5,000 N.Y. pay phones will take you back to 1993


A pedestrian walks past a pay phone advertising the New Museum's “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” exhibit. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
April 7, 2013

Want to journey to a grittier time in New York’s not-too-distant past, when the murder rate was sky-high, Times Square was a crossroads of crime and porn, Starbucks had yet to arrive and hardly anyone owned a cellphone?

A promotion for an art exhibit has turned 5,000 Manhattan pay phones into time machines that take callers back to 1993, a pivotal year in the city’s art, culture and politics.

Pick up a receiver on the rarely used phones that still dot the New York streetscape, punch 1-855-FOR-1993 and you will hear a notable resident recounting what life was like on that block 20 years ago.

“We liked, creatively, the idea of using a sort of slightly broken, disused system as the canvas of this project,” said Scott Chinn of Droga5, the ad agency behind the campaign for an exhibit titled “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.”

A mix of artists, writers, and food and fashion stars reminisce on these “calls,” including chef Mario Batali, actor Chazz Palminteri and former Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott, who threw a no-hitter in 1993.

The narrators describe a New York that was dirtier, bloodier, raunchier and less gentrified than today — but also an easier place for a talented young person to gain a foothold.

Batali says in his sound bite that opening a restaurant was easier in 1993 when he debuted his first restaurant, Po. “You didn’t have to have a rich daddy or an investor or put together a team or anything like that,” he says.

The city’s AIDS crisis peaked in 1993 at 12,744 diagnoses. There were 1,960 homicides in the city (compared with 414 last year). Terrorists staged the first attack on the World Trade Center. The city’s first Starbucks did not open until 1994.

“There was a presence of a kind of downtown underground scene which you really don’t experience in New York anymore,” recalled Gary Carrion-Murayari, curator of the exhibit at the New Museum featuring 161 works, many intended to shock.

In Pepón Osorio’s “The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?),” a blood-soaked sheet covers what appears to be a corpse. Four nude mannequins join hands and stare into space in Charles Ray’s “Family Romance.”

The exhibit and accompanying pay-phone campaign run through May 26.

— Associated Press

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