Goo, Crust and a Dial Tone

The city’s latest report tells us our payphones are clean and that most of them work. But in the East Village many are either broken, disgusting or both.

Think crusty gum stuck to receivers, lewd drawings of body parts scrawled across metal enclosures or slime from sweaty hands glistening on plastic handles.

There are 13 payphones on 13th and 14th Streets near Avenues A and B alone. Most are pretty grungy — and recently many were not functioning. Six of the 13 payphones on that small stretch of East Village pavement were broken. The one outside Stuyvesant Grocery and Deli on Avenue A near 14th Street had no dial tone; the one outside Alphabet Café on 14th Street at Avenue A had wires ripped from the receiver; and the one outside the East Village Café on Avenue B near 13th Street had a sticker that read: “This public pay telephone is temporarily out of service,” dated July 30, 2010.

It’s amazing that anyone ever uses them, but they do.

Patrick Koller is homeless and doesn’t have a cell phone. He relies on the city’s payphones to call his grandmother in Philadelphia once a day to check in. He said he is sick of them breaking, and disappearing.

“It’s hard to find one that works in the first place and if it works there is no guarantee it’s not going to eat your money,” said Mr. Koller as he looked at a broken phone on Avenue A and 14th Street.

The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications reported that as of July 19, there were 24 phone companies operating some 15,500 public payphones on New York City sidewalks. A little more than a decade earlier, the 1997 Mayor’s Management Report said there were 24,000 public payphones in the city.

The technology and telecommunications department regulates city payphones and reports that nearly all are clean and that the majority work. To maximize “availability, operability, and cleanliness of public pay telephones on city streets through inspections and enforcement” remains one of the department’s four critical priorities, according to the most recent data in the Preliminary Fiscal 2010 Mayor’s Management Report.

Payphone complaints are the second most common call the department receives. Inquiries about Access NYC — a free service that helps New Yorkers identify social service benefit programs — takes the top spot.

The department has an enforcement unit that inspects payphones to ensure they are in working order and that the telephone companies that own them are maintaining them. Department inspectors check for four things: proper installation, signage requirements, cleanliness and operability.

Recent department data indicated that 94 percent of inspected phones passed “appearance standards,” which was an increase of six percentage points from the previous year. It rated 75 percent of inspected payphones “operable.” That was an 8 percent decrease since fiscal year 2008. The department’s goal is to bump up both numbers to 95 percent in 2010 and 2011.

But in this stretch of the East Village, where phones are broken and slippery with slime, the department still has work to do.

“It’s really dirty,” said East Village resident Olivia Ong as she looked at one on 1st Avenue near 13th Street that seemed covered in goo.

Tell us about your closest payphone. Where is it? Do you use it? Does it work?

If you have a complaint about a payphone you can contact the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications here.