Last call: New York City bids an official farewell to its last public pay phone
New York City pay phones are officially a thing of history. The last public pay phone was removed from the streets of midtown Manhattan on Monday, and is heading straight to an exhibit in a local museum.
It's the final chapter in a saga that's been unfolding since 2015, when the city started uprooting phone booths and replacing them with LinkNYC kiosks, which offer free public Wi-Fi, charging ports, 911 buttons and screens with maps and other services (they also generate revenue for the city).
On Monday, officials gathered in Times Square to bid farewell to what they called the city's last free-standing, public pay phones (which is a bit of a misnomer — but more on that below). Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine shared a video of a crane slowly lifting the phone booth — with two corded phones separated by a divider — onto the bed of a truck.
END OF AN ERA.— Mark D. Levine (@MarkLevineNYC) May 23, 2022
NYC’s last free-standing pay phones removed this a.m. in Times Sq. (7th Ave & 50th St.).
No more fishing in your pocket for quarters.pic.twitter.com/ZtRhzWPp4G
LinkNYC tweeted that they will be replaced with a digital kiosk, "boosting accessibility and connectivity across the city." The company says it's deployed thousands of Links across the city, and has facilitated more than 3 billion Wi-Fi sessions with more than 10 million subscribers.
City officials in attendance said they hope the end of the official pay phone era will accelerate progress in areas like data privacy and equitable access to technology. New York City Council Member Julie Won called the Link kiosks "vital lifelines" for people who wouldn't otherwise have access to the internet or emergency services.
"In less than a decade we've gone from pay phones on street corners to free Wi-Fi kiosks all over our city," Won said. "We're on the right track towards making NYC technologically equitable and we must continue this work to connect more New Yorkers to affordable high speed internet in their homes and schools."
Matthew Fraser, commissioner of the Office of Technology and Innovation, described the removal of the last pay phone as bittersweet, noting the "prominent place they've held in the city's physical landscape for decades" but acknowledging that it's time for change.
"Just like we transitioned from the horse and buggy to the automobile and from the automobile to the airplane, the digital evolution has progressed from pay phones to high-speed Wi-Fi kiosks to meet the demands of our rapidly changing daily communications needs," he said in a statement shared with NPR.
Pay phones may no longer be necessary in the age of cellphones and smartwatches, but city officials suspected that they might still be worth reminiscing about — or marveling at. Gothamist reports that the city reached out to the Museum of the City of New York last week to see if it was interested in taking the remaining relic.
The pay phone will soon be on display at the museum's exhibit about the pre-digital era, which just opened on Friday. Lilly Tuttle, the curator of the show, told Gothamist the decision was "a no-brainer."
"In just a few days since the exhibition has been open, I really have come to appreciate how many people are fascinated by bygone technology," she added. "And as we see things changing, and we're reminded of how rapidly our technology has advanced in recent decades, I think people have these moments of realizing how different things are."
New York City isn't completely rid of pay phones — yet
But fear not, nostalgia-seekers and The Matrix fans: There are still a handful of pay phones scattered around New York City.
Those include ones on private property as well as four "permanent full-length Superman" booths, according to the city.
The Superman booths are all located on the Upper West Side, and remain standing thanks in large part to years of lobbying by neighborhood resident and self-described pay phone buff Alan Flacks, as the New York Times has reported.
And there may still be more to discover. Local news site Hell Gate reported on Monday that there's still a working pay phone in the Union Square subway station, just a few stops away from the Times Square press conference.
The site credited that discovery to Mark Thomas, who has spent decades tracking the "world of public telephony" through his website, The Payphone Project.
"The momentousness of this pay phone removal seems a little contrived," he told Hell Gate. "More than a little."
Recent data about the prevalence of pay phones is scarce (perhaps tellingly)
A New York City government website says there were more than 6,000 active public pay phones when LinkNYC first began its work in 2014, a number that quickly dwindled.
The Federal Communications Commission said in 2018 that there were some 100,000 pay phones left in the U.S. — about one-fifth of them located in New York.
Some individuals and institutions have made a mission of tracking the remaining pay phones in their community. The D.C. Public Service Commission, for example, shared in a September 2021 Twitter thread that there were only six active pay phones left in Washington, D.C., including only one downtown.
Tuttle, the New York City museum curator, told Gothamist that the exhibit featuring the Times Square pay phone describes how people made plans and navigated the city in the decades before cellphones, adding:
"We were New Yorkers before and we're New Yorkers now, and whether or not we have pay phones doesn't necessarily symbolize the end of anything, just a change in the way we communicate."
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