As the 2005 Rian Johnson movie Brick proved, nothing generates an instant throwback feel like a pay phone. In our age of omnipresent cellphone culture and highly communicable diseases, it’s hard to imagine that anyone might be eager to drop a dime (or really, about $0.50 these days) to press a public handset to their face. Who remembers phone numbers, anyway? For these reasons and more, New York City retired its final public pay phone bank last month, with much fanfare.
The removal of this specific type of pay phone configuration amounted to a technology milestone in a city where they were once ubiquitous. And now, that last public pay phone has found a new permanent home at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), where it is part of the recently opened exhibition Analog City. The show examines New York’s history between the 1870s and the 1970s, highlighting the advancements that enabled the city to “reach its position as the ‘capital of the world’ in an age before the speed and capacity of today’s digital technologies.” Hopefully, in a nod to coming technologies, they will use the DNA found in chewing gum stuck in the coin slot of the last telephone booth to bionically recreate a historically accurate punk teenager.
“These phones were absolutely essential to living and working in New York, and they were everywhere,” MCNY Curator Lilly Tuttle told NY1. “But once people started adopting cell phones and smartphones, they really quickly became totally obsolete.”
The announcement of the pay phone’s permanent retirement last month was followed by much “well, actually,” with some NYC residents noting sightings of the relics in their own neighborhoods. But in an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for LinkNYC confirmed that “this last removal marked the end of the street payphone era,” with the exception of private pay phones on public property and four full-length, so-called “Superman” booths still standing in the Upper West Side.
New York City had some 30,000 public street pay phones as recently as the early 2000s, but over the past seven years, they’ve been systematically replaced with LinkNYC kiosks, which offer Wi-Fi and cellphone charging capacities more suited to today’s personal device culture. They are, of course, less useful when it comes to taking a semi-private pee, which was another great feature of the public phone booth. Ah, the sweet smell of nostalgia!