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5,000 NYC pay phones will take you back to 1993

Want to journey to a grittier time in New York City’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 cell phone?

A project, which is part of an art exhibit at New Museum, 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.”

An eclectic mix of artists, writers, food and fashion stars, and others has been recruited to reminisce, including chef Mario Batali, actor Chazz Palminteri, porn performer Robin Byrd 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. “It’s sad to watch the cost of business push the real individualist entrepreneurs out of the game.”

Bike shop owner Dave Ortiz remembers when the city’s Meatpacking District, now home to trendy restaurants, nightclubs and pricey boutiques, was the wild, wild West.

“The rats were huge,” he says. “They were as big as cats, so you had to walk in the middle of the street. It’s amazing what they turned it into. It’s cool but it’s lost its, like, authenticity.”

Rudy Giuliani was elected New York City mayor in 1993 and promised to crack down on crime and make the city more livable. The number of homicides in the city – 1,960 in 1993 – had already dropped from a high of 2,245 in 1990 but has plunged steeply since then. (There were 414 in all of last year.)

The city’s AIDS crisis peaked in 1993 at 12,744 diagnoses. Terrorists staged the first attack on the World Trade Center. The look of the city has changed dramatically as national retailers have replaced independent merchants. New York City’s first Starbucks opened in 1994.

Pay phones in the Times Square area feature X-rated talk-show host Byrd describing the neighborhood before Disney musicals and theme-park stores made it safe for tourists.

“The area wasn’t really as dangerous as people thought it was in those days,” Byrd says. “Because most of the bums that you thought were bums on the street were really undercover cops.”

She adds: “It was a great time. It’s too bad it’s changed because now it’s very pasteurized, homogenized, and it looks like Vegas.”

The pay phone campaign runs through May 26.

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