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September 25, 2021

Documenting the last pay phones in America

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From Bloomberg:

A Photographer in Rochester, New York tries to capture an obsolete technology before it disappears.

We're heading north up Rochester's Goodman Street, past pizza places and gas stations and narrow wood-framed homes, when Eric Kunsman spots a red-crowned kiosk in front of the parking lot of a convenience store/smoke shop. It's a pay phone, one he'd probably seen many times before but had never truly seen until now.

"Look at that!" he says. We pull over, and he pops the hatch on his Toyota SUV. "I can't believe I missed this one."

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In the back, Kunsman keeps photography equipment — a vintage Hasselblad film camera in a suitcase-size case. It's an attention-getting rig, and as he sets it up and trains it on the battered telephone, the owner of the smoke shop emerges, frowning.

Kunsman is very familiar with this part of the process, and with an enormous grin he explains himself: He's a photographer, and he takes pictures of pay phones.

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Specifically, Kunsman, who teaches photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is engaged in a multiyear project to document every surviving pay phone in and around the city in upstate New York. As of 2018 that would be 1,455 phones, according to a dog-eared list of locations provided by Frontier Communications Corp., the telecommunications company that operates the machines that remain in Monroe County. So far, Kunsman has captured about 900 of them on film. Perhaps 35% of them, he says, still work.

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It's an endeavor born of Kunsman's fascination with obsolete technology — and with a city that has become associated with it. Rochester was famously the home of George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Co.; at its 1970s peak the photography giant employed about 50,000 people and fueled a quarter of the city's economic activity. But the rise of digital photography and the collapse of the film business brought mass layoffs and a 2012 bankruptcy that hollowed out the city's middle class. Once insulated from the hard times that had befallen nearby Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo, Rochester plunged into a sharp economic decline. Its current poverty rate, 31%, trails only Detroit and Cleveland as the worst among the 75 largest U.S. metros.

This history haunts Kunsman, who moved to Rochester from his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1996. "I got to see its heyday," he says of the city, "and then I got to see it fall apart."

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Rochester's pay phones caught his eye around 2017, when Kunsman moved his photography studio from the Neighborhood of the Arts, a revitalized district in the city's southeast, to a lower-income community inside the "crescent of poverty" — a complex of low-income neighborhoods north and west of downtown that had earned a reputation for crime and abandonment. Friends warned him that the area was a "war zone," but once Kunsman set up his studio in an old bumper warehouse he found a tight-knit neighborhood of families amid the vacant lots and other signs of economic distress. Among those signs, he soon noticed one: a surprising surfeit of pay phones.

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To Kunsman, the persistence of these devices in low-income neighborhoods spoke to the patterns of investment and attention these spaces command; once a widely used public amenity, pay phones had become markers of poverty and neglect, enduring only because property owners or telecommunications operators couldn't be troubled to remove them. Still, even in an age of near-universal cell phone access, people used them — the unhoused people who camped near a restaurant, for example. Kunsman began taking photos of the pay phones, first the ones he'd spotted around the neighborhood, then farther afield. He shoots black-and-white images on Kodak film, because, he says, "their demise is what caused this issue."

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The shots are unpeopled, though occasionally there are figures in the background. Kunsman says people who use pay phones can face stigma, and he didn't want the project to provide easy answers about those who might rely on them. "You have to think about who might be using that phone," he says.

Not Johns

[Genesee Brewery, St. Paul Street, Rochester, New York.]

Sometimes, he shoots bare Frontier kiosks whose phones have been removed or the unpainted spaces on a wall where the devices once hung. The scenes usually highlight Rochester's less-celebrated spaces: strip malls, parking lots, storefronts caked in heaps of snow. But some local landmarks make appearances. Frontier Field, the minor league baseball stadium named for the telecommunications company, has a few pay phones. So does Kodak Park, the enormous research and manufacturing complex that Eastman Kodak built across 1,300 acres of the city's northern outskirts during its heyday. A city-within-a-city that boasted its own power plant and private railroad, the campus was partially demolished in the 2000s. The remaining buildings have been renamed the Eastman Business Park and opened up to local businesses, in the hopes of transforming the area into a tech and innovation hub. The ashes of George Eastman still reside there, under a marble memorial. For a photographer, getting a tour inside the film-making facility was "like going inside Willy Wonka's factory," Kunsman says.

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Contemplating the economics of the disappearing pay phone industry and where he was still finding working phones — sometimes with new or repaired equipment — Kunsman theorized that Frontier was keeping some phones in low-income neighborhoods as a kind of altruistic gesture to the community, because the quarters they were taking in likely didn't recoup the expense of maintaining the devices. He saw it as an example of "felicific calculus," a method of determining the rightness of an action from its pleasurable payoff, which is attributed to the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. (Felicific Calculus is also the title of Kunsman"s photo project.) 

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The company, which filed for bankruptcy in March 2020, has never exactly confirmed that premise. (Frontier didn't respond to requests for comment.) "It's a declining business, and decisions made about it are pretty black and white," a Frontier spokesperson told Rochester's City newspaper reporter David Andreatta in 2019. "As long as the remaining units are used enough to support the maintenance and operation costs, Frontier will be able to keep them in service."

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But regardless of whether they represent an intentional act of corporate goodwill or just classic "stranded assets" — infrastructure whose value and purpose have been swamped by the tides of progress — the pay phones in Rochester stand as compelling subjects for Kunsman's lens. "We forget that technology moves so fast," he says. "We don't think about the people left behind."

It's easy to forget that pay telephones were once omnipresent in the American cities of the 20th century, and how swiftly these iconic features of the streetscape vanished in the 21st. The first coin-operated public telephone appeared on the outside of a downtown building in Hartford, Conn., in 1889; by 1999 more than 2 million pay phones blanketed U.S. sidewalks, hotel lobbies, airports, and hospitals. The last time the Federal Communications Commission issued a pay phone count, in 2016, fewer than 100,000 remained. Thanks in part to federal government programs such as Lifeline, which partially subsidizes mobile phone service for low-income Americans, cell phone access in the U.S. has now reached 97% of adults, according to the Pew Research Center.

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As handheld devices swept the population, pay phones — and those who still used them — acquired an unsavory reputation. In the 1990s some city leaders passed legislation limiting their placement in a bid to fend off the drug dealing that they were widely seen as abetting. Cities junked pay phones by the tens of thousands.

The relative handful that remain in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles have since become objects of nostalgic fascination, as Kunsman discovered when he took his pursuit of Rochester's pay phones to social media. There he found fellow enthusiasts including filmmaker Ryan Steven Green, who runs the account Payphones of Los Angeles on Instagram, and the artist Pentabo Clortino, who turns dead pay phone kiosks into art installations.

But Kunsman is not only interested in the aesthetics of these abandoned pieces of street furniture: He uses his project to plumb the city's social and economic circumstances. He collaborated with two RIT colleagues, digital librarian Rebekah Walker and Janelle Duda-Banwar, a researcher at the Center for Public Safety Initiatives, to map pay phone locations across the Rochester region and overlay them with poverty rates, median income, housing values, and demographic information. "Where there are higher levels of poverty, there are higher levels of pay phones," says Duda-Banwar, who also talked to community residents about what the phones were being used for. "They had this negative connotation: 'Oh, drug dealers use that,' or 'homeless people use that.' No one really talked about phones as a resource."

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When Kunsman comes across people who are making calls from pay phones — something that, in the Covid-19 era, has become rare — he finds that they're almost always calling family members or doctors. And they are acutely aware of the connotations that accompany talking on a public pay phone in 2021. "One thing that's a common thread is that they don't like people looking at them," he says.

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For those who still rely on these devices, the options are becoming more limited. Since his project began, Kunsman has tracked the disappearance or destruction of scores of once-operational pay phones. On Lyell Avenue, he spots another recent victim on the brick side wall of a corner store, which used to sport a working pay phone. (Kunsman's photo highlights some visual irony: The store sells cell phones.) Now only the severed wires are visible. He stops to photograph it, carefully duplicating the angle of his earlier shot. Again, the store owner comes out to chat — suspicious at first, then bemused. The pay phone was removed a few months ago, the owner explains, when he had the building painted.

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Not far away, we pull into a Sunoco station said to have a working pay phone. But upon closer inspection, the headset appears damaged, and no dial tone emerges. "I can't remember the last time I saw someone use it," says Michael Maccio, who works at the garage. "But I like it here. It's a piece of history, man."

We press on, visiting shopping centers of various vintages, where phones often hide on interior columns, and nail salons and dollar stores. In an affluent suburb, a lone phone is stationed on the edge of a vast parking lot. A beat-up convenience store bristles with a quartet of them. None work; one gives up a quarter. Kunsman pockets it. "That's a first."

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On the way back into the city, we pass construction work on Main Street and spot one of the green-roofed public phone kiosks that were installed during a wave of 1990s downtown renovation. The structure is listing to one side now, marooned in a sea of gravel as the sidewalk is jackhammered around it. Kunsman makes a note to turn around and capture the scene: "That one will be gone by morning."

September 25, 2021 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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