The husband and wife team of Russell Leigh Sharman and Cheryl Harris Sharman chronicle and examine the people who work the night shifts, as well as the locations in which they do so in New York City, in their new book, Nightshift NYC (UC Press, October 2008). To learn more about the authors and their book, please view their website and blog of the same name. Down below is a re-posting of one of their blog entries on the importance of diners in urban areas.
By Cheryl Harris Sharman
On a lonely stretch of Ninth Avenue, there once was a diner. Beyond the radiance of Penn Station and Times Square, the Cheyenne Diner, which figures prominently in Nightshift NYC, provided some welcome light and life to a darkened city. Though the Cheyenne was showing its age, and suffering as a consequence, it was the original of which so many modern “diners” are a nostalgic recreation. It was one of the few remaining diners in the city that could make a legitimate claim on the glory days of mass-produced, homogenized and wildly popular all-night diners. The Cheyenne’s gleaming stainless steel “dining car” exterior welcomed insomniacs and nightshift workers on break since the 1930s.
But after more than seventy years of service, it shut its doors for good on April 6.
Other eateries might have seen more action at night, but they had to work overtime to reproduce an experience that the Cheyenne offered effortlessly: the familiar 14-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup, the cake stand on the Formica counter, the reliability that more often than not the soup of the day would be split pea. Salt and pepper shakers sitting perpetually refilled on every table, silverware and white napkins always set at every seat, and those oh-so-comforting glass sugar
canisters awaiting those who like their coffee light and sweet. On the hottest of nights, the fake palm tree near the back door swayed from the night breeze, allowing people to imagine they were somewhere, anywhere but here. Swathed in this sameness of the Cheyenne, they could be in their favorite hometown diner, or the one where they took their first date, or even the one down the street.
Diners have long served the overlapping and variable schedules of shift workers – and they have always been associated with the night. The first in New York City opened in 1893. It was a horse-drawn “night lunch wagon” operated by the Church Temperance Society in hopes of drawing business away from bars and their 10-cent meals. By the 1920s, public lighting opened up the city streets to regular late night commerce and the old night lunch wagons put down foundations and were dubbed “dining cars.” Their manufacture and aesthetic became standardized – tethered to the streamlining of American industry throughout the first half of the last century.
Within twenty years, the shortened “diner” would be permanently fixed in the popular romantic imagination. First Edward Hopper, then Hollywood, cast the diner as the model setting for urban social interaction, or lack thereof. Both contributed to the image of the diner as the one place where everyone whose conscience would not let them sleep could be alone, together. What began as a philanthropic outreach to new immigrants became part of a manufactured image of immigrant cities such as New York – dark, dangerous, overcrowded and yet strangely alienating and lonely.
As a result, New York is home to a varied collection of all-night eateries that fall roughly into the category of “diner.” Together they manifest the continuity of the city feeding its sleepless at all hours, and the collective nostalgia for that “other” New York, historical or imaginary, that was less alienating than today.
So as more and more of the old diners close their doors throughout Manhattan, a bit of that continuity is lost. But for the Cheyenne, and perhaps for all of us, there may yet be some hope. Mike O’Connell, a developer, bought the shell of the Cheyenne for $5,000. Next spring it will reopen in its new home in Red Hook with a view of the harbor. Let’s hope it will still be open 24 hours.