City hangs up on phone booths

Elaine Helm

Clark Kent wouldn’t be too successful transforming into Superman if he lived in Chicago these days — public phone booths no longer exist.

Mike McCabe, manager of the Chicago Department of Revenue’s Public Way Unit, said the city has 2,781 open-sided pay phone kiosks and 3,989 pay phones .

But phone booths, such as the one in which Colin Farrell’s character finds himself trapped in the blockbuster movie of the same name, are things of the past.

In the movie Farrell plays a publicist confined to a phone booth — the only one remaining in Midtown Manhattan — while an unseen sniper dictates his every move from the other end of the line.

When the telecommunications industry was deregulated in the early 1990s, hundreds of companies scrambled to set up pay phones, minus the booths, in Chicago, McCabe said.

“They did it as cheaply and inexpensively as possible by just taking a tin can, sticking a phone in it and sticking it on a wall,” he said.

Phone booths also posed problems because they were inaccessible to physically handicapped users. Today phone booths are confined to the city’s bars and hotels as decorative pieces.

“There’s a bar on the North Side that has one in there, but that’s all I know about it,” said McCabe, whose unit regulates pay phone operations.

When a company wants to install a new public phone in Chicago, it must apply for a permit. McCabe’s department then checks crime patterns in the area and consults with aldermen to decide whether or not to grant the permit, he said. The city began regulating pay phones in 1993 when many neighborhoods complained about “gang bangers” using phones and people driving up late at night with music blaring to chat.

AT&T corporate historian Sheldon Hochheiser said he doesn’t know the specifics of pay phone use in Chicago, although he explained that the decline of pay phones and phone booths is a nationwide trend.

“It is clear that the widespread use of cell phones has changed the need for pay phones,” he said.

Chicago did, however, play an important role in the history of pay phones. In 1898 the first automatic prepay public phone was installed in Chicago, according to Hochheiser. Chicago even experimented with home pay phones in the early 20th century, he said, when customers had problems paying monthly fees for phone service.

The evolution of pay phones is unlike many other technologies, making them unlikely to disappear completely, Hochheiser said. As long as there are people without cell phones, pay phones will still have a purpose.

“Your enjoyment of your DVD player doesn’t depend on whether your neighbor has one,” he said. “Your use of a telephone does.