Pay Phone Time Machine: Go Back to NYC Circa ’93

Bill Weir, Andrew Lampard, David H. Miller and Brad Marxer

It’s hard enough to admit to yourself that 1993 was 20 years ago, but it’s even harder to imagine New York City circa 1993.

Times Square was an unsavory place, subways were plastered with graffiti and the city had a crime problem. All that has changed now, but what if you could travel back in time and experience the city as it once was?

Now you can – just pick up a New York City pay phone. No, it doesn’t transport you in a literal sense, but if you dial “1-855-FOR-1993” from any of the city’s 5,000 pay phones, you will hear what was happening on that phone’s block in 1993 from someone who was there. The exhibit includes audio stories from artists, activists, “celebutantes” and “club kids” -- even the metropolis’ only homegrown New York City Marathon winner.

This cool interactive campaign is called “Recalling 1993,” and it was organized by the New Museum as a promotion for its current exhibit, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” Named after a Sonic Youth album, the exhibit includes art that was shown or created in New York City in 1993.

“We’re finding a purpose to bring those pay phones back,” said Ray Del Savio, an associate creative director at Droga5, the advertising company that implemented “Recalling 1993” for the New Museum. “There are so many New Yorkers who weren’t here in ‘93. Now you can experience what it was like.”

How did Droga5 manage the seemingly gargantuan task of assigning an authentic story to every city pay phone? After locating all the city’s pay phones in working order (this was the most challenging part and was executed by interns, Del Savio said), Droga5’s team made a database of all the working payphones. When “1-855-FOR-1993” is dialed, the database locates the pay phone that made the phone call and then feeds back a story specific to the pay phone’s location.

So next time you’re in the city, pick up any pay phone and revisit 1993. Both "Recalling 1993" and the New Museum’s “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” run until May 26.