A Quest to Save New York City's Disappearing Diners

Preservationist Michael Perlman, who calls diners "cornerstones of Americana," has a unique niche.

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Mitch Atlman/Flickr

Several years ago, within a span of eight months, preservationist Michael Perlman brokered deals to rescue the classic Moondance and Cheyenne diners in Manhattan. The New York Observer quickly dubbed Perlman "Diner Man," and he's tried lived up to this superhero status ever since — swooping into the scene whenever an old school eatery seems destined for demolition. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's … two eggs over easy with wheat toast and a side of eternity.

"I felt very, very enthusiastic about diner preservation, since they're cornerstones of Americana," says Perlman. "I think the last remaining diners in New York City deserve landmark status."

The 30-year-old Perlman, a lifelong Queens resident, says he dedicated himself to historic buildings back in 2005, when he saw a construction crew demolishing the old Trylon Theater — a movie house that dated back to the 1939 Worlds Fair — in his native Forest Hills. "Witnessing that jack-hammered pretty much awakened the dormant preservationist within me," he says. Afterward Perlman established the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, which he still chairs, and a career was born.

Perlman says his foray into diner preservation began in early 2007 when he read that the Moondance — a celebrated Depression-era joint located near the Holland Tunnel — was slated for closure and destruction. Since the new developers had no intention of incorporating the diner into their plans, Perlman bought some time to try to find a buyer who could relocate the entire establishment. He did, and in August of 2007, the Moondance left SoHo in the hands of its new owners, en route for Wyoming.

"It doesn't occur daily — witnessing a diner 'to go,' " says Perlman. "It was a bittersweet moment in New York City history. People were happy it was being saved physically, but it was sad, too."

A few months later Perlman learned that the Cheyenne Diner, just west of Penn Station, was headed for a similar fate. Once again he convinced the new landowner to give him some time to find the old place a good home. After a plan fell through to take the Cheyenne just across the East River into the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Perlman found a pair of investors from Birmingham, Alabama, who brought it south (in two pieces) in late 2009.

The Cheyenne Diner. Images courtesy of Flickr user Tiffany Terry

Perlman is a genuine diner savant — capable of describing a particular establishment down to, say, the frosted windows or the original manufacturer. He's partial to freestanding diners, especially converted railroad dining cars, dating back to a boom period between the 1930s and the 1960s. He reserves his preservationist instincts for "distinctive" diners with key period features: an Art Deco style, a clever stainless steel configuration, wrap-around windows, and of course a glowing neon sign.

"I wouldn't try to preserve a diner that's like a box devoid of character," he says.

Not all of Perlman's efforts have ended in a storybook fashion. For starters, he would prefer that vintage New York City diners remain in their hometown. The Cheyenne Diner, which is supposed to become the centerpiece of a blast-from-the-past type entertainment village, has yet to be restored in its new location. Perlman's name has been attached to several other diner preservation attempts in recent years — among them the Forum Diner, in Paramus, New Jersey, and the Empire Diner in Chelsea — but success has been elusive.

Still, Perlman vows to keep fighting for a space at the counter. His most recent project is finding the rightful owner of an old diner structure at 357 West Street that's reportedly been called the Terminal Diner, the Lunchbox Diner, and the Lost Diner at various times in its existence. The inside has been ransacked, as recent pictures from Untapped Cities attest, but the building itself still holds promise in Perlman's eyes.

He also says he's willing to expand his mission beyond the New York metro area if some old diner out there needs him. "If the diner is brought to my attention and other people feel very enthusiastic about it, and if it's a great example of architecture, I'm open to the possibility," he says.

"I consider them alternate public institutions."

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Mitch Altman.

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