Empire State of Mind

New York said goodbye to an icon this weekend. On May 14 the Empire Diner closed its doors for the last time — or rather, the first time, since this Chelsea landmark had until last Saturday night been serving locals and tourists, artists and cops, partygoers and insomniacs 24 hours a day since it opened in its current incarnation thirty-four years ago. In 1976, the diner lay closed and abandoned when it was purchased by three young New Yorkers — Jack Doenias, Carl Laanes, and Richard Ruskay — who transformed the Tenth Avenue eatery into the self-proclaimed “Hippest Diner on Earth.” The Empire Diner’s success was a prime example of the neighborhood’s renaissance, as galleries, hotels and restaurants began to pop up between the gas stations and auto parts stores which had until then dominated the landscape.

As a child growing up in the UK, I probably first caught glimpse of the Empire Diner during the opening shots of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Later, it also made an appearance in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, but by that time I was already all-too familiar, having gazed many times at the cover of the Tom Waits LP Asylum Years. Released in 1986, this double-album compilation featured John Baeder’s painting of the Empire Diner on its front cover. It was an appropriate choice of artwork for a Tom Waits record: the man had made a career of verbalizing bittersweet tales of urban folly to anyone who’d listen, like some down-and-out character permanently slumped at the end of the counter. Whether it was the image of the diner glistening in the Manhattan night, or Waits’ midnight rambles, I knew I had to check this place out for myself.

Years later, after moving to New York, I finally got my chance. It was a cold, November evening, and I’d arrived from the Theater District where I’d been volunteering at a contemporary dance performance. Instantly recognizable from the outside by its chrome exterior and giant “EAT” sign, inside the diner was altogether less familiar. On entering I was surprised to be greeted by a calm hush, and certainly not the usual hustle-bustle which characterizes many open-all-hours places. Instead, people spoke in soft voices and on the piano someone was playing “Song For You” by Leon Russell, making the Empire Diner the first and so far only diner I’ve ever seen with a live pianist. I sat down at the polished black counter, ordered, and gazed at the yellow cabs silently gliding up Tenth Avenue. I immediately wrote about my experience on my blog (now defunct), soon after which a certain Eileen Levinson wrote to me thanking me for my kind words. I returned with my wife the night of my twenty-ninth birthday: the overtly camp staff was hilarious and delightful. I left with a t-shirt with the “EAT” mantra emblazoned across the back. When my parents came to visit, they insisted we go to the Empire Diner for burgers.

The Empire Diner’s iconic status continued to be maintained: in March a digital image of the restaurant — drawn using an iPhone app by Portuguese artist Jorge Colombo — appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. So it was with much surprise that I learned of the imminent closure less than a month later. As soon as I heard the news I wrote to the owners, Renate Gonzalez and Mitchell Woo, expressing my shock and sadness. Renate immediately responded inviting me to the official closing party on Sunday afternoon. Arriving for the last time, I found a relaxed crowd settled on patio furniture clustered outside the restaurant, whose famous chrome glistened in the late-afternoon sun. Inside the diner, the atmosphere was decidedly more raucous, as the diner’s most flamboyant followers got down to a soundtrack of eighties club hits. There was something quite sad about seeing the last remaining survivors of a city’s much-flaunted party scene enjoying a final dance on a Sunday afternoon. This may have only been the closing of a restaurant, but what does it say about New York?

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It seems not a week goes by that New York City doesn’t say goodbye to another family-run business or cherished establishment. Most of these closures go unnoticed by many, although certain blogs, such as EV Grieve and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, manage to meticulously document these aspects of the city’s transformation. While I strongly sympathize with the aforementioned bloggers common stance, I personally think nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, and I’m always cautious about extolling “the good old days”. After all, a lot of people were glad to see the back of them. As one commentator pointed out, “People who hate the new Times Square probably were never mugged in the old one in 1989.”

A city must always keep evolving, and nowhere is reinvention more possible than in New York. But what about when your favorite coffee shop is converted into a Starbucks? Or when the corner deli where you’ve been buying milk for twenty years is suddenly shuttered, only to reopen serving only something the kids are calling Fro-Yo? Or when an entire historic block is razed and an eco-indulgent glass condo is built in its place? I’m not alone in feeling that New York, once just a trendy, rebellious cousin to the conservative USA, is becoming victim to the steady encroachment of corporate America. Of course, this phenomenon exists the world over and is evident elsewhere — look at the state of popular music or sports — but what’s most alarming is the rapidity with which such changes occur in this millennium, particularly in a fast-paced commercial capital like New York.

New York is a city of immigrants, one which has always been driven by the arrival of new people. But in recent years, New York, in presenting itself as a desirable place to live, has gone out of its way to invite the wrong kind of transplant: a sort of suburban-urbanite, one who associates the city not with history or culture, or even crime, but with luxury and status. These are exactly the kind of people who not too long ago would have turned up their noses at Manhattan: too dirty, too dangerous, too cold. They’re the kind of people who don’t know what an egg cream is and aren’t about to try one. Sadly it seems the latest generation of adults has scant concept of a New York, or a world, pre-internet, pre-Carrie Bradshaw. I’ve met people not much younger than myself who didn’t know what the Twin Towers were until they watched them fall on TV on 9/11. If these people are the future of New York it’s not hard to understand why certain long-standing businesses are failing.

Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Woo, while clearly saddened to be leaving what has been their place of work for the over three decades, remain philosophical. They plan to bring the Empire experience abroad and are currently looking for a future site for the diner. It wouldn’t be the first time a landmark eatery has up and left town, silently in the dead of night. The Moondance Diner closed in 2006 and reappeared somewhere in Wyoming. Last year, the Cheyenne Diner was closed, dismantled and rebuilt down in Alabama. So look out for the Empire Diner in a town near you. As for New York, like the day they decided to plant deckchairs in the middle of Times Square, it’s just another small step towards suburbia. The hippest city on earth just got a little less hip.

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