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A couple of years ago I became obsessed with finding the original location of the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Hopper’s depictions of the city, especially Greenwich Village, recall New York as it was not just 60 or 70 years ago, but even 15 years ago. I was pulled in by the melancholic mood of thoughtfulness in the painting – you can’t find that in the city today. It’s all screaming and texting and music banging from speakers.
No one just sits and thinks. In a way, that’s what I set out to find – a reminder that we once had that kind of contemplative space in the city.
I moved to the East Village about 20 years ago but in the past decade the city has lost much of its soul. Ordinary New Yorkers have been pushed aside for the super-rich; entire neighbourhoods are on the verge of disappearing. So I started a blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, to chronicle the destruction of the old New York. Jeremiah is a pseudonym after the prophet in the Old Testament and the blog is a jeremiad too – a series of lamentations about my adopted home. There’s a growing unease among New Yorkers about what’s happening to our city. With the landslide election of Bill de Blasio as mayor, the city has shouted “Enough!”
When Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2002, he set out to transform New York. He was quite open about that, saying he wanted to turn the city into a luxury product. Astor Place is a good example – this is the gateway to the East Village and it looks like Houston, Texas. It might as well be.
The Bloomberg administration destroyed buildings full of history and pushed out longtime independent businesses. When we lose these places, we lose the visual fabric of the streets. Diners, hardware stores, laundromats – they help you feel like you’re in an actual place. They keep people connected. In New York, they’re disappearing; it’s death by a thousand cuts.
I think that’s why I wanted to find Hopper’s diner, to reconnect. There was general agreement that the original diner had been on the corner of 11th Street and 7th Avenue in the West Village, and had either been torn down or remodelled beyond recognition. You’d see tour buses go by and someone would say, “Here’s the corner where Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ was.” That’s not true. I started digging and found no evidence of it ever having existed there. I went through the New York Public Library archives and narrowed it down to seven or eight buildings around 11th Street, 7th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue, where those three streets merge. I went through every single piece of microfilm, looked at every photo, but nothing fitted.
The diner in the painting is wedge-shaped, like the prow of a ship. So I looked at all the corners with that shape, at all the businesses that had been there, and matched them to 1942 – the year “Nighthawks” is dated – but it just wasn’t there. I winnowed it down to Two Boots Pizza at 201 West 11th Street, which has a glass, edged corner. For a while I thought that was it. But I was wrong.
After weeks of searching I found a 1950s Land Book, which has maps showing every property in the city. On Block 613, Lot 62, a mapmaker had drawn a circle around the word “diner” on the same triangular piece of land on 7th Avenue that everybody said “Nighthawks” was on. I raced over and found a Chinese restaurant called Empire Schezuan Village. It looked promising but it didn’t have the wedge-shape front.
The problem was I was looking for the perfect fit. Hopper’s diner, I decided, was a composite.
It was influenced by places he knew, like the Flatiron Building, but the diner itself came from his imagination. I had wanted to find the real thing, the model for his painting of New York at that very time. But I couldn’t, because there is no real thing. That’s where my quest ended.