Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pay Phones Remain on Every Corner in One American City

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, NEW YORK, NY – Pay phones began rapidly disappearing from city streets in the mid-1990s when they were deregulated under the U.S. Telecommunications Act and cell phones had become more affordable and small enough to fit into a purse or pocket. I don’t think I’ve come across one working pay phone in my last four years in Atlanta – even on the Georgia State University campus; nor my three years before that in near-suburban Chicago.

No so in Manhattan. There, the pay phone is alive and well. In my brief trip to the Big Apple last fall what I thought was a near extinct feature of the city street seemed to be thriving on every corner. And they worked.  My curiosity about this rare urban vestige drove me to check for a dial tone whenever I came across one. Of course my inventory wasn’t particularly scientific, but I can confirm that I discovered working pay phones all over town – including the Upper West and East Sides; Harlem, SoHo, the East Village, and Alphabet City. Some of the phone banks I encountered even had internet access. People were using them too – either to make a call or to write something down in the booth while on a cell phone. So if you forgot to charge your cell, your dog chewed it or your cat hid it; or, you accidentally dropped it in the toilet, or are late on the bill, or ran out of minutes, Manhattan is the place to be…as long as you have change (typically no ATM cards are accepted).

What’s behind this seemingly contradictory locally-based phenomenon in an era of wireless, instant, and germ-free telecommunication? Well, if you think it’s because New Yorkers have rebelled against the cell phone think again. According to a New York Times article by Jo Craven McGinty, one of the primary reasons for the stubborn survival of the NYC pay phone is advertising. The sides of pay phone booths have become lucrative street-level billboards. Companies peddle their products on them to the tune of over $60 million in advertising revenues per year, with almost $14 million going to the city.

There are detractors who think pay phones are taking up too much room on NYC’s sidewalks. Well, so are street lights, parking meters, bus stops; newspaper and advertising kiosks, not to mention all those needed garbage bins. If only other American cities could have been this creative with their dwindling pay phone stock.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and the Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at To view more “Pay Phones Remain on Every Corner in One American City” photographs log on to our Facebook page.


  1. Deirdre thank you for posting this- it is such an important issue. I've expressed my concern about the disappearance of pay phones to my husband. As affordable as cell phones have become, they still aren't accessible among the most vulnerable populations. The pay phone is a saving grace for impoverished children and other individuals.

  2. Love it! Great idea for photos and documentary of the times.

  3. Thanks -- now...what happened to all the mailboxes?