Preservation Magazine, Winter 2020

Photographer Riley Arthur's Dash to Document Every Diner in New York

Photographer Riley Arthur.

photo by: Patrick Felsenthal

When photographer Riley Arthur observed in 2016 that diners in New York City were closing at a rapid pace, she made it her mission to try and document them all before they disappeared. Her Instagram account, @dinersofnyc, serves as an archive for the 400-plus diners she’s visited and photographed. Born in American Samoa and now based in Detroit, Arthur still visits the Big Apple every few months to continue the project. We spoke with her recently about her work.

Why did you choose diners as your subject?

There’s something about the experience of a diner that makes it so universal. They are immigrant success stories. A large number of New York City diners are run by Greek immigrants, and there’s also a rising demographic of Hispanic, Egyptian, and Indian diner owners. They continue to be immigrant institutions even as those populations slowly change throughout the decades.

I didn’t know when I started how gargantuan a task it would be, going street by street in all five boroughs trying to document these places. But I felt that it was necessary to do, to create this sort of living and historical archive.

The interior of Isaac's Coffeeshop.

photo by: Riley Arthur

How are you defining “diners” for this project?

What constitutes a diner is heavily contested. Historically a diner was a factory-made, transportable building. But I’m defining it more broadly. Some of the criteria I used are: Do they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Are they open 24 hours or late night? Do they serve bottomless coffee all day? There’s also something undefinable about a diner. You know it when you see it.

What kinds of threats are New York City diners facing?

Since I started the project, at least 50 diners have shut down, and only a few have opened. They aren’t failing because they have a lack of customers; they’re closing largely because of the rising cost of rent.

How do you approach photographing a diner?

I try to take a couple of the same angled photos every time. I get a picture of the counter front with the stools and a picture of the booth seating. But I’m also interested in detail shots. What does the upholstery look like? Booth upholstery varies widely—even the booth shape. Is the counter scalloped or flat? There are a lot of things that you don’t necessarily think about.

The interior of the former Goodfellas Diner.

photo by: Riley Arthur

What’s next for you?

I would like to do a photo book of the New York City diners project. I’m constantly reshooting, reworking, and doing research. And Detroit is a vibrant city, so I’ve been exploring ways to show some of the living aspects of it. I’ve stumbled across this new project documenting Detroit storefront churches, which I find fascinating to photograph.

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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