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Payphones as History Project in NYC

Updated: Apr 03, 2013 06:45
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Every once in a while, New York drops its guard for a sec and squeals “Pay attention to me!” We, her residents, sometimes forget that we are only the incredibly hip, disaffected cynics we are because she allows us to be. But, like any other living being, she occasionally feels unloved and requires some tender, focused caresses until the time comes when she can ignore us again, even pretend that she hates us as she playfully likes to do sometimes.

The city’s new payphone exhibit, “Recalling 1993,” reminds us to pay a little extra attention to our surroundings; it’s New York’s version of making us stop and smell the roses, even if those roses happen to be archaic relics from the Dark Age that is now known as life before cell phones.

The “Recalling 1993” project has transformed thousands of Manhattans payphones into living time capsules. If you pick up one of 5,000 phones stretching from the Financial District all the way up to 215th St. and dial 1-855-FOR-1993, you’ll hear a well-known New Yorker tell a story related to the neighborhood you’re calling from. For instance, a payphone in Chinatown recounts the story of the Golden Vulture, a cargo ship that was smuggling 300 undocumented Chinese immigrants to the city when it ran aground near Queens, forcing people to jump ship and swim for their lives.

Further uptown, a phone at the entrance to the A train describes a 16-year old boy who faked his way into the subway conductor’s seat, completing almost the entire A train route before getting caught. He got arrested, but vowed to become a subway driver someday.

According to the New Museum, who launched the project, 1993 was a turning point for the city, when progress began leaping forward in terms of lower crime, cleaner streets, and more adequate social services.  In conjunction with “Recalling 1993,” the New Museum, at 235 Bowery, is currently featuring an exhibit called “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.”

This little scavenger hunt  for history reminds me of Antony Gormy’s 2010 public art instillation, where man-sized statues were perched atop the edges of a series of buildings in the Flatiron District. The effect was that, instead of the typical walking-while-texting danger, it created a similarly annoying but refreshingly different walking-while-scanning the skyline danger. Like the payphone project, though, it got people out of their heads for a minute to think about where they are in space and time, instead of living on another virtual plane altogether.

New York gives us so much: Subways that can transport us to mystical places like Gowanus or Flushing. The ethereal birth of Baby Blu Ivy. Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box at the MOMA, for crying out loud!

She just needs to know we still love her once in a while, that we care about more than just how telling people we’re from NYC makes us think they think we’re cool. And don’t embarrass yourself by fussing about the germs on the payphones. If you love New York, you’ll do it. For her.

Exhibit lasts until May 26
Map of participating payphones:
Call toll free: 1-855-FOR-1993

Photo Credit:

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Michele DeBella - Cheap Chick

Michele DeBella - Cheap Chick

Michele enjoys discovering interesting stories in people and places around the world. After many years of living a nomadic lifestyle, funded mostly by teaching English in foreign countries and U.S. cities, she has made New York City her home base. While she loves to travel, she also has to pay rent, so realizes that unique experiences sometimes have to be found close to home.