When I first heard the name Michael Perlman, in connection to the saving and relocation of the Moondance Diner, I thought, "Oh, some crusty old preservationist has come to the rescue. Good." I picture a grizzled old Villager with a beard, wire-rim glasses and sandals, smoking cigarillos. When I heard Perlman's name again, in connection to the relocation of the Cheyenne diner to Red Hook, I thought, "Gee, this guys gets around. And he gets things done!" Soon I found out he was a boychik of 25 from Queens! What gives? I usually don't do interview on this blog, but I had to find out the story behind Gotham's littlest preservationist. I shot him a few questions, and he sent me back following long, but very earnest and sincere answers.
Lost City: Are you a native New Yorker? If not, when did you move here?
Michael Perlman: I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Forest Hills, NY, and proudly reside there to this day. Several generations of my family have as well, so I intend to further that legacy.
LC: How did you get so interested in diners? What is it about New York's freestanding diners that you find so worth saving?
MP: Historic freestanding diners are becoming an "endangered species" today at an alarming rate, but to our advantage, they were factory-built and pre-assembled, and therefore manufactured to move. Diners are among the "ultimate public institutions" which harbor countless memories and bridge the generations. They brought together individuals of various occupations in a cozy and striking ambiance. Diners are places where memories come alive, and traditionally, patrons from various classes would casually sit side by side, and converse freely on just about any topic. Being that freestanding railway car-inspired diners shaped NYC communities, and initiate bold flavor, their loss is often most heartfelt. They are a preservation priority.
LC: How did you find the buyer for the Moondance?
MP: I formed the Committee To Save The Moondance Diner in Feb 2007. I convinced Extell Development who owned the land, to reconsider their position on demolishing it for a condo. I figured, "Why not pick it up and move it?" I encouraged them to donate it to the RI-based American Diner Museum, in exchange for a tax write-off. ADM sold it to a couple in Wyoming by posting it on their website with my help.
LC: How did you realize the Red Hook move for the Cheyenne?
MP: In the tale end of March, AM-NY informed me that Manhattan's Cheyenne Diner was closing on April 6th, and would likely be jackhammered into oblivion for a condo. That was when I immediately stepped right up, formed the small but determined "Committee To Save The Cheyenne Diner," and submitted a proposal to property owner George Papas. Thankfully, he seemed enthusiastic about meeting with me, and responded to my written proposal the very same day. After devising a figure of $7,900 with Papas, and generating press coverage, prospective buyers numbered 24 within a record-breaking two weeks. Most contacted me via e-mail, and a few by phone. They came from as far as Indiana, Cheyenne WY, Ohio, CT, NJ, & Upstate NY. Most parties of interest came from the five boroughs. [Red Hook developer] Mike O'Connell was the winner, since it was basically a first-come, first-serve basis. They agreed upon $5,000, considering the rigging costs, cost for securing permits, and lot acquisitions, and restoration that excitingly awaits. I am informing the 23 parties that lost out, about the remaining few classic freestanding diners that are in jeopardy (in NYC and one in Paramus, NJ).
LC: You're pretty young for a preservationist. What drives you?
MP: In summer 2005, I was passing by the Trylon Theater at 98-81 Queens Blvd, Forest Hills, and it was heartbreaking to see contractors taking jackhammers to its mosaic tile ticket booth which memorialized the Trylon monument. The entrance pavilion's mosaic and terrazzo floor also depicted the Trylon monument, but has since been cemented over. The Art Deco theater was built during the 1939 World's Fair (which took place nearby in Flushing Meadows), and the Trylon and Perisphere were the signature monuments. This fueled my preservation efforts, and also awakened the dormant preservationist in many community residents, amongst other supporters. Now I Chair Rego-Forest Preservation Council (est. 2006), which advocates for Individual Landmarks and Historic Districts in Rego Park & Forest Hills.
LC: What's your next mission?
MP: My next mission is preserving the historic Ridgewood Theatre (55-27 Myrtle Ave, Queens, NY) shuttered in March, marking the end of its consistent nearly 92-year run as a first-run theater. It is considered by theater historians to be the longest continuously operating neighborhood theater citywide, and potentially throughout the U.S. The theater was purchased last year by real estate agent Tony Montalbano of Montalbano Realty Corp. In March, when the theater was closed without notice, a vinyl banner went up around the marquee, stating "Retail space available in Ridgewood Theatre." Even though the owner is advertising retail for the two ground floor theaters, and considering the reopening of the upper floors' screens for showing films, many locals would favor adaptive & creative reuse of the ground floor, involving the performing arts. Otherwise, portions of the interior may be gutted without respect to its history, and the facade may be altered rather than restored, if worse comes to worse. A typical retail establishment can open almost anywhere, and considering the theater's history, it deserves much better! I am trying to find a historically-sensitive performing arts-related tenant or two for the owner, and if anyone is interested or knows of a potential investor, I encourage them to contact me ASAP.
I am also dedicating much of my time towards surveying Forest Hills & Rego Park for potential Individual Landmarks & Historic Districts, since we have a history dating back to 1906, but the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission only designated 2 sites in Forest Hills, and has been turning a blind eye.