The Return of the Pay Phone Post-Hurricane Sandy — An Appreciation

Seventh Avenue South and West 4th (Before the Storm)

They had been the places more recently where tourists stop to consult their maps, above – an un- or under-utilized piece of the scenery relegated to the background taking up, to some, important real estate. I’d often thought that ridding the city of its pay phones is not too, uh, smart because, when all else fails, sometimes they are the one thing that works. (That goes for landlines too.) Witness downtown post-Hurricane Sandy.

From HuffPost Tech, After Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers Struggle with ‘Obsolete’ Smartphones:

Hurricane Sandy has left millions in the Northeast without power or cellular reception, including densely populated neighborhoods in New York City: Lower Manhattan below 42nd Street is completely without electricity, and the FCC has announced that 25 percent of cell towers have been wiped out.

The resultant landscape in downtown New York City is populated by a community accustomed to navigating by smartphone now learning to get around and adapt without. It’s not just a city without traffic lights or hot coffee, it is one whose inhabitants have lost their customary tethers and security blankets. …

Payphone line Post-Sandy

Most strikingly, though, the storm has enabled the return of the long-ignored public pay phone. On Tuesday, a line of the disconnected waited to use a payphone in the West Village, some of them making what was surely their first pay phone call in many years. In the East Village, a young boy tugged on his mother’s sleeve in delight as change returned to the coin slot after an unanswered call. On Broadway below Union Square, two men in New York Giants sweatshirts operated a payphone in tandem: One dialed the phone while the other read out the number from a cell phone, the device in his hand reduced to a $700 address book.

Indeed, the return of the pay phone seems to have hit a nerve, having become the symbol of how the hurricane has launched New Yorkers back into the technological past. The tech site Gizmodo dedicated a short post to pay phones titled “Payphones Finally Good for Something After 10 Year Hiatus.” Several outlets published photos of New Yorkers waiting in line to use a pay phone, an unthinkable 2012 occurrence just a week ago.

This is just months after New York announced a pilot program to convert several pay phones around in the city into free WiFi hotspots. The move was widely praised as a successful effort to transform worthless technology — akin to “pagers, beepers, and busy signals,” as CNN’s Doug Gross put it in July — into something with actual utility.

The Disneyland-like waiting lines that have popped up in New York show it might not be time to start uprooting all of those pay phones just yet.

It would be good to have more working pay phones — as I’m sure those searching for phones have discovered.

I’ve heard varying dividing lines as to where electricity broke down, what the dividing line is – some say 25th Street, 35th Street, Huffington Post wrote 42nd. All I know is it is inconvenient to a lot of people.

Gawker thinks it could break out in a Civil War between Uptown and Downtown — but that Downtown will win.

Top Photo: Cathryn (I’d taken some pictures of pay phones over the last few months wanting to write something about them – this gave me the opportunity.)

Bottom Photo: Peter Brooks via Star Tribune


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