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The Death of NYC Pay Phones Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Hell Gate placed a call from a pay phone located in the 14th Street subway station, and it sounded fantastic.

Behold! A working pay phone! (MUST CREDIT HELL GATE)

On Monday morning, the City of New York's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) announced the "end of an era": They were removing the last working pay phone in New York City. Once there were 79,000! Now, none, allegedly.

The milestone was marked with a bizarre amount of fanfare, including a photo op of a crane hoisting the last nonfunctional phone booth away. No doubt it will be taken to a pay phone farm upstate, where it can run around and make as many collect calls as it wants in the fresh air. (Actually, it will go to the Museum of the City of New York.)

Except, this wasn’t really the "last pay phone" in New York City.

A working payphone in the Union Square subway station.
A working payphone in the Union Square subway station.

In fact, just a few subway stops down from the press conference, in the Union Square train station and next to a CVS vending machine, OMNY scanners, and other trappings of our thoroughly modern world, sits one of these analog beauties. It gives a sweet dial tone when you pick it up, and even charges you more for a long-distance call, which means anyone without a 212, 347, 917, or 718 area code. (That'll be a full dollar's worth of quarters.) The receiver was clean, meaning someone's wiping it down somewhat regularly, and it felt great cradled in my soft embrace.

This intrepid reporter called up Hell Gate co-publisher Christopher Robbins, and while it wasn't quite "Mr. Watson, come here I need you," we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the connection.

The press release from DOITT and CityBridge, the consortium that controls the LinkNYC kiosks, is headlined "End of an Era: New York City's Last Payphone to be Removed." Dig a little deeper, and they hedge a bit, referring to this as the "last street payphone." According to a CityBidge spokesperson, there are "still a few private pay phones here and there."

Hell Gate was able to locate this gem thanks to noted chronicler of the city's pay phones, Mark Thomas, who's behind the long-running Payphone Project. In an email, he told Hell Gate that he was skeptical of today's photo op.

"The momentousness of this pay phone removal seems a little contrived. More than a little," Thomas told Hell Gate. "I don't know how anyone in charge of things at CityBridge or DoITT thinks that was the last CityBridge street phone. There are other defunct CityBridge units around the city that I guess CityBridge will just let rot into the end times."

Thomas and many other collect callers have been critical of CityBridge's stewardship of the city's increasingly defunct pay phones, which have, like some of the company's LinkNYC locations, been left to the elements on city streets. (CityBridge fell into a $60 million debt to the City during its failed LinkNYC project, which it will continue to pay off through 2030).

Instead of phone booths dotting the streets of New York City, there will now be LinkNYC coverage for all… except LinkNYC doesn’t really cover much of the city, and its promises of swift broadband and free calls don’t quite hold up. In a blistering report from last summer, New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that DOITT "failed to ensure that the consortium it hired was installing and maintaining the devices where they are most needed."

That consortium is CityBridge (which is affiliated with Google's Sidewalk Labs), whose underperformance the City is now doubling down on by letting the company roll out 5G towers across the city. (Goodbye to any calling functionality promised by the LinkNYC monoliths!)

For those still looking for the old-time feel of a receiver in their hands, there are precious few public spaces left to do so. But their time hasn’t quite yet passed. In addition to the pay phone at the 14th Street stop, the Payphone Project notes that there is one in Penn Station. Another is theorized to be in Astoria. (But it's on you to find it—we don’t want DOITT to continue their bloodshed!)

And if you want to get conspiracy-minded about the whole thing, we do have one theory why DOITT is gutting all the pay phones: They want to seal the escape hatches.

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