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New York City removes its last public payphone, title disputed: NPR


On Monday, workers remove New York’s last payphone near Seventh Avenue and 50th Street in midtown Manhattan. Despite the fanfare, there are still phone booths in the city.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images


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New York City removes its last public payphone, title disputed: NPR

On Monday, workers remove New York’s last payphone near Seventh Avenue and 50th Street in midtown Manhattan. Despite the fanfare, there are still phone booths in the city.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

New York City’s phone booths are officially history. The last public payphone was removed from the streets of midtown Manhattan on Monday and is headed straight for an exhibit at a local museum.

It’s the latest chapter in a saga that’s been unfolding since 2015, when the city began 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 say goodbye to what they called the city’s last stand-alone payphones (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 telephone booth – with two wired telephones separated by a divider – onto the bed of a truck.

LinkNYC tweeted that they will be replaced by a digital kiosk, “boosting accessibility and connectivity throughout the city”. The company claims to have deployed thousands of links across the city and facilitated over 3 billion Wi-Fi sessions with over 10 million subscribers.

City officials in attendance said they hoped the end of the official payphone era would accelerate progress in areas such as data privacy and equitable access to technology. New York City Councilwoman Julie Won called the Link kiosks “vital lifelines” for people who would otherwise not have access to the internet or emergency services.

“In less than a decade, we’ve gone from payphones on street corners to free Wi-Fi kiosks throughout our city,” Won said. “We are well on the way to making NYC technologically equitable and we must continue this work to connect more New Yorkers to affordable high-speed internet access in their homes and schools.”

Matthew Fraser, Commissioner of the Office of Technology and Innovation, called the removal of the last payphone bittersweet, noting the “prominent place they have held in the city’s physical landscape for decades” , but grateful that it is time to change.

“Just as we have gone from horse and buggy to automobile and automobile to airplane, the digital evolution has progressed from payphones to high-speed Wi-Fi kiosks to meet the demands of our communication needs. ever-changing dailies,” he said in a statement shared with NPR.

Payphones may no longer be necessary in the age of cellphones and smartwatches, but city officials suspected they were still worth talking about — or marveling at. Gothamist reports that the city contacted the Museum of the City of New York last week to see if they were interested in taking the remaining relic.

The payphone will soon be on display at the museum’s exhibit on the pre-digital era, which just opened on Friday. Lilly Tuttle, the show’s curator, told Gothamist the decision was “a no-brainer.”

“In just a few days since the exhibition opened, I have truly understood how many people are fascinated by the technology of yesteryear,” she added. “And as we see things change and remember how quickly our technology has advanced over the past few decades, I think people have those moments where they realize how different things are.”

New York City removes its last public payphone, title disputed: NPR

Stranded New York workers line up outside a phone booth to call home during the massive power outage on Nov. 9, 1965. Most of the city’s payphones have been replaced by digital kiosks in recent years.

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New York City removes its last public payphone, title disputed: NPR

Stranded New York workers line up outside a phone booth to call home during the massive power outage on Nov. 9, 1965. Most of the city’s payphones have been replaced by digital kiosks in recent years.

PA

New York City is not yet completely free of payphones

But have no fear, nostalgic and The matrix fans: There are still a handful of payphones scattered around New York City.

These include those on private property as well as four “permanent full-length Superman cabins”, according to the city.

Superman’s cabins are all located on the Upper West Side and remain standing largely thanks to years of lobbying by neighborhood resident and payphone enthusiast Alan Flacks, as the New York Times reported.

And there may be even more to discover. The local Hell Gate news site reported on Monday that there was still a payphone in the Union Square subway station, a few stops from the Times Square press conference.

The site credits the discovery to Mark Thomas, who has spent decades following the “payphone world” through his website, The Payphone Project.

“The magnitude of this payphone removal seems a bit contrived,” he told Hell Gate. “More than a little.”

Recent data on payphone prevalence is sparse (perhaps telling)

A New York City government website says there were more than 6,000 active public payphones when LinkNYC began work in 2014, a number that has rapidly declined.

The Federal Communications Commission said in 2018 that there were some 100,000 payphones left in the United States, with about a fifth in New York.

Some people and institutions have made it their mission to track the remaining payphones in their community. The DC Public Service Commission, for example, shared in a September 2021 Twitter feed that there were only six active payphones left in Washington, DC, with only one in downtown.

Tuttle, the New York Museum’s curator, told Gothamist that the Times Square payphone exhibit depicts how people planned and navigated the city in the decades before cellphones, adding:

“We were New Yorkers before and we are New Yorkers now, and whether or not we have phone booths doesn’t necessarily symbolize the end of anything, just a change in the way we communicate.”



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