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Night and the City, and the Artist's Imagination



It’s one of the most iconic images of America’s greatest city: Edward Hopper’s moody, evocative ode to the City That Never Sleeps: “Nighthawks.” But did the lobster-shift diner shown in Hopper’s most famous painting ever exist?

That’s the subject of a terrific Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Jeremiah Moss, “Nighthawks State of Mind.”

IN 1941, Edward Hopper began what would become his most recognizable work, one that has become an emblem of New York City. “‘Nighthawks,'” Hopper said in an interview later, “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” The location was pinpointed by a Hopper expert, Gail Levin, as the “empty triangular lot” where Greenwich meets 11th Street and Seventh Avenue, otherwise known as Mulry Square. This has become accepted city folklore. Greenwich Village tour guides point to the lot, now owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and tell visitors that Hopper’s diner stood there. But did it?

It’s a question writers, especially historians and writers of historical fiction about New York, often ask themselves. Often, our imaginations are fired by just such a thing as “Nighthawks,” by a glimpse into the souls of the denizens of the demi-monde: the couple, the man looking sharp in his undoffed fedora (which means he’s either married to the woman next to him or has no respect for her) as he speaks with the counterman; the woman looking indifferently at her nails; and the other guy, minding his own business, and glancing down either at his chow or perhaps the bulldog edition of one of New York’s many newspapers back then. Of such scenes are stories born.

When I researching my novel, And All the Saints, about the life and times of the great Prohibition-era Irish gangster, Owney Madden, I spent years reconstructing and re-creating the world of Manhattan from the turn of the century, when the Gangs of New York roamed the earth, through the Roaring Twenties and the Depression Thirties (Madden left New York in 1935 for Hot Springs, Ark., where he continued to run his rackets and become something of a mentor for a young Bill Clinton). In other words, I approached my first-person re-imagining of what Madden’s “autobiography” would be by approaching it as a quasi-journalistic enterprise: to know, as far as certainty would allow, what the sights and sounds of his day were — even though there were long-since vanished.


'Morning Sun' by Edward Hopper

In his NYT piece, Moss, the proprietor of the blog Vanishing New York, describes going through something of the same process, searching for the elusive diner:

Being an obsessive type, prone to delve, I began searching for Hopper’s diner with the help of two of my readers. Multiple streets converge at Mulry Square, creating a shattered-glass array of triangular corners. The buildings wedge themselves into these tight angles, bricks tapering to near points, each structure bearing a Hopperesque resemblance.

I snapped photos of every possibility and checked them against their ancestral images in the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. I made a trip to the city’s Municipal Archives, where I scanned the 1930s atlases of Manhattan known as “land books,” matched block and lot numbers to scratchy rolls of microfilm and scrolled through muddy 1940s tax photos. Slowly, I began ruling out suspects.

But no luck. Old maps, atlases, land and tax records — none would reveal the secret of the elusive Mulry Square location. Finally, the surprising answer comes:

… an interviewer wrote that the diner was “based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue … ‘only more so,'” and that Hopper himself said: “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”


'New York Movie'

Over the past years, I’ve watched bakeries, luncheonettes, cobbler shops and much more come tumbling down at an alarming rate, making space for condos and office towers. Now the discovery that the “Nighthawks” diner never existed, except as a collage inside Hopper’s imagination, feels like yet another terrible demolition, though no bricks have fallen.

It seems the longer you live in New York, the more you love a city that has vanished. For those of us well versed in the art of loving what is lost, it’s an easy leap to missing something that was never really there.

Amidst all the partisan rancor that appears on the Op-Ed pages, this is a lovely piece, informative, and apolitical; good on the Times for running it. More, please.

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