Once upon a time, pay phones were a staple on almost every street corner. After searching high and low, a pay phone was located during a drive on I-95. (DR Barnes/ The Washington Informer)
Once upon a time, pay phones were a staple on almost every street corner. After searching high and low, a pay phone was located during a drive on I-95. (DR Barnes/ The Washington Informer)

Remember when? Regardless of whether you are a baby boomer, millennial or Generation Xer, it’s a question that often comes to the forefront.

However, there’s one “remember when” question that will probably stump even the most the progressive Generation Z crowd: Whatever happened to America’s many public pay phones and phone booths?

Wait. What? For at least a century, a pay phone was as crucial as a mailbox. And while coin-operated public telephone first cost five cents before rising to one dime, then a quarter, 35 cents and even 50 cents, few people complained – at least not loudly.
At least you never had to worry about answering a call while driving.

When the beeper or pager alerted the holder that someone needed to reach them, the neighborhood phone booth would be the next stop. (Beepers, or pagers, are now as outdated as the pay phone).

And, like beepers and pagers, virtually no one uses the pay phone anymore.

A recent Pew Research Center report noted that about 96 percent of Americans own cellphones. But like most out-of-date technology, there are still a few pay phones around.

“As someone who is, shall we say, more mature, my memory isn’t as good as it was,” offered entrepreneur Sally Gibson. “Plus, I’m not wonderful with technology.”

But recently she found it necessary to track down a pay phone and the search was on.

“I had gone out to do some shopping but forgotten to take my phone with me. I realized after shopping I had too much to walk home with so I was going to phone for a taxi. Realizing I didn’t have my phone with me, the only other option I could see was using a phone booth for the first time in years.”

John Stevenson, a marketing specialist, said a pay phone recently saved his day.

“I was driving to meet a client when I forgot my mobile phone in the office,” he said. “Fortunately, we still have phone booths on a few streets nearby. I called my subordinate about my concern and saved the time I would have lost going back home. It might be out of style but there are still people who rely on these phone booths.”

According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, roughly 100,000 pay phones remain in the U.S. – down from 2 million in 1999.

While the majority of phones are in New York, the District still has a few public booths in operation including at the Capital One Arena and outside of a few hotels like the Comfort Inn on H Street NW, Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Hampshire Avenue NW and the Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Other than the advent of cellphones, what else caused the demise of public pay phones?

A 2017 report in The Atlantic said a “particularly intense lobby for a pay phone ban emerged in Chicago in 1992.  Concerned about a rise in drug trafficking, communities urged lawmakers to get rid of pay phones across the city.

Fast-forward — from 2000 to 2006, the number of cellphones in the U.S. rose from 90.6 million to 217.4 million. In the District in 2011, Metro announced the elimination of most of the 1,074 pay phones in its train stations.

But one caveat cannot be overlooked: Metro once had a lucrative contract with Verizon who provided service for all the phone booths in Metro’s many train stations. Then, total revenue generated from the phones began a steep and steady decline. In 2009, Metro officials said pay phones were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars while the average use declined to about once a day.
The remaining pay phones had become a relic, and to some, something of a prop.

The Jerusalem Post cited Julia Casciotti, a 17-year-old senior at Washington-Lee High School who crammed into a phone booth along with a few girlfriends for photo shoots after sleepovers. Over the years, Casciotti also made pretend calls, “pushing all the buttons and calling the operator.”

“It’s always just been there,” she said while noting that she’s never actually used the pay phone or seen anyone use it either.

But Daniel Leblanc, 22, has seen people drop their coins into the pay phone slot and said it freaked him out. An intern on Capitol Hill who lives in an apartment nearby, he walks by a phone booth on his way to and from the Metro.

Leblanc uses a cellphone and doesn’t have a landline at home like many young people today.

“The couple times I’ve seen people using it, I’ve thought, ‘That is really strange,’“ Leblanc told the newspaper. “Frankly, I wondered, ‘Don’t those people have cellphones?’”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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3 Comments

  1. I think all this new technology is for the birds. I still have a rotary phone, landline of course, and I will NEVER get a cell or smart phone. They are a piece of nonsense. When I grew up, kids went out to play with their friends, rode their bikes, and flew their kites. Now days it’s a shame to see kids do nothing but carry a cell phone around with it usually glued to their head. I am probably the last of the few that still have a antenna outside my house to watch tv, no computer or internet, unless I am at the library, which I am now. I will not change. I’m old fashioned, and plan on staying that way FOREVER.

  2. I read that the [real] reason that they had “done away with” pay phones/phone booths, was that the Supreme Court had ruled that it was “unconstitutional” for law enforcement to “tap” pay phones without an warrent! In otherwords: Up to that time, ALL pay phones were tapped – or that it was NOT illegal to tap pay phones without a – warrent! Whereas: ALL cell phones within the US ARE being surveilled or rather; “tapped”- to include ALL text messages! – Some how, I “would think” that if ANYTHING would be illegal, it would be “secretly eavesdropping” on everyones cellphones – without a “specific” warrent ! But, “hey,” what do I know? -dm

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