The only living payphones in New York


At one point, you couldn’t walk 30 feet down a New York City block without finding a pay phone. A look at the latest.

Ann Chen Y

George Etheredge, geoffrey haggray, Sara Mesinger Y

As a curious crowd gathered in Times Square on Monday, a chainsaw sawed through the base of a payphone on the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 50th Street. According to the city’s press release, this was “the last public payphone in New York City.”

In the early 2000s, there were nearly 30,000 registered payphones on city streets, according to Stanley Shor, who served as an assistant commissioner overseeing payphones, covering all five boroughs in booths, pedestals, bubbles and pillars. But for the past seven years, the city has been quietly weeding them out. Now, the only official public telephones on the streets of New York City will be four telephone booths maintained in perpetuity on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In the age of smartphones, it can be hard to remember the importance of pay phones in New Yorkers’ daily lives, but at one point, you couldn’t walk 30 feet down a city block without encountering one, around the beginning. of the 2000s, when there was an increase in public telephones on the street. As Lilly Tuttle, curator of the Museum of the City of New York, explained: “New York is a dense, pedestrian city. It wasn’t until the 1940s that half of all Americans had a telephone. If you need to make a call on the go, the pay phone was really necessary.”

Myles MacLaren, who was present at Monday’s telephone recall in Times Square, grew up nearby in the 1970s. He remembered telephones well. “We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with six people, two dogs, four cats and two goldfish,” he said. Privacy was hard to come by in the MacLaren home, “so the pay phone on the corner was my lifeline in high school.”

Before the 1980s, the telephone companies had a monopoly on the installation, operation, and maintenance of public telephones on city streets and sidewalks, but it turned out to be a major undertaking. By 1970, vandalism and theft, in the form of jamming or stuffing public telephone coin slots with items such as chewing gum, broken matchbox lids, and bits of plastic bags, meant that one in ten public telephones in the city it did not work.

In 1984, pay phones were deregulated across the country, opening the market to thousands of small independent entrepreneurs who were quick to get in on the game. John Porter started his business operating pay phones in New York City in 1997. Porter remembers this time as something of a gold rush. “In the old days, he could just drill holes in the sidewalk,” he said. “It was a free company, people just installed payphones at whatever public access point they could.”

But nostalgia was not enough to combat the growing ubiquity of mobile phones. Payphones were increasingly seen as a visual “blight” and a waste of valuable sidewalk real estate. In 2014, the end of street pay phones was nearly over when CityBridge began installing LinkNYC kiosks. By this time, most of the companies operating pay phones in New York went out of business or sold their holdings, often leaving their phones hanging around town without dial tones, like vestigial organs.

While pay phones have played a vital role in more recent emergencies like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, when blackouts and limited interruptions of cell phone service brought them back to use for emergencies, they are more or less incongruous with how how people communicate today. LinkNYC booths not only allow free phone calls to any number in the US, but also provide Wi-Fi and device charging. “Just as we transitioned from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and from the automobile to the plane,” said Matthew Fraser, the city’s chief technology officer, in an emailed statement, “the digital evolution has progressed from phones public to high-end telephones. High-speed Wi-Fi kiosks to meet the demands of our rapidly changing daily communication needs.”

Even Thomas, who has spent decades documenting and exploring these pieces of past infrastructure, understands that not much love is lost in payphone takedowns. “People talk about them today as if they were magical booths of privacy and seclusion, but people really didn’t like them,” he said, adding that payphones were often claustrophobic and cramped and alternately used as urinals or bins. of garbage. “I think most people’s instinct was to get the hell out of them as soon as they could. I think that’s the real story of phone booths.”

Aside from the obsolete street payphones that may have slipped through bureaucratic cracks, all that remains are the physical scars in the urban fabric that mark where payphones used to be: faded patches of fresh concrete on the sidewalk, holes for crumbling screws, rectangular patches of uneven paint on the sides of buildings.

As Monday’s news conference ended, a flatbed truck carrying the pay phone pulled into traffic and drove away. This particular phone booth has been purchased by the Museum of the City of New York, but Steve Flinchbaugh, a member of the removal team, said most of the phone booths removed ended up in his employer’s yard. “The sheet metal parts come off and are thrown away. But other than that, they have no value. They are just stainless steel.

Ann Chen is an artist, educator, researcher, and filmmaker. Aaron Reiss is a multimedia journalist, researcher, and cartographer.

Surfacing is a visual column exploring the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie, and Josephine Sedgwick.

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