For years, a lone phone booth stood on the Promenade. Then one day, it was gone.
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is a one-third of a mile-long walkway on a Brooklyn bluff overlooking Manhattan. Most who walk it look west, gazing out over the meeting of the East River and Hudson, at the ferries hustling commuters across shores, at the barges swilling white water in their wake. It’s a captivating sight.
Once, if you were to look east, you might have caught something odd, something seemingly anachronistic and somewhat out of place at the intersection of Clark Street and the promenade: a lone phone booth. But today, it’s no longer there.
The phone sat under a rounded metal hood labeled with Verizon’s logo, but the company no longer tended to the bastion of the past. Visibly broken, the receiver hung from the phone handle, held on by two thick wires.
Payphones, once so plentiful they blended into the background, now appear unique. This solo column, lonely in its vigil over the river, became another piece of history on the historic walk.
The few public payphones that exist in the city are monitored by New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. While chartered with keeping phones operational, connected and clean, the DOITT is moving forward with its plan to replace all public payphones with wireless enabled kiosks by 2020.
But what about the phone on the promenade?
An evolving Brooklyn Heights
Ben Lee has lived in Brooklyn Heights for 40 years. He speaks with a gentle but evident New York accent. It took him a while to remember the phone booth he once passed every day when he first moved to the area.
“Oh, you mean — oh yeah, the one that looks like an egg chair?”
Lee never used the promenade’s phone, but then again, he didn’t have to. He lived right around the corner and could use his own. Lee moved to Brooklyn Heights from the North Bronx in the early 1970s. His realtor showed him the studio on Hicks Street; the apartment was only two blocks away from the promenade. At the time, Lee paid $70.50 a month to live there.
Back then everything was cheaper. There were no cellphones (and no cellphone bills), and the payphone on Clark Street charged just 10 cents for a local call. Now, Lee’s former building has been converted into a co-op, with each unit selling for about $375,000. Cellphone bills are increasing as the years go on; payphones, if you can find them, are still 25 cents for a local call, an amount unchanged since Bell Atlantic, the one-time manager of the majority of America’s payphones, began to push for price standardization in 1981.
Because of the scenic view and the history, Brooklyn Heights has always been a desirable place to live, even in the darker days of the city. In the 1930s, a prominent Wall Street lawyer named Roy M.D. Richardson lived on Columbia Heights, a street that allowed its residents unparalleled views of the harbor below. Richardson was then president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, the first and only group of its kind in the city, designed to fight for decisions about traffic in their area. They were in for a battle when Robert Moses took on designing the BQE.
Whether because of a long-born grudge against the feisty residents of Brooklyn Heights, or because of Moses’ general dislike for old buildings, he decided that the best place to put the highway was directly through Brooklyn Heights. Richardson and the other BHA members quickly made moves to stop him. In a compromise so slick that to this day each party claims ownership of the idea, the BQE was rerouted to the waterline, creating the promenade. On Dec. 7, 1951, Richardson’s backyard became the borough’s backyard.
While Brooklyn Heights has been able to keep itself mostly intact, New York City in general is a town of deconstruction and reconstruction, a Robert Moses dream. What the city builds, it soon destroys, rapidly changing its skyline and streetscapes for the newest thing. The phone booth, once a marvel of the mid-20th century, is no exception.
Fewer and fewer booths
Phone booth construction and availability reached its peak in the 1990s. According to the Federal Communications Commission, there were 2,068,540 payphones in America in 1997. By 2016, that number had dropped to 99,832. More than 20 percent of all remaining phones are located in New York State, and half of those are located on New York City’s streets.
By 2020, payphones may not exist in the city at all. City Bridge, a company that bought the street phone franchise from the DOITT in 2014, plans to transform the majority of payphones into LinkNYC kiosks. Well over nine feet tall, the kiosks loom on city sidewalks like the monoliths from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They provide the user with free high-speed wireless, phone charging and telephone calls, all paid for by advertisements run on two, 55-inch LED screens on either side of the kiosk — something certain to stand out should one ever be placed on the promenade.
If it were up to paperwork alone, the phone on the promenade would appear as though it never existed. The DOITT said that the phone wasn’t a part of their franchise. They only provide care for phones located directly off a street or on a sidewalk (which the promenade, technically, is not).
The city is eager to make its street space useful to its pedestrians once again. But a bright Link kiosk, with all its amenities, isn’t likely to go over well with residents along the promenade, said Lee.
‘Sensitive to change’
“The promenade should be left the way it is,” said Lee, who added, “I’m very sensitive to change. I’m a stable, conservative guy. People say, ‘Oh, you’re so stubborn’ — this is who I am!”
Whenever the promenade’s payphone was built, it was required to pass a series of guidelines as laid out by the Landmarks Preservation Committee. The commission regulates how phone booths are installed in historic areas, said Zodet Negron, a spokeswoman for the committee. “To help ensure they are installed in a manner that does not damage or destroy historic fabric.”
While the Brooklynites’ spirits has proved to be an effective force, their political clout and financial resources have been crucial to making themselves heard.
Joseph Blanco, 35, works at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s DUMBO location. He took a part-time job at the visitor’s desk to get out from behind his computer, where he works most of the day as a graphic designer. Like Lee, he has his roots in the Bronx. He lives in Kingsbridge, but he commutes to DUMBO three days a week.
Working at BHS has inspired Blanco. “Brooklyn is on top of teaching about itself,” he said. He hopes to take what he learns at the historical society and translate it to his home.
When he heard about the phone booth on the promenade, his eyes lit up. “In the Bronx, people were trying to turn the old 911 booths into historical pieces — instead of calling the police, the button would instead start telling you something about the history of the place.”
While that movement stalled, Blanco’s excitement for the phone booth on the promenade did not wane. “I think I’m going to make a proposal,” he said. “You lift up the phone to speak, but instead you’d hear about the history of the promenade and the Heights.”
A mysterious disappearance
Blanco’s energy and vision were contagious. Now, each time I passed the phone, I thought of all the things it could be, of a way to connect our present and our past. But as I walked along the promenade on Oct. 28, that reverie was stopped short.
The phone booth was gone.
Shorn from concrete, the only evidence of its existence was the remnant of metal in a hole in the ground.
Anessa Hodgson from the city’s Parks Department (who had previously acknowledged that, although the phone existed on city property, it was not “owned or operated” by the Parks Department) wrote in an email, “We reached out to PTS [Pacific Telemanagement Services] Providers, who was responsible for the payphone. They assessed it and determined it warranted removal.”
PTS, however, could not confirm that they had ever managed the payphone. Leah Monetti, a customer service representative, said the company had been taking down a lot of phones lately, but she could find no record of the phone on the promenade or its removal.
Regardless of ownership, the deed was done. The phone exists now only in the memories of the few who had noticed it against the backdrop of an ever-changing city.
Liann Herder has worked in Brooklyn Heights for the last five years. She is a part-time graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism.
Update (Dec. 4 at 3:30 p.m.): This article has been updated with the correct length of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
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