves as an interface for the interface. The form hosts use to sign up for the online vacation accommodations marketplace has a dedicated field to input a lockbox code. Make a reservation, and you’ll receive the combination, and a promise of safe passage. With the help of heaven — without the reception area and 24-hour staff — the lockbox provides security in the less secure world of hotel alternatives.
More often than not, the box is a MasterLock 5400D. MasterLock, which has survived almost a century on a reputation for durability and a knack for design research and invention, solidified its market position during Prohibition as the product of choice for municipalities shutting down bootleggers and speakeasies. (Company histories claim it shipped 147,600 padlocks to New York City for that purpose in February 1928.) The 5400D, the marquee product in the Milwaukee-based company’s “storage security line,” dates to 2002 or 2007, sometime just before the apocryphal origins of Airbnb in an email exchange between two San Francisco twentysomethings. But what was introduced as a tool for latchkey children to let themselves into the house after school, today proliferates in urban neighborhoods to assist latchkey strangers.
Airbnb, expected to go public this year at a value of some $38 billion, hawks rooms, homes, and the occasional yurt in 89 countries. It’s not the only company in the sharing business to find the lockbox mechanism useful for setting up peer-to-peer exchange of goods and services. Some of the lockboxes on New York City streets are connected not to home-sharing platforms but a dog-walking one. Turquoise lockboxes labeled “Wag!” grant “trusted dog walkers” access to clients’ homes and best friends. With personless key-exchange, one might leave his beloved pet in the care of an individual he will never meet.
The lockbox is a threshold between public and private realms, policing that distinction at the same time that it aids in blurring it. In a landscape where a jute welcome mat or a cast-iron turtle would arouse suspicion and invite inspection, the safe mechanism lets a host place his or her most personal effects out in the middle of the street, a proposition as outrageous as letting perfect strangers stroll with your pug and sleep in your sheets. The promise of Airbnb is one of an intimate, authentic experience of life in an unfamiliar city. Yet, the lockbox provides the frisson of entry into private space without the friction of human contact, and often without a personal touch. In Tokyo, as in Lisbon, apartments are supplied with the same sparse IKEA inventory, affordable and infinitely replaceable, an international flag of convenience. While the company insists it is helping individuals share their homes, a distinction essential for market differentiation and avoiding regulation, Airbnb steadily pressures hosts to operate more like hotels. The same images and biographies of fake hosts appear on one listing after another in an unsettling virtual geography. Entire buildings or units are converted for transient use, often illegally, and represented on the site as private rooms for rent: ghost hotels.
43 lockboxes currently hang from the ground floor windows of a four-story brick building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In an area zoned for industrial uses, the former sweater factory was approved for conversion to a hotel. Instead, an early pioneer of the area’s gentrification rented the units out as residential lofts. Tenants moved in only to learn the building conversion was not just slapdash but illegal. Overleveraged in the 2008 housing crisis, the original landlord unloaded the building and much of his North Brooklyn portfolio, but not the animus of his creditors. His charred body was found in a Great Neck dumpster in 2014. Twice resold, the building remains occupied while continuing to incur violations from the Department of Buildings, complaints of loud noise, and investigations of illegal hotel rooms in a residential building.
In pairs, key safes look like little tombstones. They might mark the final resting place of a city’s stock of affordable housing. Researchers are still debating the nature of the relationship between Airbnb, gentrification, and displacement, but one recent study found a significant impact on the availability of affordable housing in New York City. Conversion of units to short-term rentals may negate the benefits of most new residential construction in the city. Furthermore, as the short-term rental market impacts more Black and Latinx neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, the presence of lockboxes may send a message to longtime residents that their days there are numbered.
Entire neighborhoods with a combination of picturesque appeal and central location can become hotel districts. This is the complaint in Barcelona, a poster-city for the phenomenon of “overtourism” plaguing European destinations, but not unfamiliar elsewhere. As districts are evacuated of residents and the businesses they support, so too is the city of the character that attracted visitors to it in the first place. Barcelona, where rents have risen 30 percent in the last five years, has instituted a new licensing system for short-term rentals and reached an agreement with Airbnb to disclose host data, while New York City is several years into a legal tug of war with the company. Even existing rules are difficult to enforce when Airbnb keeps information under lock and key.
This past winter, the city of Montreal announced municipal workers would be cutting down lockboxes found affixed to public property: Residents had attached them to parking meters or bike racks to throw regulators off the scent of their illegal rentals. Eliminating the lockbox from city surfaces is unlikely to have an effect on the system that lies behind them. For one, the promise of the platform is too powerful; for another, ascendant, keyless “smart locks” marketed to rental property managers are likely to move short-term rentals further underground, and into the cloud. In the meantime, the lockboxes awkwardly attempt to hide in plain sight, tethered to the structures of neighborhoods whose inner workings are shifting just beyond scrutiny.
All photographs by Anna Shteynshleyger.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.