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Want To Remember New York In The '90s? Pick Up The Phone


New York City, home of Broadway, Central Park, and its home to about 11,000 of those nearly obsolete silver booths on street corners that we call payphones. A new campaign in the city is trying to turn those communication relics into a newfangled kind of time capsule. "Recalling 1993" is the name of the program, and it's designed to promote an exhibition at the New Museum that re-creates what New York was like in 1993.

The man behind this idea is David Droga. He is creative chairman at the New York firm Droga5. He joins me to talk more about this.

David, thanks so much for being here.

DAVID DROGA: Fantastic to be here, pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Why payphones? I mean how did that idea occurred to you?

DROGA: There is nothing more '90s than the payphone.


DROGA: Think about it. You know, when was the last time you pick up a payphone? In fact, if you see someone on a payphone, you usually think they're either urinating in that payphone or you're not sure that they're from around here. And it just struck us that that if we could actually get people to pick up a relic of the '90s, and they can actually use that to teleport them back to that time, it would be a fantastic chance.

MARTIN: So what kind of stories have you been able to collect?

DROGA: They run the gamut. There's political. There's talking to nuns about the height of the AIDS crisis. You know, Robin Byrd talking about sort of the salacious clubs of Times Square. Jim Abbott talking about throwing a no-hitter.

JIM ABBOTT: It was a day game on a Saturday. And so, we got out of there. We went to dinner. And I remember my wife and I just walking around the streets, and people rushing up with the early edition of the paper. It already had the headlines and the pictures on the front page. And I was signing newspapers throughout the city. And it was, for one night to have that feeling in New York City, you know, it's as if you really were a part of it. I do remember...

MARTIN: And it's not just the big picture and narrative of New York in 1993. But you also were looking for very localized stories.

DROGA: That's been my favorite part of it, really, because I think, you know, there is 5,000 payphones but each one has its own essential code. So we are able to source the stories specific to the neighborhoods. So if you are in the meatpacking district, you pick up the phone and you hear stories about what was going on there in '93.

DAVE ORTIZ: My name is Dave Ortiz. In 1993, I used to hang out in the meatpacking district pretty much every day. In the summertime, the smell down there, 'cause they're so much blood and meat in the streets, that it wreaked like woo. You know, you get that like holy moly. And then you think to yourself, you're like, you know, I'm going to eat that probably later.

DROGA: We really wanted to capture something that was authentic to what was going on there. It wasn't just about the headlines. It was about the sort of reality of what was going on there.

MARTIN: I wonder if working on this project has affected how you see the city.

DROGA: It has so, maybe. Because, you know, you can probably tell from my accent that I'm not a native...

MARTIN: Not a native.

DROGA: ...New Yorker.




DROGA: Well, I see myself as a New Yorker now. I've lived here for over a decade. But, you know, like everyone who comes to New York, you'd realize that New York isn't built by bricks and mortar. It's built by stories, the myth, the lore of New York. And I feel like it may be just sort of step back to a time that I thought I knew about, but it just made me appreciate the dissection of all different things that are bubbling up in this cauldron that is New York.

MARTIN: David Droga, he is creative chairman of the firm Droga5. David, thanks so much for your time.

DROGA: Absolutely, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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