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New York Pay Phones as Time Machines: A Perfect Metaphor

The New Museum and ad agency Droga5 are redirecting callers back to the year 1993.

New York is a city where destruction of the past is a growth industry. New Yorkers have never been timid about knocking old stuff down and building new stuff, casually obliterating memory and history in the process. Yes, the city has its historic districts and protected landmarks, but those are mere footnotes to the ongoing epic stream of consciousness that is the built landscape of the city.

The result is a place where history dissipates as quickly as the smoke from an extinguished cigarette, the kind that these days is illegal to light up pretty much anywhere besides in your own apartment.

The New Museum’s current exhibit, "NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star," is an attempt to return to a moment not so very long ago in time, but so far removed from the city’s current polished, high-priced prosperity that it seems in some ways like another civilization.

Recalling 1993 from Droga5 NY on Vimeo

What was the New York of 1993 really like? As part of the show, the museum enlisted ad agency Droga5 to convert all 5,000 payphones in Manhattan into virtual time capsules, a project dubbed "Recalling 1993." Stand at a corner payphone, pick up one of the standard-issue telephone handsets, listen for the dial tone – how quaint! – and dial 1-855-FOR-1993.

On the other end of this toll-free call, you’ll hear the voice of a real New Yorker who lived through 1993 at this very spot, telling you how it was back in the day. "1993 was a war zone in New York," reminisces Fernando Mateo, whose words you can hear at the intersection of 183rd and Broadway in Washington Heights. "Cabbies were being killed, 30 to 60 a year."

"We were still within the AIDS crisis," says Sister Miriam Kevin at Perry and Greenwich – the Greenwich Village epicenter of that awful epidemic. "I saw the worst of it, and the hope that ultimately we offered."

These pay phone time machines, holding the voices of skate punks, journalists, activists, hippies, club kids, developers, and many others, deliver you down a tunnel of sound to an era that still inspires an ambivalent nostalgia in many New York residents, both old and new. These were the fabled days when rents were low, the murder rate was high, and you could do anything you damn well pleased, as long as you could tolerate the rats and the garbage and the constant undercurrent of fear. It was the tail end of a time, as the museum's show demonstrates, when artistic ferment and creation were particularly rich in the city, and a defiant contempt for the mainstream trappings of cultural and commercial success defined the New York attitude.

By 1993, the demolition of the New York that nurtured artists Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Ida Applebroog, John Currin, and Paul McCarthy was already well under way. As Carl Swanson argues in his piece about the show in New York magazine, 1993 was the beginning of the end of all that, the herald of its own creative destruction, the year, as he says, that "success had stopped being something to be angsty about."

Mayor Rudy Giuliani was tightening control. Money was flowing back into the city, and the cost of living was going up. The city was becoming cleaner, and safer, and richer. And the Wild West New York of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s was being plowed under.

What has risen in its place is bright and shining and has the look of permanence. But this is New York. Things, as always, will change.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.