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The New Museum recreates 1993 New York by taking over the city’s pay phones

NYC Payphone Chelsea

New York City may be planning to give its thousands of public pay phones a technological revamp, but not before transforming them into time machines. Between now and May 26, pick up any one of the 5,000 payphones around the city and dial 1-855-FOR-1993 and you’ll be taken 20 years back to hear a story of what the neighborhood from which you’re dialing was like in 1993.

The purpose of this “Recalling 1993” exhibit, created by ad agency Droga5 in partnership with the New Museum, is to send visitors back with an oral history that illustrates what New York was like two decades ago – an era before iPhones and Androids; when the term tablet referred to a medicine pill, not a touchscreen device.

“The act of picking up a pay phone handset in itself transports you back to 1993 and so adds to the experience,” Jerry Hoak, associate creative director at Droga5, explains. “We considered enabling a GPS-based function on our mobile site, but at the end of the day we felt like this detracted from the real idea. Things weren’t as easy, clean and accessible 20 years ago, and to truly experience what life was like in 1993, we had to set the smart phones aside.“

Recalling 1993 mapFor the payphones to bring up the appropriate oral story depending on its location, the Droga5 team custom built a system that can detect inbound calls from pay phones across New York, determine its neighborhood, and play the right content. Identifying that an incoming phone call was from a pay phone was one thing – those numbers are logged – but identifying where the call was coming from proved to a little trickier. 

“We seeded this database with publicly available information from some government and private sector data-sources, then manually went out onto the street and filled in the holes,” Drago5 technical director David Justus says, about determining the actual location of the phones. Then there’s the issue of access. “The biggest hurdle we ran into was the amount of regulation and rules around payphones. Due to pay phones’ use for drug trafficking in the past century, there were a lot of FCC restrictions and fees that we had to navigate around to properly handle the inbound calls.“

New York City was the first city to exceed 10 million people and, maybe more than any other city in the world, defines the term “melting pot.” Its history is vast, complicated, and fascinating, but I don’t have access to a time machine, so I figured “Recalling 1993″ was the next best thing. What was the city like when I was four years old and didn’t speak a word of English?

I picked up the phone right outside of Digital Trends’ Chelsea office. After several rings, a young voice answered the call. He told me that he had just graduated New York University in 1993, and landed a job as a city tour guide roaming about double decker buses. Twenty years later, those same buses still pick up hordes of tourists daily, just a block south of where I stood. I’ll bet the locals found them as annoying in 1993 as we do now. 

Hoping for something less familiar, I moved the across the street and tried another payphone. This time, Robin Byrd answered. A minor legend of the adult entertainment industry, Byrd grew up in New York and by 1993 was the host of the kind of local access cable TV show that makes the country’s more conservative elements convinced that the city is a den of sin. According to Byrd’s description of nearby Times Square, it absolutely was in 1993, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way. You can still catch clips of Byrd’s show on Time Warner Cable channel 79 or YouTube, but her (NSFW) website looks like it hadn’t been touched since ’93.

peep show store nyc

via Flickr/aturkus

So much for going back in time; so far I’d heard the tale of a new graduate looking for work (something all my friends and I are plenty familiar with) and learned about the bizarre world of New York public access TV (something I discovered just the other week is alive and well).

Continuing the easter egg hunt, I ventured downtown to the Lower East Side. I located a phone on Orchard Street, hoping to learn about frequent police raids in a neighborhood that used to be legendary for its druggy excess. Instead, a man told me about the downtown arts scene. Orchard Street, if you’ve visited New York recently, is lined with upscale galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops, but the art he was talking about was radical, expressive, and not at all like the high fashion stuff on display today. There’s not much left of the neighborhood he described, but one thing remains the same: LES was, and still is, hipster heaven.

So what’s changed over the last 20 years in New York? Sure, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been; we socialize as much on our phones as we do in person, we consume news in constant small bites rather than once a day on ink-stained pages, and everything sure costs more. But, when we need to get away from the city’s unique stresses, we do the same things we’ve always done: we go for a walk to take in the sights and sounds, experience the diversity, and watch the march of history before our eyes. Even the news hasn’t changed; 20 years ago, divisions between rich and poor were growing, the government needed reform, and someone tried to blow up the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. These things haven’t gone away – they haven’t even changed that much. 

Or have they? Here I was, marveling at how little had changed, but I was doing it on a badly vandalized public pay phone that smelled of urine and likely hadn’t been touched in months. I could have learned a lot of the same things with some deft searching on a thing called Google, or even a tailor-made app on the phone in my pocket.

According to Drago5, the exhibition has received more than 6,800 calls to date. For New Yorkers, “Recalling 1993″ illustrates both how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in the last two decades. It’s an immersive experience that begins – and ends – with a little-used receiver on an old, dusty hook. 

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