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Don't hang up yet: Pay phones are still a fixture in U.S. culture

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Customers entering Telephone Bar and Grill in Manhattan on Thursday, April 16, 2009. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

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One of four remaining outdoor phone booths in Manhattan is on the corner of West 90th Street and West End Avenue. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

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Rick Avilla, 50, a construction worker, calling his wife at a phone booth on the corner of West 90th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

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A phone booth with a rotary dial at a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

On the corner of West 90th Street and West End Avenue is one of four remaining outdoors walk-in phone booths in Manhattan. Inside, the booth’s original blue paint is chipped off, revealing layers of rust.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Rick Avilla walked into the phone booth, dropped in a quarter and picked up the phone.

“I came here because I knew this booth was here. It’s been here forever,” said the Long Island construction worker, who forgot his cell phone at home. After encountering a broken pay phone on 110th Street and Amsterdam, about a mile away, Avilla came to this trusty location. “Hey, no matter what, I have to call my wife.”

Thousands of callers are not as fortunate. These days, pay phone booths--indoor or outdoor enclosures so callers can make private phone calls--are practically extinct, and many of the dwindling numbers of pay phones themselves are poorly maintained and often unusable.

Before speed dial, “reaching out to old friends was a gesture that required some effort,” said Mark Thomas, creator of the payphoneproject.com, a Web site with about 750,000 pay phone numbers, locations and photos worldwide. (His group counted the four walk-in booths in Manhattan.) “I do think that a certain segment of the population still takes pay phones for granted, but is alarmed at how hard they are to find when they actually need one.”

There are fewer than 1 million pay phones left in the United States, down from 1.3 million in 2004 and 2 million in 2000, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Where pay phones and their booths used to be on many street corners and in every airport, restaurant or mall, the remaining pay phones stand alone or, sometimes, in pairs, with at most a thin partition attempting to keep the conversations private.

But the booths that remain offer more than just a dial tone. Some restaurants use them as decorations to attract customers. Others are still used by college students in a competition to pack in as many bodies as possible, a stunt that dates to the 1950s. And don’t forget the one used as a famous changing room for Superman. Despite their recent disappearing act, pay phones and phone booths remain a fixture in American culture.

Bruce Renard, executive director of the Florida Public Telecommunications Association, has over 20 years of experience in the pay phone industry, and said the decline in pay phones and phone booths affects many groups of people. “They are an important public service for the poor, elderly, tourists and most importantly, for us in times of emergency.”

For example, on 9/11, many cell phone services went dead, and Verizon made calling free from 4,000 curbside pay phones throughout Manhattan, so New Yorkers could connect with family and loved ones.

“When the towers fell on Sept. 11, people were lining up along the block to use pay phones,” said Renard.

The demise of phone booths could also mark the end of an important notion of privacy, said Frank Mahearn, a privacy consultant based in New York City and Los Angeles.

“I personally find it rude when someone is talking about their private life on a bus or the supermarket, but that has somehow become the norm,” he said. “Somehow, people are willing to give up their personal space in exchange for the ability to stay connected.”

“Phone booths were one of the few places where you can find privacy in a big city,” said Dr. Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist in Cambridge, Mass., and author of “Psychology of Superheroes.” “But whereas Superman may have used one as a changing station before, maybe he has to go to a Starbucks now.” Or he could go to Telephone Bar and Grill in the East Village of Manhattan, where two big red booths from Great Britain flank the entrance.

“We are so identified by them that oftentimes, our customers don’t even know our address—they just tell their friends to meet at the place with the red phone booths,” said Don Swift, general manger of the English-style pub. “It has been a great success for us—so much that we joke that the next restaurant we open will be called Cell Phone.”

In Brooklyn, another phone both is tucked away in the back corner of O’Connor’s Bar in the Park Slope neighborhood, behind an old juke box. When the wooden doors slide open, the lights come on and a fan whirs. This phone booth was clean, but the phone was broken. It also has a rotary dial, a request from the original owners to keep drugs and drug dealers from using it to page one another.

“There was a kid in the phone booth for a long time and our owner didn’t know what was going on, he thought maybe he was doing drugs,” said Henderson. There were no drugs; as it turned out; the kid had never seen a rotary dial before.

The first public coin telephone was installed in 1889 at a bank in Hartford, Conn. By 1902, there were 81,000 pay phones in the U.S. and by 1960, Bell System had installed its millionth pay phone. Pay phones experienced a makeover in 1965, when single-coin models replaced the ones with three-coin slots. Around the same time, push buttons replaced rotary dials.

The 1950s to 1970s are considered the “heyday” of pay phones, even inspiring a friendly competition by college students to cram as many bodies as possible in a single phone booth.

Modesto Junior College in California was declared the winner when 32 students were reportedly squeezed into a single booth in 1959. Students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology didn’t believe it was possible, however, and used their skills in geometry and calculus to disprove the claim. To this day, no official winner was ever declared but the competition lives on. Last month, 22 students at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., successfully tried the stunt again.

Malls, movie theaters and airports were also once popular locations for pay phones. Five years ago, there were four pay phones at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wis., according to Haley Asbach, a guest service representative there. Now there are only two. “When we took those phones out, people started coming up to the guest service center to ask to use our office phones.”

In Sioux City, Iowa, the Sioux Gateway Airport removed all their seven payphones in Jan. 2008, replacing them with phones that allow travelers to make free local and toll-free calls.

Bell System pulled out of the pay phone business in 2001 and AT&T followed suit last year. Today, the last large phone company still in the business is Verizon, with about 225,000 pay phones in 28 states. If you’re ever looking for a pay phone, you’re most likely to find one in California, with 118,000 payphones according to the FCC. Wyoming has the fewest, with just under two thousand.

Pay phones have long been a mainstay or plot point in films, but one even was the star in the 2003 movie “Phone Booth,” starring Colin Farrell. Farrell plays a man trapped in a telephone booth by a sniper.

But don’t look for the phone booth used in the movie on W. 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Like so many others, it has vanished.

E-mail: cyc2119@columbia.edu