New York’s last payphone has been taken out of service as the city replaces payphones with Wi-Fi kiosks


NEW YORK — Once upon a time, not too long ago, phone booths were a common sight throughout New York City, and have been for more than a century. But then came cell phones in the late 1990s, and the number of payphones began to decline. And later smartphones like the iPhone arrived. And the phone booths kept disappearing.

Even Verizon – New York’s former telephone service provider once known as New York Telephone, NYNEX and Bell Atlantic – pulled out of the payphone business years ago, those piggy bank holders no longer overflowing .

And finally, on Monday, the inevitable happened. The last public pay phone, still sporting the classic Bell System logo, has been unplugged from the streets of New York City, on Seventh Avenue and West 50th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

“What a great day to be here to celebrate the end of what was once the main lifeline for many New Yorkers,” said Matthew Fraser, New York’s Chief Technology Officer.

The slow death of the payphone, which has lasted for decades, accelerated in 2015, when the city, along with its telecommunications partner, the consortium known as CityBridge, began installing LinkNYC kiosks, which offer a free Wi-Fi, free phone calls – an average of 425,000 calls are made per month – device charging and many other services.

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Some 6,000 phones were retired during the transition to LinkNYC, with about 2,000 now on city streets and thousands more on the way, “prioritizing areas of equity with special needs, including outer boroughs, Manhattan above 96th Street, and communities that lack internet. access,” the city said in a statement.

The city advertises LinkNYC as “the largest and fastest free public Wi-Fi network, with thousands of links deployed across the city”, and will continue to invest in the technology they carry, including the imminent installation of kiosks offering 5G service, known as Link5G.

Mark Levine, the Manhattan Borough President, didn’t feel particularly nostalgic for payphones during the retirement ceremony last Monday morning. He remembered the days of finding phones with no dial tone, fishing in pockets for shifts, or standing in line just to make a call.

“We’ve all suffered the same way,” Levine said of the payphone era. Now, in the age of smartphones, those who can’t afford one or don’t have access to high-speed internet or unlimited data can tap into the signal of Wi-Fi, kiosks, Levine said.
It’s progress, sure, but for nostalgic souls who appreciate the role payphones played in street life, all hope is not lost.

Private payphones on public property will remain, along with four old-school “walk-in” phone booths located on West End Avenue at 66th, 90th, 100th and 101st streets.

They persist in part because of the efforts of Alan Flacks, an Upper West Side resident who advocated for the preservation of classic phone booths, arguing that they are not just symbolic but practical icons, because you never know when you’ll need a payphone.

“Telephone booths are much better for privacy, protection from the elements, and they have a little shelf so you can write things down. They also typically reduce ambient decibels by about half,” said Flacks told amNewYork in 2007.

Superman, who always needs a phone booth to change, owes a debt of gratitude to payphone preservation superhero Alan Flacks.

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