A Canal Street Media Scene Report, Filed From Los Angeles

Intrepid reporter Eliza Wallace goes down the rabbit hole of conflict within the DIY media ecosystem in New York’s Dimes Square.

by | April 19, 2021

Two satirical newspapers by and for a micro-manufactured-neighborhood of hanger-outters on the Lower, Lower East Side in New York City popped up over the pandemic. One is called The Drunken Canal and the other is called The Sober Canal, and neither of them have anything to do with the Suez Canal, though the situation seems similarly messy. The Canals are engaged in a quaranzine  newspaper discourse, precipitated in part by a March Ben Smith column in the New York Times profiling The Drunken Canal

There’s a moment in the criminally underrated film Bachelorette (2012) where Lizzie Caplan’s ex-boyfriend says “How do you not have a MetroCard?” and she disdain-drip-drawls, “I live in Los Angeles.” That’s me! I live in Los Angeles, but I like to keep my little Sauron eye dialed into the New York scene and pretend to keep up. Who better than to untangle the threads of Canals-in-Various-States-of-Inebriation than a martini-swilling patron of MiniBar, not Lucien, who takes selfies in the bathroom at Taix, not Clandestino? I’m an archeologist (sun-damaged lizard) busting into Egypt (downtown New York) and absconding to the British Museum (Silver Lake) with all the artifacts (mostly useless gossip and conjecture). This is coastal elite media imperialism at its finest. This is a scene report from 2,777 miles away.

In October 2020, Claire Banse, 23, and Michelle “Gutes” Guterman, 24, created The Drunken Canal, a newspaper of sorts, though it also includes games, inside jokes, poetry, gossip, and recipes. It has an Instagram and a website, but none of its pages are digitized other than via the many photos passed around on the internet by readers. The women recruited friends and acquaintances as contributors, and they drop all their issues in a falling-apart newspaper box in Straus Square at the tip of Seward Park, directly adjacent to the Dimes Square business and pleasure corridor.  The God Issue, released on April 9th, is their sixth edition and “biggest joke issue yet.”

The Drunken Canal women are whip-smart and garrulous, but mostly just purely enthusiastic — “all feeling, not facts,” as they write in one editor’s letter. There is a lot of writing of questionable caliber in The Drunken Canal. There is also plenty of the gunky racist and classist bias that leaks out of overeager creative people and so-left-I’m-right melt-brained antagonists, who always seem like they could use a hug from a trusted loved one or maybe clock some time in nature. There are a lot of messy, endearing bits that come from being genuinely embedded in the neighborhood, like an ode to the Cooper Square Post Office and a tip for where to get the cheapest cigarettes in Two Bridges (the bodega on Catherine and Madison).

In response to the NYT’s coverage of The Drunken Canal and its bonny young editors, The Sober Canal arrived with a bone to pick on the week of March 29th. The folks behind this paper remain anonymous, but identify as millennials working in the cultural sector who have participated in the neighborhood in some capacity for the last five to eight years.

The Sober Canal has thus far published one issue of four pages, seemingly hinged on a critique of The Drunken Canal’s New York Times profile and the downtown media scene. People they don’t like: Ben Smith; David Velasco, The editor of Artforum; and Kaitlin Phillips, a PR agent who spends time at Lucien. People they do like (?) seem to be: Ben Mora; The women at the Red Scare podcast; the bartender at Clandestino who donated to the Bernie campaign; and the people in their local Chinese grocery store. There are a lot of assumptions and misdirected pain, seemingly the product of personal vendettas within the art world and scene.

In a recent Google Chat interview, The Sober Canal’s editor explained that they “have felt exasperation at this particular social set’s rising dominance in the media’s image of the neighborhood.” They took issue with Drunken’s wider exposure in the New York Times and “the paper’s focus on white-owned gentrifying establishments.”

But the wound is clearly deeper than exasperation. The folks behind Sober, or at least the individual I chatted with, are clearly smarting at the cartoon-cymbal-head-smash of class, race, and health disparity that plays out in these neighborhoods — not only Dimes Square, but in nearly every American city, including Los Angeles. I spent two years in a boutique advertising agency office (gross!) in Far East Plaza in LA’s Chinatown, long enough to meet Jeannie Fong, who ran Li Yuen Importing, who sat outside her business everyday on a small plastic chair to get some sun. We eventually noticed her absence in the string of nice days where she didn’t appear. She never reappeared; her souvenir shop is now a natural wine and flower store run by two young white women.

The Sober Canal describes it as “a bit crazy-making” and “perverse” to witness mainstream media praise for an upper-class in-crowd joke rag as the neighborhood that hosts it suffers particularly dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. They don’t think all downtown projects must cover pressing community concerns, but take issue with what they see as The Drunken Canal’s “complete insulation from the climate of death.” 

The process for the Sober Canal, by contrast, begins with “burning down the identification of Chinatown with Dimes Square” and follows with “pointing toward what else is out there,” particularly through backpage ads which include local business and groups they feel The Drunken Canal, The New York Times, and other parties on the scene have failed to feature or represent. It’s difficult, however, to follow the tone when ads for community action groups share the page with the address for Caroline Calloway’s OnlyFans account.

Good-intentioned exposure can absolutely fuck a scene or a neighborhood into the ground. Whenever the New York Times writes about anything in Los Angeles, most recently bagels, the story collapses into a glitch world of inaccuracy. This is exactly what I’m doing here, in a report about media cliques I have never encountered in real life, who exist in a scene that to an outsider is nearly unintelligible, a lock-jawed snake eating its tail. Martti Kalliala’s insight that “trends are over once they become legible” provides me with an entrance point: is Dimes Square even still a thing?

Since the 1970s, it has been considered an edgy move to slouch around and do art and music and drugs with friends in the knobbly ankle bone of Lower Manhattan that bumps out into the East River, the pins of the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges holding it in place. It contains the endless layers of class and ethnic settlement throughout history: the Yiddish Theater District, Cantonese-settled Chinatown, Fujianese-settled Little Fuzhou, Puerto Ricans and African Americans of Loisaida. The Tenement Museum is close by, as are several public housing complexes. A disputed territory, called Dimes Square by some, sprouted in the last decade or so at the blurry intersection of several of these old Lower East Side neighborhoods — Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Fuzhou, and Two Bridges.

Dimes Square is a gentrified playground of creative types, where the cool gentry return night after night, “like a local nymph tied to a specific cold spring,” wrote my editor, the compassionate but beleaguered managing editor of Study Hall, Erin Schwartz. The Dimes Square scene has ties to other areas and bars of the city, where related “it” people of media, art, fashion, and culture like to hang out, like the bar and restaurant Lucien, north of Houston, or The Odeon in TriBeCa. [Ed. note: I feel like people who hang out at The Odeon are sort of rich and irrelevant.] (The city map collapses into a glitch world. I told you it would happen.)

When did Dimes Square solidify from a loose collection of businesses into a discrete micro-neighborhood, and when did the trend of hanging out in Dimes Square become legible? You’ve got to assume it was sometime before this marvelous fashion slideshow that ran in the New York Times in 2015 about Dimes restaurant in which there is more than one vagina charm. I remember my much older ex-boyfriend bringing me to Bacaro in the summer of 2016, bumping into and then drinking several bottles of wine with Michael Cera and a woman who I’m almost certain was his now-wife Nadine (no known last name?). Horrifyingly, it doesn’t sound like a trend can get much more legible than that.

Over Zoom, I discussed this with someone who lived near Dimes Square six years ago. Arjun Srivatsa, 31 years old, Director of Creative Development at Condé Nast and co-host of the Diversity Hire podcast, now lives in Brooklyn, but spent a good portion of his 20s living at Broome and Allen, frequenting Dimes Square establishments and generally participating in the scene.

Srivatsa described the scene’s early days. Between 2012 and 2015, several Chelsea galleries of the ’90s moved down to the hipper, cheaper Lower East Side — Gavin Brown, Reena Spaulings, David Lewis, Derek Eller, Nathalie Karg, and more. Labor Skateboard Shop opened in 2012 at the Canal and Division triangle. Even though the internet had diminished the power of openings, artists, skaters, and fashion people mingled. Buzzy restaurants like Mission Chinese and Kiki’s followed to feed them, joining older neighborhood establishments and bars like Clandestino.

Cheap studio space and small galleries were followed by big box stores:  In 2018, a Target and a Trader Joe’s opened up Grand Street. Huge developments appeared on Delancey. “The neighborhood was overrun by Australians, and when Australians come to a neighborhood in New York, you know it’s over,” Srivatsa recalls. In 2017, Mexican vegan joint JaJaJa opened with a marquee that spelled: “Hola Chinatown! We see you.”

It is here in this history lesson that Srivatsa cocks his head and puts his hands in the air bemusedly. “Who were they talking to? Who were they seeing?” he said. There seems to be a longstanding tradition in the neighborhood of slippery text meant for an even slipperier audience.

The scene now and much of its attending media are awash in cleverness, ego, insecurity, and the pained aggression of the rich, intellectual, and unhappy. But the disjuncture between scene and place didn’t start with these more recent media projects, which inherited an aloof attitude from a scene that spent a decade superimposing itself over top of another world. It’s hard to imagine that the lifers in the neighborhood care about petty in-fighting of the groups that crash through every evening, like tourists in Disneyland.

A popular theme of this year and source of some of the underlying tension in the Dimes Square zine saga is the politics of friendship. Friendship is the force we understand the least, but crave most recklessly. Safety, respect, feeling seen. Taking things personally and feeling betrayed. The unblooded ties that bind and the lonesome sting of exclusion. At this point, the Dimes Square scene of yore and its current denizens are all just friends or contemporaries of each other. Civilization, Montez Press Radio, Red Scare, and The Ion Pack spend a hefty portion of the time just interviewing each other. The Canals reference everyone in their circles by first name, as if I know who they’re talking about. It all starts to seem like the Mean Girls cafeteria map, with people jostling to get in or out of different groups or feeling offended because they weren’t invited.

Feeling insecure about your place in the creative class is a fundamental component of existing in the creative class. Therein lies the rub, because from the outside looking in, the fundamentals look fun. But on the inside, the distance from soft-boiled jammy yolk cabal coziness to egg on your face is ruthlessly short.

Against the clench of “you can’t sit with us” scrapes a subtle friction between the olds and the youngs. Older media folks like Ben Smith and Richard Turley (the Wieden+Kennedy creative director behind Civilization) wheel and deal with the youth to access a scene that seems beyond them. (Despite all our best complaints, the youth just keep being young.) These are coattail hangers that Srivatsa says “should know better.” Kaitlin Phillips, 30 years old and emphatically one of the Lucien crowd, whose name has been invoked in almost every write-up, gave a one-line response to my Instagram DM in search of a comment on the Canal discourse: “I love young people.” 

Sober hates Drunken for “gallivanting” during a pandemic and hates the older crowd for modeling it; Drunken insists that their project was only ever meant to be “for fun”; the 30-and-40-somethings who graduated the scene to languish at Lucien seem simultaneously encouraging of the young drama and disinclined to directly involve themselves.

There is a chilling poem in the Holiday Issue of The Drunken Canal from last December by @writers_life_tips that feigns a harassing fan who fancies themselves friends with Claire, Gutes, and all their friends. (“So funny running into you at Lucien’s [sic] tonight! Hari Nef had us all laughing. I fit in like a glove,” the poem reads.) There is a misguided sense that everyone participating in this scene knows each other like that. A critical part of life as an early 20-something on the internet is identifying peers, elders, and the powerful, to understand how to navigate the industry and social world in front of you. Often, the spirit of openness, kindness, and mutual respect results in meaningful relationships. But assumptions, insecurity, and the deceptive muck of social media can garble these networks, making them shallow and toxic.

At the beginning of March, around the same time as the Ben Smith column, Civilization published a “Cosmic Map of New York, 2021” with all the Prestige Personalities of the scene red-stringed-out across the centerfold, which inspired that familiar mix of scorn and envy. “Ultimately, if you want to just make friends and hang out, it’s good to enter that tangled web,” said Srivatsa. “But to enter it only because you want to be next to someone so their power rubs off on you is gross.” Civilization’s map repels Srivatsa because it turns real people into “characters in a play…that reduces their humanity and, bigger than that, displaces New York.” Much like The Drunken Canal’s Issue 2 Bodega Map that skips over several Lower East Side institutions like Chinese Hispanic Grocery or the Snowman Deli, these insular strokes are effacing to everyone, even those with access to the scene. As Srivatsa’s friend Ritu Ghiya says, “Colonizers love to draw their own maps.”

I asked Banse and Guterman what their relationship with the older crowd was. They noted with mild appreciation that some of the vanguards “appreciated young fresh voices” and had “taken us under their wing.” Via our FaceTime call, I asked, woman to women, if they trusted them. Banse and Guterman considered this, and then said, “Yes, but also I don’t really trust anybody,” which I found to be rather wise. Clearly this scene thinks it’s too small to fail. Everyone knows everyone, and therefore it’s all groovy, so judgement or exploitation can fly unchecked. One hopes that, like Douglas Adams’s depiction of Earth, everything we’re dealing with here is mostly harmless.

To quote beloved food critic Anton Ego, “I’ll provide the perspective, which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947.” These projects, along with other alt-media rags, podcasts, newsletters, IG Live shows, and radio stations helmed by a stylish cast of characters that make up a blurry geographically and aesthetically embedded scene, can sometimes seem like they dominate conversation in the toxic rivers of Weird Media Twitter and Party Instagram. Even the papers and glossies of record have tried to capture a jar of fireflies that will be dead by morning. But ultimately, much like a @deuxmoi blind item about a pregnant D-List celebrity, the media molehill stories of downtown New York climax with very little consequence. No one, and I cannot emphasize this enough, cares.

These media molehills lie in the shadows of real mountains. The wounds of gentrification in this part of Manhattan are fresher than the scars in other neighborhoods. The scene is not by and for the original, predominantly Asian, immigrant, working class population of the neighborhood. We need representation, coverage, and platforming of that population in the mainstream and the alt media, but maybe experimental lit freaks and sad boys with critical theory hard-ons are not the ideal vessels to provide it.

What can I do; I don’t even live there! Thank God. But as alt-yuppie icon Kathleen Kelly says, “it was personal to me.” Rightfully or not, the scene, represented by Drunken, must answer to itself, represented by Sober, for its crimes. Can a few visible (read: powerful, young, white, wealthy) groups of friends in a spiritually heavy time and place afford insularity? We reach, of course, the evergreen question in art, media, and life: what do we owe each other, and then, what’s next?

This report does not attempt to answer this. I do, however, believe that we must be open to self-examination and make space for reckoning. It is with this leechlike but earnest yearning for intimacy that we ventured here, to a place that matters very intensely to very few. 

The editor’s letter in the first issue of The Drunken Canal describes the paper as “A News Source provided by our community for our community.” There is a lot of outrage over which community this is by and for. Like a rainforest canopy, this Dimes Square scene is the emergent layer, where small birds and insects chatter and dwell. The branches are too thin and delicate for substantial creatures to land for a real discussion. A drunk newspaper full of bad poetry that speaks for Dimes Square is farce upon farce; it doesn’t seem like the ideal outlet for correcting any imbalances in power. Might I suggest the canopy or understory, communities much more diverse and teeming with life, for a studier platform? Perhaps eventually, as the rainforest grows up, the formerly emergent layer will become the canopy, and some more robust printed word will accompany it.

Fun as praxis mutates with the decomposition of your corporeal form — a.k.a., as you age. The Drunken Canal women are elegant and robust and in touch with God (or whoever!), with “martinis to the sky” and “all feeling, not facts.” So let them feel the breeze on their face in the emergent layer! The branches will snap soon enough, and also, the whole damn rainforest is on fire — we have more urgent and sophisticated trouble ahead.

We so often forget to look beyond the page or the screen or the jealous glance at the table beside us and ask questions like how is their mom doing? What do they feel anxious about? If anyone had emailed the Drunk women an earnestly helpful amendment to the Bodega Map to include the missed institutions, I have no doubt that they would have published it. Why is cooperation in such short supply? Cancelled but undeniably kind-of-smart person David Foster Wallace said in 2005: “The really important kind of freedom involves…being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I see no care in the critics here.

Among the Canals and the scene that discusses them online, there is a breathless veneration of “the manic savagery of the Twitterverse,” as Sober describes it, which the paper admits they have adopted to join the fray. Norene Malone elegantly described this tone, fashionable in much of youthful alt media, in an aside in her 2018 profile of the Red Scare podcast: “It seems increasingly likely that the rising generation is more likely to turn conservative not because they want to be rich, but because they want to be mean.”

I asked Sober, point blank, why everyone is so mean to each other. They responded, “Our kindness occurs off the page in the community work that we do.” Interestingly, Banse and Guterman expressed the same sentiment: that they give back to the larger community in ways not featured in their paper. Myriad petty, unsexy ways. This casual, lovely alignment between Sober and Drunk underneath all the public back-and-forth and cruel assumptions leaves me weary enough to require a long, restorative sit on the beach with my bimbo friends, holding hands and watching dolphins.

“Be curious, not judgmental” is a quote attributed to Walt Whitman; this is our primary spiritual task as people. Isn’t it funny how this world of artists and writers, critics and cultured creatures, the tender, doomed literati so often forget to check in with each other? Not to gossip, not to opine, but to connect.

I’ve attempted to descry the decadent zeitgeist that kicks around the bottom of New York — but what do I know? Drink your martinis, yawp your tales, donate your time, but please, I beg of you, take care of each other, and in between that, pull your delicately feathered head up out of the sand on your own private island of drama and remember that you are a person and therefore unknowable and those you’re addressing are people and therefore unknowable. 

I asked Srivatsa if his friend group still hangs out in Dimes Square. His tone was rueful when he said no, but that he still likes to go there every once in a while. “All of this makes me very nostalgic for the time when I was young and stupid,” he said. When I asked him where his friends hang out now and will spend time after the pandemic, he said, “I really just want to have dinner parties…there’s a wine bar in Fort Greene…I go birdwatching with my friends in the park.” 

Where, then, is the transgressive scene in New York? “I don’t think it’s happening on Canal. I don’t think anyone on Canal knows where it’s happening,” he said. “And I’m happy to not know as well, because I’m old, and I shouldn’t know.” 

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