The last sidewalk phone booths in New York City

Once upon a time, public phone booths were ubiquitous on the sidewalks of New York City. “Outdoor phone booths made their first entrance in the early 1900s, and became commonplace in the 1950s when glass and aluminum replaced difficult-to-maintain wood as the building material of choice,” explained Time magazine in 2016.

But the invention of the cell phone sealed the fate of the phone booth, with its folding door and often a small seat as well, where you could drop your shopping bags while you fished around your pocket or purse for coins to make a call. (Or used a calling card, or called collect.)

Now, New York City has only four outside public phone booths. Interestingly, they’re all on the Upper West Side on quiet stretches of West End Avenue.

The first one is at 66th Street (top photo), then 91st Street (second photo), 100th Street, and 101st Street (bottom).

If these icons of another New York appear to be in surprisingly good shape, that’s because they aren’t the original phone booths that existed on each corner. Each is a relatively recent replacement of an older booth that was battered or marked by graffiti, according to a 2016 New York Times article.

Though these phone booths lack doors, they’re reminiscent of the iconic phone booths that were utilitarian and functional but also had an air of romance, mystery, even danger.

New York phone booths often played pivotal roles in movies—remember in Rosemary’s Baby, when a very pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse goes into the privacy of a phone booth to dial Dr. Hill so he could deliver her baby instead of her doctor and neighbors, all of them witches?

Residents of West End Avenue are charmed by their phone booths, so charmed that in 2010 one author even published a children’s book about one specific booth.

The book’s title is still fitting: The Lonely Phone Booth.

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29 Responses to “The last sidewalk phone booths in New York City”

  1. Greg Says:

    Weird that there are two a block apart when there’s only four total. How’d that happen?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    According to the New York Times article, there was a West End Avenue who was especially vocal about keeping the phone booths. Sometimes it pays to complain!

  3. pontifikator Says:

    A good example of the privatization of the commons. Now one MUST have a cellphone because there are no public street phones left.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Very true, and I also think people are too germ-conscious these days to use a public phone anyway unless totally desperate.

    • Greg Says:

      You could look at it the opposite way too . . . these booths are private telecom property stored on public land after all.

  4. Julie Says:

    I love that there are still post boxes next to each of the phone booths! Here in Sydney, there would be very few phone booths left – though a few – but absolutely no post boxes anymore. If you want to post something you make a trip to the Post Office.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That seems awfully inconvenient! I can vouch that there must be thousands of mail boxes still on NYC streets.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    While it seems “everyone” has a cell phone, in reality, not everyone has a cell phone. I wonder what people without them do, although there are still some pay phones scattered around elsewhere in town. Most, though, are “off brand”; I can’t recall seeing a Verizon or AT&T booth in recent memory. (And yes, I miss mailboxes, too.) Maybe I’m just too “old school” for the modern world….

  6. beth Says:

    I love the old phone booths

  7. Last Call, The Lonely Phone Booth – Peter Ackerman – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] Last Call, The Lonely Phone Booth – Peter Ackerman […]

  8. John Brady Says:

    They’re like a lot of other things that were once part of the cityscape. They were everywhere and now they’re gone. That’s New York, always changing.

  9. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I was thinking of that exact scene while reading your article! Amazing that there are only four phone booths left.

  10. Michael Leddy Says:

    I like seeing that each booth has a mailbox or relay box for company (100th Street too). Landlines and snail mail together.

  11. mvschulze Says:

    The simple passage of time!

  12. S.S. Says:

    I’ve recently noticed that those other outdoor phones, the more modern ones introduced in the 1990s, open-air, without the sides and used mostly a medium for advertising, are also fast disappearing.

  13. Giovanni Punto Says:

    I have no cell phone and do not intend to ever own one. That said, I have given up the idea of even looking for a functioning payphone anymore. What is available in some, but not enough, areas of the city is the NYLINK obelisk-like option. Though it is hit or miss whether the one you find actually works when you try to place a call, sometimes you do get through. It is also free. I feel similarly about the increasingly evident no-cash restaurants and stores that also go on the assumption that everyone on the planet feels that all technology is a major step forward and none of it entails a loss of something of value. Every once in a while I meet someone who gets this, but most of the time I am just a voice crying in the wilderness.

  14. petlover1948 Says:

    now the mailboxes are sealed with only a small opening; so the envelopes can only be a certain width.

  15. Bill Wolfe Says:

    What is Clark Kent supposed to do when he needs to change into his Superman garb?

  16. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    A peeing booth on the Lower East Side, sadly it’s no longer there.

    • Tom B Says:

      When did we change into destroying everything that was a public benefit? What made us so openly destructive to things that were a convenience, i.e. restrooms, phone booths, subways, water fountains. Was it Vietnam, Nixon, Music, Drugs, Poverty?

      • pontifikator Says:

        Good, and essential, question. There has been a decades-long campaign denigrating anything public, including public schools, by people who don’t want to pay taxes. Though I believe that’s a big part of it, there’s more to it and I’m not sure what it is.

  17. countrypaul Says:

    “When did we change into destroying everything that was a public benefit? What made us so openly destructive to things that were a convenience[?]” I suggest changing technology also had a part to play. Everything wasn’t malevolent – some things are just “change.”

  18. Glenn Krasner Says:

    The only people that I have seen using these phone booths in the last few years, are hookers servicing their johns late at night. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

  19. The wooden phone booths inside a private Midtown clubhouse | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] This week has turned out to be themed around vintage phone booths on Ephemeral New York. First came four glass beauties still extant along West End Avenue, the last remaining outdoor booths in New York City. […]

  20. Storyteller Says:

    Such a shame. When I think of phone booths I always think of superman. In Australia they have made them available to make free calls to landlines or mobiles that use the Telstra network. A recent marketing stunt

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