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Looking Back at the Pay Phone’s New York Heyday

SURFACING

We scoured the New York Times photo archive for the humble yet ubiquitous pay phone.

As the effort to remove New York City’s street pay phones were completed this week, a recognizable piece of the city’s life and landscape became little more than a memory. It’s easy to forget today that pay phones were once essential in the daily lives of New Yorkers. In 1978, a pay phone in New York’s Penn Station was the busiest one in the country, with an average pick up rate of 5,500 times a month.

Two telephone repairmen replace a cut cable at a bank of pay phones in Greenwich Village. In the 1970s, New York Telephone Company hired 500 repair workers to perform daily checks on the city’s 8,300 street phones.

At the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, curved booths added some soundproofing to calls.

Some pay phone booth designs responded to the ethnic identity of the neighborhood, like this one pictured in 1976. Phone booths decorated with green and yellow pagoda-inspired roofs were installed in Chinatown in the ’60s.

The ‘glass wall’ is the conquest of the Modern Age,” declared the Modernist architect Le Corbusier in a 1935 article extolling the virtues of glass. “This enclosure will be formed of a rigid lattice of iron, concrete, or even wood, fitted with its mesh of translucent or transparent materials: glass.” These sleek pay phone booths fit his description, rising from the city sidewalks alongside the glass and steel skyscrapers of the 1950s.

A bomb squad detective inspecting a telephone booth in Grand Central in 1956.

Requiring minimal voltage, public pay phones have been a lifeline during blackouts and extreme weather.

In 1983, a young professional making himself comfortable on a call from this makeshift seat. For many New Yorkers, pay phones were a vital part of the working day.

Callers using temporary pay phones brought in after a 1975 fire in the East Village disrupted service. Similar banks of emergency pay phones were brought into Chinatown when the neighborhood lost phone service for nearly four months following the Sept. 11 attacks.

A woman making a call from Penn Station at one of the busiest pay phone banks in the country. A 1979 New York Times story that discussed private pay phone booths in Tiffany’s took aim at the Bell Telephone Company’s transition away from booths to more open pedestal-style phones.

A woman leaning on a pay phone at a Times Square subway platform while trying to keep cool on a humid day in July 1980.

Children bundled up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from on top of a row of pay phone booths in 1980.

A phone booth in Midtown in 1984 shows an early example of advertising on public pay phones. After coin income from calls started to dwindle, pay phones experienced a second gold rush, returning high profits with ad space.

A ConEd employee making a call from the scene of an exploded manhole cover at 48th Street and Lexington.

Vandalized phones displayed outside New York Telephone’s Midtown office in September 1984. The company reported a sharp increase in vandalism that summer, when the cost of local calls rose from 10 to 25 cents.


Ann Chen is an artist, educator, researcher and filmmaker. Aaron Reiss is a multimedia journalist, researcher and mapmaker.

Surfacing is a visual column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.

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