Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Drop me a line

I snapped this payphone carcass on Classon because it made me wonder how payphones are faring in the cellular/digital/information age. Shockingly, I'm not the first person to wonder this, and apparently, numbers are shrinking, though New York City still maintains nearly 23,000 payphones on city streets (though only 5 freestanding phone booths). The Pay Phone Project maintains an impressive list of every phone and its number here, but as I found out from the site, almost none of these phones accept incoming calls anymore (despite what you may have seen on The Wire).

As it turns out, the supposedly disappearing pay phone inspires no small amount of nostalgia. The fine folks at Forgotten NY have a whole page devoted to the phone booth, and both writers and readers of the Times have expressed their regret at the pay phone's declining fortunes. The phones themselves are no longer profitable, as witnessed by AT&T's exit from the business this past year. A number of factors have supposedly led to their decline, from the proliferation of mobile phones to their use by the "criminal element" (whether that means the homeless taking shelter or drug dealers running their operations).

However, there's a twist in this somewhat typical story of urban decline that has begun preserving pay phones and even inspiring some new ones. Call it payphone gentrification or renewal: the minimalist boxes of the 1980s (the hull above being an example) are giving way to bigger, shinier, freshly-erected shelters. Why? Advertising. The Times reported in 2007 that streetside payphones were the hottest new locale for the fruit of Madison Avenue, and had blossomed into a $62 million/year industry, with a cool $13.7 million of that headed to city coffers. With returns like that, you can bet the payphone won't be rolling up its cord and trundling off down memory lane anytime soon.

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