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Payphone LinkNYC
Photograph: courtesy of LinkNYC

NYC's 'last' payphone will be displayed at the Museum of the City of New York

It'll be in an exhibit about NYC before computers and digital technology.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

A New York City payphone—one of the last relics of an analog past—was removed from the street on Monday, signaling the end of an era for many.

The payphone was on Seventh Avenue at 50th Street and was removed by the city to make room for one of the new-ish LinkNYC kiosks. 

The payphone is said to be the last one in NYC, but several New Yorkers have tweeted that there are others around the city that still work. Either way, the removal stands as a symbol of moving fully into the future and leaving the payphone's dial tones and cords in the past.

This particular payphone isn't going to be tossed in a municipal garbage heap. It's going to the Museum of the City of New York, which will install it in its recently opened exhibit, "Analog City."

The exhibit, which opened on Friday, explores NYC before computers when industries grew through pneumatic tubes, telephone operators, linotype and teletype machines, and card catalogs. 

"This exhibit has been in the works for some time and then as luck would have it...we were approached if we had an interest in the payphone. It felt like a natural and obvious opportunity," Lilly Tuttle, the curator of "Analog City" tells us, noting that the museum often gets offers to take items. "This is one answer that was staring us in the face and it came together pretty quickly. We are trying to act rapidly to incorporate it into the exhibition. All I can say now is 'stay tuned.'"

The exhibit records how the city thrived in the 20th century without the use of digital technology (like smartphones and computers) but through the use of the time's own technology. It's broken up into four sections—libraries, the news media and journalism,  the New York Stock Exchange, and the age of skyscrapers and infrastructure—that outline what tools were used to build them up and keep them up with the times.

(It also touches on how NYC has been slow to evolve enough to provide technology, specifical high-speed internet, to all its residents.)

Analog City
Photograph: courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

It's hard to believe that we ever lived without the internet and computers, but it's not that the 20th century didn't have technology, it just looked a lot different than it does today.

"We've been trained to think of technology as things that are screens and microprocessors," Tuttle says. "We highlight for our visitors things like filing cabinets, index cards, typewriters, telephones, and a whole section on calculating devices - slide rules. The big takeaway here is New York was just an incredible thriving metropolis in the 20th century. It was growing in terms of population, growing physically and growing economically and it did it without all computers."

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to physically try out typewriters, rotary phones, card catalogs, and other building blocks of the analog system.

But why in an era of the billionaires' race to space and the iPhone 14 is MCNY looking at the bygone analog epoch?

"As a result of COVID and something in our culture right now, there seems to be a renewed appetite for material analog life," Tuttle says. "Covid has really highlighted both the opportunities and the pitfalls of living in a totally virtual society. There's just an incredibly vast conversation about actually being in shared spaces together and what that means and the need for face-to-face work. Culturally, we've reached a moment where there's been a resurgence and appreciation for the material things like vinyl and cassette tapes and book stores."

Analog City
Photograph: courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Analog City is on now through December 31, 2022 at the Museum of the City of New York.

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