NYC wasn't always so glamorous. This is a photo of Times Square in 1993.

NYC wasn’t always so glamorous.
Image by arco_on_tour via

New York wasn’t always the city it is today. It may be pretty glamorous these days, but there was a time when things were a bit dirtier, a bit grittier, and a bit more dangerous. Twenty years ago, the city was still a major cultural hub, but in an altogether different way.

A new pay phone project is taking people back to those days—a way for people not only to remember but also for newcomers to learn about a younger New York. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in the Big Apple. In 1993, that had dropped to 1,960. Last year, there were 414. The peak of the AIDS epidemic hit New York in 1993, with over twelve thousand diagnoses. Pornography business was huge, and Times Square was far less safe for tourists. There were no Starbucks yet (that came in 1994).

The people who lived it are the best ones to tell others what it was like. That’s why 5,000 Manhattan pay phones have been converted into time capsules where dialing 1-855-FOR-1993 will connect you to a recording of a well-known resident explaining what that block was like back then.

5,000 Manhattan pay phones are now "time machines"

5,000 Manhattan pay phones are now “time machines”
Image: Mark Mathosian via Flickr CC

The project, an extension of the New Museum’s exhibit “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” is being promoted by the ad agency Droga5 and brings together a diverse set of artists, writers, and other notable members of the culture community. Pay phones, once a necessity to any city, have now become largely disused because of the rise of cell phones.

“We liked, creatively, the idea of using a sort of slightly broken, disused system as the canvas of this project,” said Droga5’s Scott Chinn. And using pay phones truly does seem appropriate for bringing listeners back to a day when the city was an altogether more raw and promiscuous than it is today.

In their sound bytes, some recall a time when it wasn’t so difficult to get a start in the city, which is a major hub for amateur entrepreneurs, artists, actors, writers, and more.

“You didn’t have to have a rich daddy or an investor or put together a team or anything like that,” said chef Mario Batail in his recording. “It’s sad to watch the cost of business push the real individualist entrepreneurs out of the game.”

And although the city has an altogether safer and more polished feel, some miss the days when it was highly individual. But now independent shops and restaurants have been largely replaced by national chains and corporate giants. The pay phone sound bytes remember those days with nostalgia.

“There was a presence of a kind of downtown underground scene which you really don’t experience in New York anymore,” said the New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari.