NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — If you place a toll free call at one of 5,000 pay phones in Manhattan between now and May 26, you will get a free history lesson on what life was like in the city 20 years ago.

The New Museum has launched the project “Recalling 1993,” and is urging people to call (855) FOR-1993 from any pay phone in Manhattan — from the Financial District north to Inwood — for an oral history about the state of the neighborhood at the time.

“Recalling 1993 takes you out of the museum and onto every street corner in Manhattan, using one of the last remaining relics of that time – the pay phone,” the museum said in a video promotion for the project.

In the early 1990s, the city was in a state of turmoil that had persisted since the 1970s, but 1993 was a pivotal year that was seen as the beginning of a turning point for the city, the museum said.

The voices callers will hear on the other end of the pay phone lines will describe the often-grim state of Manhattan’s neighborhoods at the time. The contributors include everyone from activists, journalists and celebrities to club kids, hustlers and porn stars.

Among the whose voices are featured are actor Chazz Palmintieri, Michael Musto of the Village Voice, former porn actress and cable television host Robin Byrd, former party promoter and club kid James St. James, and Sister Miriam Kevin, a nurse at the since-shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan.

St. James had been living in the Miami area and moved back to New York in 1993. He lived in a rat-infested storefront studio in the now-affluent East Village, at Avenue C and East 9th Street, where cannibal murderer Daniel Paul Rakowitz had once resided.

“You needed, like, a tank to get the body heat; I mean, Avenue D was just terrifying,” St. James said in one of the messages.

In Washington Heights, Fernando Mateo, President of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, tells a story of a New York far more dangerous than the one we know today.

“Nineteen ninety-three was a war zone in New York,” he said. “Cabbies were being killed — 30 to 60 a year.”

Byrd talked about a seedy Times Square still filled with porn theaters and strip joints, many of which featured performers she invited to appear on her cable access show.

“It was like a babysitting job in a way. You went and you got the guests, and we walked around the Times Square area, and I made sure that they were safe, because that was my city; I was born and raised in New York City, and I felt like, you know, I knew the area,” she said. “And the area wasn’t really as dangerous as people thought it was in those days, because most of the bums that you saw that were bums on the street were really undercover cops.”

And Sister Kevin talked about her experience as the director of school of nursing at a hospital in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

“St. Vincent’s Hospital was the principal health care facility in Greenwich Village, and at the time, we were still within some parts of the AIDS crisis, but it was beginning, at that point, to be controllable, and we had more or less of a handle on it,” she said.

The “Recalling 1993” project is being held along with an exhibit running concurrently at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, called “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” The exhibit brings together an assortment of artworks from the era, which the museum calls “a cultural turning point both nationally and globally.”

Were you in New York in 1993? What are your memories? Leave your comments below…


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