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Pay phones: The search for an endangered species

By Henry Hanks, CNN

(CNN) -- Editor's note: This story is part of the iReport Weekend Assignment project in which the CNN iReport community takes on a special-skills challenge once a week. Last weekend's challenge was to find a local pay phone.This weekend we're challenging you to link the past with the present in a fun photo project. Head to CNN iReport to join the fun and learn a little something while you're at it.

Walking home from the movie theater years ago with quarters jingling in her purse, Wendy Covington always carried spare change in case she needed to use the pay phone. Her mother made her do it.

Now a mother herself, Covington recently took her children around her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to find pay phones -- something of a foreign experience for them -- as part of an iReport weekend assignment, "Operation Pay Phone."

"I remember being a teenager and traveling around with the Grateful Dead," she said. "All our parents wanted us to call home every day and we had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, to use a pay phone and call home. Now, they are useless aside from being art pieces."

Bill Steinmetz certainly sees them that way. He has a pay phone in his yard in Lakeville, Indiana. "I love durable commercial products that were made for an everyday purpose, but are rarely seen outside of that purpose," he said.

His dream pay phone would be a phone booth similar to the ones famously used by Superman (and if you've got $1,560 to spare, it can be yours, according to

Or he could talk to Stephen Grimmer, who has one of those, as well as a vintage, working pay phone in his Williamsburg, Virginia, home, passed down by his grandmother.

"Recently a child around 12 years old saw the telephone then starred at it for about a minute, looked at me and said, 'How does it work?' " he said. "It occurred to me that they had never seen a rotary dial phone before."

Megan McKenzie of Eureka, California, also gave the assignment her own original twist. She loves visiting junkyards and remembered seeing some old phone booths in one when the project came to her attention.

Her interest in junk comes from "how in a consumeristic society new things take a place of prominence but when these cherished items show wear or break down they are tossed aside and forgotten. Working in the computer industry, my work is focused on technology that has the half-life of sushi. Junk tells a tale."

iReport: Pay a visit to a phone booth graveyard

John Bonomo, a spokesman for Verizon, the largest pay phone provider in the United States, confirmed what many iReporters found in their searches: the more people, the more pay phones. One might usually associate the company with cell phones, but they also own around 180,000 pay phones around the country, with usage and availability concentrated in high traffic areas (telecommunications giant AT&T got out of the pay phone business in 2008).

It should come as no surprise that the number of pay phones in the United States has dropped significantly in recent years. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of them in operation declined by 58 percent between 2007 and 2008. "On a corner where we may have had a bank of four, we might cut it down to one and so we'll retain a presence at that street corner," Bonomo said. Even so, he added, "More than you would think, people do turn to them."

Why, specifically, would they turn to them? iReporter Miriam Cintron asked a pay phone user she met in New York City that very question. "I lost my cell phone and I needed to get in contact with my sister," Virginia told her. She went on to say that she used them often, but mostly when her cell phone battery was dead.

iReport: Why use a pay phone?

Many iReporters said it was hard to find a pay phone at all and that it was even harder to find one that actually worked and was used on a regular basis. When asked how difficult it was to find one, Omekongo Dibinga of Washington said it was "so hard, man! I assumed the big shopping strip where the banks, supermarkets and restaurants were would have at least one. I couldn't even find one at the gas station!" Dibinga treated his search as a safari of sorts, looking for an elusive creature, in a very creative video.

iReport: "The hunt for erectus telephonus"

Robert Dennis had a lot of trouble locating pay phones in his home of Coral Springs, Florida. "That was hard work!" he said. "The phones were very hard to find. They were set back from the road at least 30 feet thanks to the zoning in Coral Springs."

For Gwen Pegram, a Google search for pay phones came up with a lot of disconnections and phones that had been removed. After many, many tries, she finally found a phone with an actual working dial tone at a gas station. "This was an eye-opening assignment because I, like so many people, am very attached to my cell phone," she said. She added that it was "very scary" to think that someone might have so much trouble finding a pay phone in an emergency.

iReporter Vincent Wortmann: Locating pay phones an impossible mission?

In the Big Apple, however, Cintron ended up finding a "mother lode" of pay phones, 15 of them on a seven-block walk up Broadway on New York's Upper West Side. After an exhaustive search, she even found the four phone booths left in Manhattan.

"I was surprised to learn that there are so many pay phones in New York City," she said. "I discovered they are like the 'Invisible Man' in that you might walk by them every day and not 'see' them."

iReport: Pay phone "mother lode"

The more she thought about it and researched it, the more she felt that pay phones are still important. "With cell phones, stuff happens. You forget to charge it. You lose it. You can't get a signal. It gets run over by a cab. And its function depends on antennas and satellites that could be affected by sun spots or other variables," she said. "I lived a few blocks from ground zero on September 11, 2001. Some cell phones did not work that day. Land lines continued to work."

Fellow New Yorker Julio Ortiz-Teissonniere also noted, "The last two times I saw people waiting in line to use a payphone was 9/11 and August of 2003 -- the day of the big blackout. Both of these days, cell phones stopped working for hours."

iReporter Shelly Watson finds pay phone "works of art"

A few pay phones could still be found in remote areas such as the Ramapo Mountains area in New Jersey, where Michael Heslep found some of the same pay phones he recalled using as a teenager visiting there.

"Summer through winter, the only connection to the outside world were these phones," he said. "They have changed several times I'm sure over the years but they still work fine."

Efi Da Silva happened upon some phones in St. Louis, Missouri. "I live an alley and a row of houses away from a grocery store chain that I've been going to for almost 20 years and just this past week did I notice a row of pay phones right outside," he said. "When did these phones get here? Why are they still here? Most importantly: how did I miss these?"

Outside of the United States, iReporters like Larry Langner of Paris, France, found that pay phones were not terribly difficult to find, especially in major cities. "The public phones found in telephone booths resist extinction, although finding one in working order can be time consuming," he said. He was able to find several examples of people using the pay phones in the middle of the day on the busy Avenue de la Republique.

"In the cities and around train and bus stations it is still easy to find pay phones," said Adrian Krucker of Zurich, Switzerland. "In some cases phone booths have been put out of order, but at the same time new ones have been built."

Ingrid Moesan said pay phones were "mostly in tourist attractions and hotels," in her home of Paramaribo, Suriname. She had to wait an hour by a pay phone to find someone who wanted to use it, and in his case, it was an emergency call.

Misael Rincon of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, observed that they were so "forgotten" that his iReport was a sort of "funeral" for them. Attending the ceremony, in his words, were, "the operator, the fax and the pager."

iReport: Poem for the end of the pay phone

Like many iReporters, Shari Atukorala noticed that pay phones could be found where poor people might gather. In her hometown of Kandy, Sri Lanka, she said that, "mostly village people use it when they come from far away to contact their families. The pay phone is indeed a boon to the poorer class."

Cynthia Falardeau of Vero Beach, Florida, had little problem finding a pay phone because she knew the owners of a gas station that had one. "The area we live in is called 'The Treasure Coast.' It ironically leads the area in foreclosures and unemployment. People who have never been in need are now finding themselves forced to use services they never considered," she said. "Based on my conversation with my friend, they are seeing people of all walks of life using the pay phone for various reasons."

She said immigrants working in the seasonal citrus industry there needed pay phones "as an essential tool to staying in touch with their families."

Even though they may be seen as a thing of the past, several iReporters who took part in this project had a newfound appreciation for pay phones. "I believe pay phones serve an important purpose and it scares me a little that some towns have none at all or only one or two," Cintron said. "I think that this needs to be re-thought out by those communities and phone companies."

Pegram, the woman who seemed to have the most trouble finding a working pay phone, said, "I view a phone as a necessity in our society, so the disappearance of working pay phones is definitely a sad realization for people who cannot afford to acquire a phone. At least having access to a working pay phone kept them connected to family and friends for only 50 cents."