Shirley Nicole Fonner
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At first, Ryan Caviglia barely noticed the pay phone that sat on the corner of 65th and Lebanon, just down the street from his house and visible from his porch. But gradually, it began to take over his life.
The more he watched it, the more he saw. Strangers would appear in the middle of the day, make a call and then stand on the corner, waiting. Sometimes they would park up the block and walk down the street just to use the phone. Caviglia, a social studies teacher and the block captain of the 1000 block of 65th Street in Overbrook, was sure they weren't from the neighborhood.
"You'd have people pulling out a cell phone to look up a number, and then dialing it on the pay phone. It was getting ridiculous."
Caviglia, naturally, suspected that the phone was being used for drug activity — an opinion he soon discovered was widely held in the neighborhood. When he brought the issue before the Neighbors of Overbrook Association Helping to Serve the Community (NOAH), of which he is secretary, he found that board members had known about the problem for years. And so Caviglia proposed a radical course of action to the association: Eliminate the phone.
"We thought it would be easy," recalls Cynthia Miller, NOAH president.
In certain parts of Philadelphia — even just a few blocks away, in West Philly — it's hard to imagine a pay phone rousing civic zeal. But Overbrook has always stood apart. Once a robust working-class Italian and Irish community, the neighborhood is still a holdout for middle-class and blue-collar families, now mostly African-American, although the neighborhood is one of several in Philly where black and white folks still live side by side. It's a nice place to live, and NOAH strives to keep it that way. Part of its job, as the members see it, is to get rid of nuisances — and the pay phone had become a nuisance.
The residents of Overbrook aren't the first to have such an idea. Overall, pay phone use in the United States has declined drastically over the last 10 years, due to the massive rise of cell phone use. In 2000, there were more than 2 million pay phones nationwide; today, there are about 1 million. Last December, AT&T announced it was getting out of the pay phone business by the end of this year.
But as fewer and fewer people use pay phones, some city governments and neighborhood groups like NOAH increasingly see them as invitations to crime. Last March, the city of York, Pa., asked Verizon to remove 30 of its 34 pay phones, citing crime concerns; a month later, lawmakers in Akron, Ohio, voted to give "careful consideration" before allowing new pay phones to go in near bus stops, citing fears of drug-dealing. Other cities, including Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C., have cracked down, as well.
Still, removing pay phones from city property is one thing; getting rid of those on private property is another. Phone companies sign contracts with property owners to host their phones, with owners receiving a percentage of profits from the calls. The contracts are private and fully legal.
And indeed, NOAH found removing the phone harder than expected. Simply identifying the owner proved difficult — the proprietor of the corner store, Caviglia says, seemed to know nothing about it, the phone having been there, he claimed, when he moved in. A tag on the phone referred customers to "Liberty Telephone," a company based in Voorhees, N.J. "You'd call and get an answering machine that said, literally, 'You've reached 'The Phone Company,'" Caviglia recounts. "It was like a comedy."
There was, of course, one simple solution, but Caviglia resisted the urge to cut the cord. "I'm not going to combat one illegality with a petty act of crime," he says. For nearly a year, Caviglia looked out his window to see the phone still in its place, mocking him.
Eventually, just a few weeks ago, the phone was removed. Caviglia credits Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.'s office, as well as the efforts of 19th police district community affairs officer Christina Linder.
"What finally happened was that we annoyed the owners to the point where they felt that discretion was the better part of valor," explains Jones.
Caviglia was grateful, he says, but not satisfied. The city, he points out, has no mechanism in place to regulate how and where pay phones come into a community. He wants to see the city address the problem on a more systematic basis. "A pay phone should be something like a bar, that has to get a liquor license," he says. "People should be allowed to protest a phone, just like they can protest a liquor license."
Councilman Jones agrees that the city should more closely monitor where pay phones are installed, but cautions that he doesn't necessarily want to see them eradicated. "When a person gets robbed or something, the first thing they take is his cell phone," he points out. "You need pay phones that are open to the public for emergencies." Advocates for the poor and homeless have also pointed out that for those who can't afford their own phones, pay phones can be crucial.
In any case, Caviglia is now focused on another phone, just up the street, outside the New China City takeout. This phone, too, has been the site of drug activity, according to police as well as several neighbors.
It belongs to National Electric & Telephone, a company registered to Karl Albrecht of Downingtown, which operates some hundred pay phones in Philadelphia. Albrecht, unlike the owner of the first phone NOAH tried to remove, has been responsive to calls. But he isn't backing down.
"A police officer called me and said, 'We'd like to have the phone removed because of drug dealing,'" Albrecht says. "I said, 'Why don't you arrest the drug dealer?'"
Albrecht has offered to mount a dummy camera above the phone, and says he's more than willing to turn over call records to officials, if they request them. (They haven't.) But short of a court order, he says, he won't be taking down the phone.
"We don't want illegal activity on our phones," he insists. "We're providing a valuable service, a legal service, and an affordable service. And we have a right to be there."
Caviglia concedes that Albrecht has a point. "He did call me back, and said it was wrong for me to stop him from making an honest living," he admits. "But when you hear that your phone is a nuisance, don't you have a responsibility to do something about it?"