NYC Pay Phones Changed into Time Machines

Recalling 1993

Pick up a pay phone anywhere in New York City this month and you will be transported back in time to a critical moment in New York history: 1993.

Every working pay phone in Manhattan, which is about half of the more than 11,000 phones that still dot street corners in the island borough, have been equipped with a special phone number that allows users to be transported to the past, according to Scott Chin, the lead producer of the Recalling New York campaign, done in conjunction with the city's New Museum.

"You can go to any Manhattan pay phone, dial a special toll-free number and, based on the corner you're standing on, it will deliver a piece of audio content to you," Chin said. "Many are oral histories of New Yorkers about that time, geo-located with the facts of the neighborhood you're in.

"They're like time machines: You step into that gnarly-feeling booth, and it transports you to 1993. You can stand and look around the block you're on and listen to what they're saying and look around you to see what's changed," he said.

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Pedestrians who pick up the phones and dial 1-800-FOR-1993 will hear, on the other end of the line, a recorded phone message from an individual who was in that very neighborhood in 1993. The recordings allow listeners to catch a glimpse of what life was like around that payphone 20 years ago, Chin said.

Chin and colleagues from the ad agency Droga5 orchestrated the stunt, interviewing more than 50 people who lived around the city at the time and recording interviews with them.

"We ended up embracing the fact of pay phones as canvas for the project as a disused, half-broken system," Chin said. "We embraced that fact because we thought that was a good corollary to the content we were talking about. The city was a grittier, less-functional place 20 years ago, and using the antiquated canvas of the pay phone heightened experience of going back to that time."

The recordings will stay on the phones through the end of May as an extension of the New Museum's exhibit, "NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star."

The concept behind the exhibit was to explore the turning point in New York City culture that came about in 1993, Chin said.

"Museum curators recognized that 1993 was a crucial year when underground met mainstream, grunge was going down, artists were showing their work in galleries downtown, and it was an interesting meeting point in culture, where things started to flip on their head," he added.

Chin pointed to the election of Bill Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani as moments when the city's future began to change: The city's crime rate began to come down and real estate prices started climbing as gentrification happened.

"The city started to get cleaned up, for better or worse, people told us," Chin said.

Chin said that it was vital to the project to use the voices of authentic New Yorkers, including famous and non-famous city residents. Mario Batali opened his first restaurant in the city in 1993 and recorded a message for users, as did a regular habitue of the Mars Bar, a founding dive bar of the punk scene.

A nun from St. Vincent's Hospital talked about working in Greenwich Village during the height of the AIDS crisis, while the organizer of the first Fashion Week described Bryant Park in 1993.

"Recalling New York," in its entirety, clocks in with more than four hours worth of messages from New Yorkers, and will likely be posted to the Web after the exhibit closes, Chin said.