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Manhattan Pay Phones Now Doubling as Time Machines to 1993

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger travels back in time to 1993.


[The New Museum's "Recalling 1993" invites participants to examine New York City's recent past by dialing up oral histories on Manhattan's pay phones. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

For the next two months, Manhattan's pay phones?already relics from another age?have been turned into time machines that will transport callers twenty years into the past. By dialing a toll-free number, participants can access Recalling 1993, a project created as part of the New Museum's current exhibit NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Designed by ad agency Droga5, the project uses public telephones to present a series of overlapping, geolocated oral histories that talk about the last year of the pre-Giuliani era, when large sections of Manhattan were ruled by drug dealers, junkies, squatters, graffiti crews and squeegee men.

In January of 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office and began implementing his "Broken Windows" policy of no-tolerance police crackdowns. In 1993, however, Mayor David Dinkins presided over a much different city. "It was really lawless," said Recalling 1993 participant Dave Ortiz, "like the wild wild west." For the neighborhoods that surround the New Museum's current location on the Bowery?including Soho and the Lower East Side?1993 represented a last hurrah for the squats, homeless camps, and low rent studios that once populated the area, at a time when many artists and residents were being driven by high rents to relocate into far off Brooklyn locations like Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Today, the formerly mean streets between Houston and Canal are crowded with chain stores, upscale boutiques, luxury condominiums, fancy restaurants and high-end cocktail bars.

In some ways, Recalling 1993 offers up an important corrective to the New Museum's exhibit. Though it was "conceived as a time capsule," most of the art in NYC 1993 has as little to do with 90s New York street life as the New Museum's gleaming new building has to do with the scrappy history of the Bowery. For example, the exhibit?which is named after the eighth album from Sonic Youth, released in 1994?makes no reference to New York's burgeoning rap scene of 1993, although this was "rap's greatest year," according to a new series on NPR, a year "that helped change the sound of America." The Wu Tang Clan dropped their debut album in 1993, now widely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, while Bronx rap legend KRS-One released his first solo album, containing the classic anti-authoritarian single "Sound of da Police."

The oral histories presented on the pay phones of Recalling 1993 address these aspects of New York life, including stories from graffiti, hip-hop, and skateboarding cultures. However, the project is limited by its execution and origin. Instead of inviting an artist to create an oral history project, Recalling 1993 was pieced together by Droga5, an advertising agency run by a member of the New Museum's board. As such, the oral histories are shortened, blunt segments that are used as an ad campaign for the exhibit, and are frequently interrupted with exhortations to visit the museum. With some tinkering or a different author, Recalling 1993 could have been a fascinating public art installation comparable to "Canal Street Station"?an interactive murder mystery from 2007 that used subway station pay phones to tell its story, or Janet Cardiff's "Her Long Black Hair"?a 2004 installation which led participants on a mysterious audio tour through Central Park.

Instead, Recalling 1993 feels like a hunt for forgotten Easter eggs. Participants are left on their own to search out the few remaining pay phones that have a dial tone and that are not being used as a trash can or urinal. Once in the phone booth, the oral histories are mainly gritty odes to the bad old days, with plenty of sex and drugs thrown in. The detective work of tracking down the specific locations mentioned in these stories is left up to the participant. Despite the commercial origins of the project, though, these oral histories present an intriguing glimpse into a less commercialized past, especially in the transformed neighborhoods that border the New Museum.


The Bowery, once famed for its flophouses and dive bars, has been transformed over the past two decades into an almost unrecognizably upscale area, with new towers housing luxury hotels, restaurants and bars. The New Museum opened a building on the Bowery in 2007, on the site of a former parking lot.

In 1993, "you didn't go anywhere near Bowery," said Erika Haberkorn, a local artist. "That was a forbidden zone." Today, a few of its old restaurant supply businesses are still open, but a new crowd lured by "the huge fancy hotels" has taken over the streets.

Just a block away from Bowery, Sarah D. Roosevelt Park has also undergone a transformation. "Back in '93, '94, that was junkie city," according to an oral history by Matthew Pantoja. "If you were a junkie, that's where you were. If you were a prostitute trying to get drugs, that's where it was."

Today, the park is filled with families, joggers, and ball players, and is bordered by a neatly groomed bike lane and new apartment towers. "Change is perpetual in New York," said Pantoja.

On nearby Houston Street, "you couldn't drive half a block" in 1993 without being approached by a squeegee man, according to an oral history provided by Lisa Keller, a history professor at SUNY Purchase. That all changed when Mayor Giuliani took office in 1994 and began "an aggressive police crackdown." Today, Houston is devoid of squeegee men, and home to businesses like Smorgasburg and Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, in Soho, few vestiges of a once flourishing artists community can be seen. "By 1993, Soho was well established as an artists enclave," according to Lisa Keller. "Today the neighborhood is quite a different story."

"1993 was the beginning of the end of Soho as an important art district," according to Recalling 1993 participant Walter Robinson. Artists now sell their work on the sidewalk, while the high-rent storefronts are filled with luxury brand retailers. "From Starbucks to high end fashion boutiques," said Lisa Keller, "rent in Soho has nearly doubled in the last 20 years."

Artist Brian Josselyn, pictured above, sells his paintings on the sidewalk of West Broadway, sharing the block with an Emporio Armani and a DKNY. He recalls 1993 as being a time when drug overdoses were so common in lower Manhattan that "every morning they'd roll the bodies out" into the streets. And now, "it's unlimited brunches."

In 1993, the Lower East Side "was a place where you would regularly find heroin addicts holed up in vestibules fixing," according to an oral history from Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. Today, the neighborhood has become a trendy destination, where new condo towers dominate the skyline.

Max Fish, which opened in 1989, was "one of the most infamous bars in the Lower East Side" in 1993, according to Wasserman. It was the kind of place where Johnny Depp was once "bitten in the face during a fight," according to a story Jim Jarmusch told the New York Times. The bar was almost closed in 2010 when its rent skyrocketed.

"All kinds of people hung out here through the years - artists, musicians," said Max Fish bartender Patrick Holmes, but in recent years, he has observed "a concerted effort to change this area for select people." Today, the Lower East Side is "for wealthy people," said Holmes. "It's only a matter of time before Walmart comes... this down here is done."

The eastern edge of this section of NYC, under the Manhattan Bridge, was once home to "one of Manhattan's most notorious shanty towns," according to Lisa Keller. It was called The Hill and included an "18 foot teepee towering over the wood and tar paper shacks." The teepee was a "sacred and solemn place" according to an oral history by artists Nick Fracaro & Gabriele Schafer, who built the structure and lived in it.

"As with most gritty things in New York City in 1993, The Hill was bulldozed," said Lisa Keller, "to make way for a baseball field and a Pathmark." A prescient Village Voice article written about the shantytown in 1992 sums up the end of this era: "The dematerialization of the artist's milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture—more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression."
?Nathan Kensinger
· Nathan Kensinger [official]
· Camera Obscura archives [Curbed]

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