Monday, December 10, 2007

D.C.'s Last Phone Booth

Step Inside, and Back in Time, and Dial Away
The Area's Last Public Phone Booth Is Shabby but Holding On

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007; Page B01

It's missing a front door and a plastic pane or two. The phone books are long gone. But there's still a dial tone, and you can still make a call.

It's a Washington monument of sorts, the last known working public phone booth in the region and one of only a handful left in the United States.

The cockeyed relic waits for a caller, or maybe Superman, on North Irving Street in Arlington's Clarendon area. About five calls are placed daily. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

Even in this everyone's-got-a-cellphone era, people step into the 1970s booth in Arlington County several times a day to make a call. Officials at Verizon Communications say about five calls a day are made from the booth in Clarendon, which is just like the kind Superman used to duck into.

But time might be running out for this relic. If the phone booth needs replacing, it's, well, history.

"If it gets knocked over, somebody runs into it with their car, or it needs to go for whatever reason, we would not bring in a different phone booth in its place," said Margaretta Rothenberg, a manager in Verizon's pay phone division.

Once a fixture on American street corners, phone booths have largely disappeared from the landscape, despite a lingering nostalgia for them in Hollywood, as evidenced by such films as "Phone Booth," a 2002 thriller about a man trapped in a booth by a sniper, and the "Superman" sequels.

No new public phone booths have been put up in years, officials said. They have been replaced by pedestal-style pay phones, which are easier to maintain, meet national standards for accessibility by the disabled, take up less room and don't attract trash -- or crime.

"There are still a few public phone booths around the country, but not many," said Christy Reap, a Verizon spokeswoman. "There's one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the community lobbied us to keep it. There's a few classic ones in some historic towns in Pennsylvania, a few on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a few on the Jersey Shore. Here in the Washington area, that's the only one, as far as we know."

About a dozen hidden, private phone booths are in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland, built by Mennonite families for their personal use for religious reasons.

Phone booths are being built -- but without phones. They're called "non-phone phone booths," and they are designed for cellphone users, Rothenberg said.

"They're soundproof rooms, gorgeous rooms with leather walls and opulent decor, where you can go make a call on your own phone," she said. "We're seeing this in restaurants, in upscale hotels. The Biltmore in New York has one. It's driven by what works best for customers."

Phone booths started disappearing in the late 1980s as cellphones gained popularity, said Willard R. Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council, a national trade association for pay phone operators.

"The cost structure led companies to start putting in smaller cubicles that were less expensive to maintain," Nichols said. "By 2000, all the new installations were cubicles or pedestals."

And under the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, phone booths no longer met national accessibility standards.

The cockeyed relic waits for a caller, or maybe Superman, on North Irving Street in Arlington's Clarendon area. About five calls are placed daily.

Pay phones without booths also are vanishing. There were more than 2 million pay phones in the United States in 2000, but the number plummeted to just more than 1 million by 2006, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

During that period, the number of cellphones in use in the country jumped from 90.6 million to 217.4 million, according to the FCC.

Nevertheless, Arlington's telecommunications throwback, which still sports a blue Bell logo, has a loyal following.

"People use it a lot," said Jesse Blount, a mental health advocate at Clarendon House, who can see the phone booth, which is near North Irving Street and 10th Street North, from his desk.

Blount said it is used mostly by people who work nearby and by construction workers in the area. Clients who arrive at Clarendon House, a psychosocial day center, when it is closed make calls there, he said. Blount has used it on occasion when he wanted to make a private call.

"It's necessary, even though it's pretty shabby," he said. "I think they've forgotten about it."

Blount said it is surprisingly safe, though, considering how dilapidated it is.

"You'd think you'd see people trying to do drugs in there or have sex, but none of that ever happens," Blount said. Arlington police reported no phone booth-related incidents.

It's been there so long, in fact, that it's become a bit of a neighborhood plaything.

Julia Casciotti, a 17-year-old senior at Washington-Lee High School, grew up on the next street over. She and several girlfriends -- five at last count -- have crammed into the booth to take pictures of themselves after sleepovers. Over the years, she has also gone in there to play, making pretend calls, "pushing all the buttons and calling the operator."

"It's always just been there," she said. But Casciotti admitted that she's never used the phone -- she's had a cellphone for years -- and hasn't seen anyone else use it.

Daniel Leblanc, 22, has, though. And it kind of freaked him out. He has never used a pay phone.

Leblanc, an intern on Capitol Hill who lives in an apartment nearby, walks by the booth on his way to and from the Metro. Leblanc uses a cellphone and, like many young people nowadays, doesn't have a landline at home.

"The couple times I've seen people using it, I've thought, 'That is really strange,' " Leblanc said. "Frankly, I wondered, 'Don't those people have cellphones.

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