Hanging on the telephone: Maguire Museum tracks America’s disappearing payphones

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

There are about 35 currently operable payphones in Philadelphia, according to online maps assembled by enthusiasts of the obsolescing technology.

One of them is at Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap, a longtime neighborhood bar in Fishtown whose phone line is wired to the payphone. If you call bartender Shannon Bosak, for example, the payphone rings.

It’s a kind of novelty.

“A lot of the younger kids that come in – adults, of course, but they’re kids to me – they take pictures with it,” she said. “Some of them have never seen one.”

Bosak said nobody ever makes outgoing calls on the payphone, except for one mysterious stranger who comes in a few times a week just to use the payphone. He does not order anything, and nobody at the bar seems to know who he is.

“We try to listen to his conversation because we want to know why he’s using it,” Bosak said. “I put a little thing out that he’s got a hit out on his wife. Doesn’t want any phone traces.”

Bosak is joking, of course. It’s a funny thing to talk about at the bar. But there may be some truth to it: Eric Kunsman believes there is a perception of crime surrounding payphones, particularly outdoor phones in urban spaces. The Rochester, NY-based photographer says payphones can act as social markers, creating the look of a troubled neighborhood.

“How do you get a feeling about a neighborhood you’re driving through, where people roll up their windows and lock their doors,” Kunsman said. “My take on it, from my neighborhood, was the abundance of payphones.”

Curator Jeanne Bracy uses one of two payphones in ”Life-Lines Throughout the United States,” an exhibit at the Maguire Museum at Saint Joseph’s University. Through them, visitors can hear the artist, Eric Kunsman, talking about his work, or hear from people who still rely on the antiquated technology. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kunsman is talking about the Rochester neighborhoods of Charles House and Susan B. Anthony, just west of downtown, where several years ago, he bought a building for his printing business. It’s a lower-income area with a household average of about $21,000, and he noticed a lot of payphones.

“I was ignorant that people were still using the pay phones,” he said. “I just saw them as being archaic.”

Kunsman, originally from Bethlehem, Pa., has spent years on an ongoing photo documentary project, marrying large-format portraits of payphones, overlaying census data maps depicting where they are, and interviews with the people who use them. The exhibition, “Life-Lines Throughout the U.S.,” is currently on view at the Maguire Art Museum at St. Joseph’s University in Lower Merion.

There are two payphones in ”Life-Lines Throughout the United States,” an exhibit at the Maguire Museum at Saint Joseph’s University. Through them, visitors can hear the artist, Eric Kunsman, talking about his work, or hear from people who still rely on the antiquated technology. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The exhibition shows that locations with payphones are mostly aligned with low-income and immigrant communities, less so with crime. The Maguire gallery has actual payphones visitors can use to listen to pre-recorded interviews with people who use payphones as their primary form of communication.

One of those voices identifies as Carlos, who moved from Puerto Rico to Webster in upstate New York. He washes dishes for $9 an hour and lives with several people in an apartment.

“I don’t have a cell phone because my last one broke, and I haven’t been able to afford a new throwaway phone,” he says in the recording. “Honestly, I don’t call many people. I prioritize other things I need: food and other things I want.”

  • January 23, 2024
  • Articles,
  • This post was written by