The mystery of the NYC pay phone graveyard

A payphone graveyard, photographed by Dave Bledsoe and published on Flickr.

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

Gothamist and several other blogs have lately highlighted a small batch of images by photographer Dave Bledsoe. The pictures show a bunch of old pay phones, unceremoniously clumped beneath the West Side Highway, near 135th Street, in Manhattan. That doesn’t sound like the most electrifying subject matter, but, gathered on Flickr under the heading “This Technology Has Been Disconnected,” the photos clearly evoke something that people respond to.

Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s pathos. Or maybe it’s sheer mystery: How did this “payphone graveyard,” as Beldsoe aptly called it on his own blog, come to be here? Whose objects are these, and where are they going? Certainly I was curious.

The answers reveal something about how technology dies — and, perhaps, why we care.

Let’s start with some factual context. Possibly because the term “public phone” is so widespread, many people assume that pay phones are somehow extensions of city government, like the police department or garbage collection — your tax dollars at work! In New York, “public” phones are in fact private property. The physical objects are owned by about a dozen commercial firms, which lease the relevant sidewalk space from the city. The city plays a role in maintaining phones on the street, explains a spokesperson for New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, but when they are removed, their disposal is up to these “franchisees.”

Among the biggest of them is Van Wagner, an outdoor advertising company. And it turns out that what Bledsoe stumbled upon is “one of our storage facilities,” Van Wagner executive Pete Izzo helpfully explained to me. “We also have a storage facility in Queens that looks like that.”

So what’s the story? Look closely at some of Bledsoe’s images and you’ll notice Verizon branding. Verizon used to be a big franchisee, but has basically extracted itself from the pay phone business; Van Wagner bought up all 4,278 of Verizon’s remaining pay phones in the five boroughs in June 2012, Izzo says, but has still relied on the telecom giant for actual dial tone service. This arrangement hasn’t worked out well — and while the city doesn’t run the pay phone system, it does fine franchisees for non-working phones, to the tune of $2,500 a shot.

“So,” Izzo explains, “we began to aggressively disconnect and remove pay phones that had no dial tone,” about 1,000 of them altogether.

The phones Bledsoe found are routinely harvested for parts to replace damaged equipment on the street, Izzo says, and ultimately will be recycled (their materials include stainless steel and aluminum, and their processor boards contain some precious metals).

“That’s just kind of a drop off point,” he adds, “because we’re handling so much equipment, we’re doing so much work that we can’t recycle it fast enough.”

Now, if you’re wondering why an outdoor advertising company owns a bunch of pay phones in the first place, take a look around Manhattan: There are phone “kiosks” all over the place, all slathered with ads. That’s the core of the business: Not a phone with an ad on it, an ad with a phone in it. Indeed, Izzo points out, Van Wagner has enthusiastically tinkered with more tech-forward uses for its kiosks — for instance, it is expanding a pilot program started last year that’s converted a handful into Wifi hot spots, and it has even experimented with making them to electric charging stations.

The “graveyard” phones aren’t kiosk-style objects; they’re a smaller, pedestal style referred to in the business as “sardine cans.” That’s notable because it means their use as advertising vehicles is less obvious. Van Wagner is experimenting on that front, as well: Izzo directed me to, which offers a kind of wrap-around ad option.

Presumably one of the reasons that Bledsoe’s pictures resonated is that New York itself was the site what may well be the last wave of genuine appreciation for pay phones, when cell service collapsed after Hurricane Sandy. (Mention pay phones to most any New Yorker, and I promise you he or she will mention Sandy immediately.) But let’s face it: If you’re in Manhattan and feeling nostalgic for pay phones, you can re-live the past pretty easily. There are plenty to choose from, and no waiting at all.

As it happens, earlier this year the city had a contest to “reinvent payphones,” drawing a number of vaguely sci-fi proposals from various design firms. That is the way we’re used to thinking about a fading technology — by focusing on the awesome new thing that will replace it! The less romantic leftovers that serve as evidence of the routine and inevitable business of change tend to be overlooked. It’s precisely because we are trained to equate technology with progress that images of what progress replace can seem startling, and sad.