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Put away your quarters — Midtown’s last remaining public phone booth has made its last call as city leaders gathered on Monday to commemorate the removal of the iconic symbol of New York life and the implementation of additional stumpy LinkNYC kiosks.
The payphone, located at 745 7th Avenue and W49th Street, was given a hero’s salute by Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and the LinkNYC C-suite before being sent to the Museum of the City of New York to be displayed as part of their “Analog City” exhibition — an exploration of “NY B.C. (before computers)” that is increasingly hard to find outside of a museum.
“As a native New Yorker, saying goodbye to the last street payphone is bittersweet because of the prominent place they’ve held in the city’s physical landscape for decades. Just like we transitioned from the horse and buggy to the automobile and from the automobile to the airplane, the digital evolution has progressed from payphones to high-speed Wi-Fi kiosks to meet the demands of our rapidly changing daily communications needs,” said Matthew Fraser, Commissioner of the Office of Technology and Innovation.
Once a constant presence not only on the city’s streets but also in its depiction in TV and movies (notably in American Psycho and Scarface), the humble payphone — once found at over 13,000 locations citywide — was pushed aside in 2014 when the de Blasio administration implemented a citywide proposal to replace the analog booths with high-speed Wi-Fi kiosks able to make calls, charge devices, display maps and pertinent neighborhood information, and call 911. CityBridge, a consortium of tech experts won the bid and began the process of replacing the booths with the kiosks in 2015.
While intended as a means to increase digital connectivity to small businesses, visitors, and New Yorkers out on the town, LinkNYC kiosks have caused almost as much drama as Superman himself emerging from a payphone booth. As of summer 2021, more than 70 percent of zip codes in Queens and Staten Island were without a single kiosk, an inspection of 225 kiosks around town over a 24-hour span found that two-thirds of them were found to be damaged or dirty, and CityBridge owed the city over $70 million due to a lack of ad-generated revenue.
While a revised contract with the city encouraged CityBridge to eventually pay up $26 million, other larger questions remained about the use of the kiosks. Not only are they equipped with surveillance cameras (hello CCTV!), but, perhaps more troublingly by connecting with their Wi-Fi networks, your devices are tapped into LinkNYC’s user data collection.
Does all of this have you desperately looking for a regular-shmegular-degular old payphone? Good news — if you’re determined to remain offline, there are a few remaining phone booths left in our fair city. Thanks to the advocacy of phone booth enthusiast and Upper West Sider Alan Flacks, four “Superman-style” vintage phone booths are stationed on West End Avenue at W101st, W100th, W99th, and W66th Streets. Thanks to Flack and the support of City Council Member Gale Brewer, the four booths were written into the LinkNYC contract as protected entities for nostalgic New Yorkers to make calls (and take photoshoots) for the foreseeable future. One payphone at W100th Street even inspired a children’s book entitled The Lonely Phone Booth by UWS resident Peter Ackerman — ensuring that future generations be told about the magic machine that could make calls the old fashioned way, B.C.
* The original headline of this story has been changed to reflect that there are still some working payphones around New York.