Living Next To

I lived next to a defunct telephone booth being used for all kinds of vice

By Kelly Kreth  |
November 19, 2019 - 9:00AM

A non-working telephone booth next to the author's apartment building became a spot for drug deals, prostitution, and a public bathroom. 


Who would think something seemingly as benign—and obsolete—as a telephone booth would become the bane of someone’s existence? For Amanda, who rented a below-market one bedroom in a Harlem walkup for years—a non-working payphone became the catalyst for a drawn-out battle and angst-filled New York City living experience. Here’s her story.

For eight years, everything was fine. But then something changed: In 2016, a lot of drug activity in Harlem moved to her corner. Why her corner?

“It was the perfect storm of urban blight: Permanent scaffolding on the buildings on that corner, a can recycling center across the street and an SRO and methadone clinic an avenue over,” she says. 

[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Living Next to” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to have an iconic or unusual New York City neighbor. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]

As drug dealing on the corner increased, Amanda felt both unsafe and angry. Her once-pleasant area became increasingly dangerous.

Afraid to be on the street

The list of horrors included: Passersby inadvertently inhaling crack smoke, neighbors being solicited for sex and threatened with violence, and very aggressive panhandlers—one man followed a teenage neighbor on her way home from school into the subway station. 

“I feel for drug addicts and I hate the racist, classist system that oppresses people of color. But I had these very uncomfortable moments of NIMBYism,” says Amanda. “I was not okay with these people taking over public spaces and making residents unsafe at worst and unclean at best.” 

The telephone booth had become several things by then: A place for drug deals, prostitution, and a very public bathroom. 

Amanda doesn’t put all the blame on the addicts and pushers either; she felt the problem was definitely exacerbated by a police force that was ill-equipped to deal with such a situation. 

Calling for help

Despite calls to 311 and 911, not much seemed to change. She’d call the police often, especially after witnessing drugs being used. 

And by drugs, she meant “crack and heroin, not marijuana,” she says, adding she is not a person who had anything against peaceful marijuana smokers. 

She filed a complaint to get the obsolete booth removed entirely, but it took months for a response. She finally heard back: The city planned to repair the phone so it could serve the public and that eventually it would be replaced with a LinkNYC kiosk with free internet access.

This was not the outcome she was hoping for, after all, most people carry a phone these days, so she tried a different tact.

“I went to a community meeting organized by the local NYPD precinct, she says. “One elderly woman piped up, saying, 'We should just remove it ourselves!' 

When others began agreeing, the NYPD discouraged them from tampering with the booth, and instead gave Amanda a cellphone number to text her concerns. 

So she sent some texts. And then sent some more, and more after that. She also snapped photos of some unsavory acts and sent those too.

New phone, who dis? 

After over two years, Amanda had reached her limit. In early 2019 she and her boyfriend gave up their individual apartments and moved in together on the Upper West Side. 

While happy with her new living situation, she is still appalled, that “some out-of-touch” city official was so disconnected from the need for public safety and the needs of a community. She also says she was horrified by the response of some cops who would shrug and say, “Well, it’s Harlem.” 

Off the hook! 

And in true New York fashion, here is the Seinfeldian kicker: Soon after she relocated the phone booth was removed. It was not replaced by a LinkNYC kiosk.



Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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