Sunday, June 23, 2019

Then and Now: Empire Diner at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, NYC

Empire Diner at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, Manhattan

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
Empire Diner at 22nd Street and 10th Avenue in the 1970s, as it appeared in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" (© United Artists).
Maybe you saw it in Woody Allen's "Manhattan." Or, you may have gotten a glance in "Home Alone 2." I have mentioned the Empire Diner once or twice already in this series of articles, but when I saw the above picture, I decided to do a more formal write-up on it. The Empire Diner was built by the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1946 with an Art Deco style typical for the era (there were similar diners throughout upstate New York and elsewhere, the Empire Diner was hardly unique except for its location). It eventually went bankrupt. Unlike some other such New York City diners which were towed off to other cities, the Empire Finer was refurbished to its current splendor.
Movie Set, NYC
Movie Set, NYC

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
Empire Diner in the early 1980’s  (Larry Cultrera).
The original owners kept the Empire Diner until 1976 when it was remodeled (this turns out to be a theme with the diner, new owners remodeling it). It since has closed again (in 2010), reopened as the Highliner, closed again (in 2012), and reopened again (in January 2014) again under its original name and then apparently closed again in 2015 before reopening in November 2016. It's hard keeping up with all the openings and closings, to be honest, but it apparently is open as of this writing. I thought I could identify the exact date of the photo at the top from the "Walk/Don't Walk" sign on the street corner, but my research showed that they first appeared in February 1952 and were replaced from 2000-2004. Anyway, this is a comparison of the Empire Diner at 210 Tenth Avenue from the late 1970s to late 2017.

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
The Empire Diner in September 2017 (Google Street View).
As can be seen from the above photo from 2017, the basic layout of the Empire Diner hasn't changed that much. The building beyond still has the big "EAT" sign (though a little less prominent) and the shiny exterior has not been changed much. Personally, I preferred the old "EAT" style, but I'm not the one paying for it, so it's nice that there is still one there at all. There has been the addition of an outdoor seating area, giving the space a much more welcoming atmosphere. The traffic light pole remains, though the "Don't Walk" (or "Dont Walk" as they actually appeared) sign has been replaced with the more generic picture-symbol signs (tourists apparently didn't understand the old signs and kept getting run over). There also is the notable addition of greenery, something that pops up in almost all of these comparisons. A few trees and vines and so forth go a great way toward softening the angular harshness evident in old New York City photos such as the one at the top of this article.

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
The Empire Diner in September 2017 (Google Street View).
A slightly different angle shows the addition of a large mural at some point in the intervening years. This is entirely fitting given the Empire Diner's neighborhood status as an artist hangout (the area has become favored by artists in recent years). I remember stopping by the Empire Diner in the early 1990s when a friend worked there. It looked exactly as you would expect, the long counter with stools and a cooking area directly behind. There was a neighborhood effort to get both the exterior and interior Landmark status which fizzled. The interior since has been completely reworked by Nemaworkshop’s Anurag Nema with very, you know, tasteful tables and chairs. I mean, I liked the old vinyl and other mid-century touches, but times change and it's a wonder the Empire Diner has survived in any incarnation, much less one that retains at least the classic exterior.

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
The Empire Diner in 2009, showing the statue of the Empire State Building shortly before it was removed. The diner had fallen into decrepitude by this time.
A kitschy stylized statue of the Empire State Building on the diner's corner added to its historic feel (those sorts of statues were very common tourist souvenirs once upon a time). The statue was removed in 2010 when ownership changed (leading to wild rumors that the entire site was about to be demolished) and has not been replaced. Current ownership apparently is going for a more modern chic look. Attempts to capitalize on the conversion of the High Line railway line, which is only a couple of blocks away into a tourist attraction haven't been too successful, though the few tourists that do wander over may be the only reason the Empire Diner still exists at all. I am familiar with the area and the problem isn't the diner or the design or anything like that, it simply is that there isn't a lot of foot traffic on that part of 10th Avenue. All of the tourist spots are blocks away. As they say in real estate, the only three things that matter are location, location, and location. On the flip side, if that area of Chelsea were more popular, it probably would have been completely gentrified over the years, property values would have gone through the roof, and the Empire Diner would be long gone. So, there is good and bad in everything.

Empire Diner randommusings.filminspector.com
The Empire Diner has appeared in several films throughout the years. This is its appearance in "Home Alone 2" (1992) (TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX).
Anyway, there obviously is a lot of affection throughout the community for the Empire Diner. It has had its ups and downs over the years, but it is still there, and that ain't beanbag. Hopefully, you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. I hope you have a chance to visit some of the other pages in this series in which we look at iconic and not-so-iconic spots in the city and see how they have changed over the years.

2019

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