Society

Decline of the diner: New York’s last retro eateries

(The Guardian, 21/04/17) – Home to iconic movie scenes and late-night cheap feasts, New York’s diners have been dramatically declining as a result of rising rents. Photographer Riley Arthur set out to document those remaining.

New York-based freelance photographer Riley Arthur has an obsession with diners in the Big Apple. In fact, she has photographed more than 135 of them in all five boroughs (@dinersofnyc). “I see it as both a living archive as well as a historic one,” she says. “I’m rushing to document as many as possible.”

New York City was once home to thousands of diner establishments; now roughly 215 are left, according to the city’s public records. Even in the 18 months since Arthur began her project, eight diners she had photographed have closed. Some of these – Hector’s, Pearl Diner, Square Diner – count among the five last standalone diners in the city.

“Changing tastes do play a role in the continuing closures,” Arthur explains, “but it comes down primarily to ever-rising rents. Gentrification is forcing a dining institution out in favour of high rises and chain eateries.”

Arthur is drawn to diners because of their “storied history in Americana”, which fascinates her both as an insider and an outsider. “I was born and raised in American Samoa, a place with not a single diner or building older than 50 years old,” she says. “I think my interest in Americana grew from living as an American outside of the States. When I moved to New York City and got to know these diners, I knew instantly that I needed to photograph them.”

The project captures the unique designs of each eatery, some with features dating back to the 1920s, as well as their diverse clientele. “In a fast-moving city I think many feel comfort in these decades-old institutions that have stood the test of time,” she adds. While some of the establishments have become famous as movie locations or heritage spots – GoodFellas Diner (formerly Clinton Diner) got its name from the scenes of the iconic Scorsese film that were shot inside; Lexington Candy Shop is another silver screen favourite and tourist landmark – others are just affordable neighbourhood staples.

Although many have stood the test of time, the changes over decades are nonetheless visible, from Buccaneer Diner’s “payphone graveyard”, as Arthur calls it, to the closed-up take-out window covered in graffiti at Kellogg’s Diner.

The Guardian, Decline of the diner: New York’s last retro eateries