Not-So-Lonely Phone Booth

For years, the phone booths on the Upper West Side, past their heyday and possibly destined for destruction, have been the subject of nostalgia, affection and concern. The enclosed phone booth has long been seen as a site for reinvention -most famously as a place for Superman to transform from Clark Kent. On Wednesday, something rare happened - the four remaining phone booths on the blocks between 96th and 101st Street on Manhattan's west side have not only been saved from demolition but replaced and refurbished. As The New York Times reported, Alan Flacks, a phone booth devotee, has been integral to saving these structures. But in addition to the valiant efforts of one resident, a communal feeling of emotional attachment seems to be at work.

New Yorkers accept that the city is in constant flux, even if they fight it at many turns. But this is an unusual instance in which nostalgic actions helped save something that wasn't grandiose, extravagant or necessarily iconic but small, unassuming and objectively outdated. The booths have seemingly magical qualities.

What is it that makes these four phone booths sites of such emotional attachment? Beautifully, these booths are places that literally help people connect with each other. They are the illusion of privacy in a public space, they are relics of a bygone era and they are become more - not less - conspicuous as they survive the endless onslaught of change that occurs each day on New York City Streets.

In 2010, Peter Ackerman published a children's book about these disappearing standalone structures called, The Lonely Phone Booth, which focused on a community of characters whose primary connection to each other is their reliance on the phone booth. In this case, a children's book solidified something that, for years had been a bit of a folk story in the neighborhood ("Oh yes, that's one of the only superman-type phone booths left in the city"). Too often, children's literature is dismissed as an apolitical, unrealistic and unserious genre. But this book envisioned - and helped forge - a different future. Like The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge, books about a changing urban landscape help connect emotional childhood memories with concrete places that can still be visited, touched and seen. The phone booths now represent the intersection of historic preservation, nostalgia, whimsy and the power of childhood memories.

Just as a cardboard box, or The Phantom Toll Booth, or an old wardrobe (like the one in The Chronicles of Narnia) can help transport a child into another universe, the phone booths serve as vessel for the imagination and for memory. I remember placing prank phone calls in them with my brother in the 1990s - rebelling on such a minute level, reveling in the thrill of the anonymity of the phone booth. The empty boxes are the site of play, heartbreak, emergency and connectivity for many long time Upper West Side residents and visitors. Other friends remember it as a place to vent, pretend to make grown-up phone calls and yell, cry, laugh or just stand.

In some ways the The Lonely Phone Booth follows the trajectory of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree - the phone booth is busy and happy to serve so its community. But as time passes the phone booth by, it grows lonely. The happy ending comes from the characters recognizing and celebrating a structure they once took for granted. In the book, a storm that interrupts cell phone service and causes the public to use the pay phone again. The story tells us that modern technology will fail and when it does, we will come together to use something more reliable. What represents heroism at the end of the book? A plaque, of course! The booth is saved from the fate that so many other phone booths saw - the dump.

This is one of the few books I have seen in which historical preservation - made possible by community action and engagement - is the star. And whether life is imitating art, or the other way around, the phone booth has become a symbol of community and a shelter for the past. An academic book about the history of phone booths would hardly have received the same admiration and success. This week we saw that there is truly power in childhood, memory, and imagination.