Ever since the first public coin telephone was installed in a Connecticut bank in 1889, pay phones have been part and parcel of public life, providing callers a way to contact others and giving Clark Kent the much needed privacy required for quick superhero transformations.

That is, until there was a mobile phone in the pocket and purse of most urban Americans. In 2000, there were more than 2 million pay phones in the United States; today there are about 700,000.

As technology scoots us into the future faster than a high-speed train, many details begin to fade away: the sound of a stylus hitting vinyl, the smell of a freshly unpacked roll of film, and the clink of coins in a pay phone to name a few. But for New York City residents, thanks to some new initiatives, sidewalk phone calls may not go the way of the telegram.

Today, there are about 11,400 public phones left in the city; there's a pilot program to transform pay-phone kiosks into wireless hotspots, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a plan to breathe new life into the city's remaining phones. Called the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, the initiative challenges students, tech types, designers, policy experts and urban planners to create “new solutions to take advantage of the existing pay phone framework and shape the future of public communications infrastructure.”

Why the change of heart? Has the hipster trend of loving everything old timey infected the mayor’s office?

No. It has more to do with safety and accessibility – think natural disasters and blackouts. Pay phone volume across New York City increased tenfold during Hurricane Sandy, said Peter Izzo of Van Wagner Communications, which manages more than 4,000 public phones in the metropolitan area. Pay phones, with their tangle of copper wire, along with coaxial and fiber networking beneath the pavement, offer overwhelming reliability — unlike mobile phones.

"There's no single 'choke point' to disrupt the service," Izzo said. "It's a matter of taking the existing infrastructure and making something new that people need. That copper wire is an old technology, but it still works."

But to make pay phones viable during emergencies, the system musbe be able to generate income during calm times as well, hence the need for an upgrade.

"We're challenging our dynamic and ever-growing tech community to 'Re-Own the Phone' and provide their ideas on what the future of pay phones could entail," said Bloomberg.

If things go as planned, it looks like the kids might be teaching the adults how to use the newfangled pay phone.

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MNN tease photo of pay phone: Shutterstock
The return of the pay phone?
New initiatives may give New York's dwindling public telephone system a new lease on life.