Phone company brings back rotary dialing to N.Y.

January 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Three decades after buttons began to replace rotary dials on U.S. phones, time has reversed itself at about 250 outdoor pay phones in New York City. Responding to appeals from community groups trying to stop drug dealers from using public phones to do business, Nynex, formerly New York Telephone, has brought back old-fashioned dialing.

Astonishment seems the most prevalent response. "It wakes you up a little," said Willie Campbell, a cab driver who pulled over to the Eighth Avenue phone to call his sister. "It's an eye-opener."

It is the boldest tactic in a campaign that began with improving lighting, moving phones away from problem areas, then disabling phones so they cannot receive incoming calls.

About a quarter of Nynex's 8,400 street phones do not take incoming calls. Now the company is taking rotary pay phones, which are no longer made in the United States, out of storage.

"The rotary dial is a step backward technologically, but it prevents a drug dealer from paging a customer or runner," said Steven Marcus, a Nynex spokesman, who said the change was made as "an absolute last resort," since the phones cannot take advantage of many new services, like voice mail, that rely on push-button phones.

Phone company officials admit that callers can use a device called a tone dialer, which is sold for about $15 at electronics stores, to send tone signals over a phone with a rotary dial, but add that the devices do not appear to have caught on.

Phone companies in other areas have also brought back rotary pay phones on drug-infested corners, though not on a widespread basis. "We really do it as one of the last resorts as a response to community concerns," said Beverly Levy, spokeswoman for Southern New England Telephone, which serves most of Connecticut.

Phillip Jones, a spokesman for Ameritech, which serves Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, said: "We have used it upon occasion, but not widely."

Officials of phone companies in New Jersey and California said they had examined bringing back rotary dial phones, then rejected the idea.

"Rotary is more subject to vandalism than Touch-Tone" because the dials can be pried off, said James W. Carrigan, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, which serves New Jersey.

Mr. Marcus said Nynex decided to use rotary phones at corners where other measures have failed.

It installs them only after being formally asked by a community board or other neighborhood group, he said.

"Sleazeballs congregated there, and they're not the kind of people you want hanging out on your corner," said Jay Devlin, an actor and writer who, as president of the 45th Street Block Association, led the fight to persuade Nynex to bring rotary phones back to his corner in the Times Square district several months ago.

"The drug dealers now rarely use that corner, and certainly not to make calls," Mr. Devlin said.

For innocent users, the rotary phones have evoked mixed responses.

"This is too much of a headache," said Shahin Corui, a cab driver.

But Louie Frias, a messenger, smiled broadly and said: "It doesn't bother me at all."

To be sure, the rebirth of rotary pay phones has an inherent limit: Nobody in the United States makes them anymore, and Nynex just happened to have a few hundred on hand.

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