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Phone Booths Are Back in Times Square—And This Time, They’re Telling Immigrant Stories

Once Upon a Place features the oral histories of 70 immigrants

smithsonian.com

Once upon a time, thousands of stand-alone phone booths dotted New York City. Today, only a handful remain. And in a new twist, three of those glass relics make visitors listen instead of talk.

Once Upon a Place is a new art installation that features oral histories from 70 immigrant New Yorkers, reports Sarah Cascone for ArtNet. It’s the brainchild of Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi, who found participants from neighborhoods all over New York.

Cascone reports that the exhibition in Times Square was three years in the making and required Mojadidi to refurbish trash-filled phone booths. In a press release, Times Square Arts, which commissioned the project, writes the booths were three of the last ones removed from the city, by the same man who first installed them in the 1980s. Today, pay phones and the booths that hold them are so rare that an example in Arkansas has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Rare they may be, but now the booths are full of New Yorkers’ everyday stories. The immigrants Mojadidi interviewed hail from countries around the world—Ireland to Ghana and everywhere in between. The participants represent a tiny sliver of the city’s more than 3 million foreign-born residents.

The project was designed to make the experiences of immigrants even more personal by sharing them inside a quiet, solitary environment in the midst of one of the world’s busiest places. “You’re in this intense kind of visual environment,” says Mojadidi in a video about the project. The child of Afghan immigrants, he pulls inspiration from his family’s migration story.

Mojadidi has incorporated oral histories into his work before. His 2012 installation, What Histories Lay Beneath Our Feet?, combined oral histories with an imagined historical narrative of his family and an archaeological dig.

“I wanted people to understand that cities like New York, great metropolitan cities around the world, are largely built by the immigrants who come there, work there, settle there, live there,” he told Cascone. Once Upon a Place is in Times Square through September 5.

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