What Was Dimes Square? | Vanity Fair


Michele Maccarone opened her gallery at 45 Canal Street on November 3, 2001, the smell of the World Trade Center collapse still lingering a few blocks away. The off-grid block cluster where Division and Canal meet between Essex and Allen was at the time a smattering of electronics appliance stores and Chinese restaurants, and also the historical home of New York’s turn-of-the-century Jewish intelligentsia. But at the time, the opening of a hip contemporary art gallery in that neighborhood was as pioneering as landing on the moon.

“Who knew Canal Street extended so far east until Michele Maccarone opened Maccarone,” the local experts at the Village Voice wondered at the time.

The gallery took over two floors of a building that once housed a forgotten clothier that was, according to an engraved stone, called E & G Model Shop. By 2001 a store called Kunst Electrical Appliances occupied the ground floor retail space. There was a big sign that said “KUNST,” and kunst just happens to be the German word for art. It seemed like fate.

“I was walking my dog and I saw the building and the sign said, ‘kunst,’ because that was the Jewish family that owned it,” she said. “I was like, Oh, that’s funny, this sign is a readymade.”

She liked the makeup of the block, the way that Division smashed into the butt-end of Canal to create an acute angle rarely seen on Manhattan’s gridded sections, and a triangle island that placed extra storefronts between the two intertwined passageways. And her artists connected with the energy of the place. The first show was by Christoph Büchel, now known as the “shock jock of the art world” for his provocative large-scale installations. In 2011, he was unknown in the states, but Michele Maccarone gave him the keys to the gallery to do what he wished with the place and skipped town. Büchel became utterly obsessed with the building itself, and that’s what he made the artwork in the show: a building within a building, a classroom built into a roof constructed on the top floor, crawl spaces inside crawl spaces, a loft within a loft, an electronics store inside an electronics store.

“We coexisted with this family-owned-and-operated electronics store and we had this funny relationship,” she said. “Christoph recreated the building within the building, and these people were like, Who are these freaks?”

Twenty years on, that building and the ones immediately surrounding are known internationally as Dimes Square. The name is a reference to the area’s three outposts of a restaurant called Dimes, and an easy riff making fun of the intersection’s relative tininess compared to the famous square in Midtown where the New Year’s ball drops—but, really, the whole thing was a fake name invented by regulars in the mid-2010s, an inside joke that writers would sneak past their editors and pass off as legit.

Eventually, the name transcended the joke and was taken very seriously. In the last few months, the micro-neighborhood has spawned a cottage industry of hot-takery, from breathless tweetstorms to scatterbrained sociological wanderings to investigations into what’s described as Peter Thiel–backed political machinations to admin reveals of anonymous local podcasters to articles in British weeklies about the neighborhood’s anti-woke schisms.

The takes grapple with the fact that the “square” has been a meeting ground for many through lines of downtown culture that have emerged in the last five years. The tiny area of Dimes Square—just the three-block stretch of Canal between Allen and Essex and the two-block stretch of Division before it hits Seward Park—has directly spawned an art-gallery network, a half-dozen popular podcasts, an eponymous play that had a monthslong sold-out run, a hyperlocal newspaper, a modeling agency that signs non-models found at local bars, a skateboarding scene, a radio station, and a soon-to-be-released television show lightly fictionalizing all of it.

What comes next is the out-of-towners.

After decades of anticipation, this week the 116-room mega-luxury hotel called Nine Orchard opened to guests, complete with multiple restaurants from famed chef Ignacio Mattos and a glorious cupola planted atop the 12-story building. Dimes still has its triumvirate of restaurant, cafe, and upscale grocery, but it hardly has a claim to be the area’s namesake now that a hotel has three spots of its own, plus two private rooms and a private bar on the roof, all ready to be rented by clout-seeking brands and corporations. By the end of this year, there will be a tasting-menu-only restaurant strewn with paintings by Harold Ancart worth 10 times as much as what’s being sold at the galleries around the corner. On Division, the owners of the Charlie Bird restaurant empire is opening a branch of their Midtown wine shop, Parcelle, and the very loud online presence that is Hypebeast is opening its first stateside pop-up farther down Division Street, outside of the Dimes Square border, but close enough to be worrisome.

It’s all a far cry from the battery of electronics stores that once sat adjacent to Seward Park, with a computer-parts store now a bakery that mills its own flour; a Chinese joss paper store is now a Greek restaurant; a century-old shoe store is now that Greek restaurant’s annex.

Maccarone occupied her space until 2007, and it was later home to Terence Koh’s gallery-slash-clubhouse Asia Song Society, before the owner sold the whole building to Koh’s pal, Rolling Stone scion Theo Wenner, for $2.35 million in 2012—a brilliant real estate investment, in hindsight. Wenner did a near gut reno on the building that once housed Kunst then Maccarone then A.S.S., and while it bears little resemblance to the historic building that once housed the fabulous anarchist Emma Goldman when she first moved to the city, Wenner could flip it for a hefty profit. He seems to like the neighborhood, though. Not too long ago I saw Wenner at Clandestino, the watering hole for the real neighborhood-heads, with a large group of friends, including the pop star Lorde.

But this, clearly, is a far cry from the post-9/11 days of 2001, and Maccarone had few kind words to say about the three outposts of Dimes, or the new occupant of her former building.

“As it was getting gentrified I was like, Fuck this, I don’t have to be here anymore,” Maccarone said. “When I heard about what Theo did to the building I never stepped foot on that block again. I was too brokenhearted.”

The heart of what is called, or was called, Dimes Square is Clandestino, a low-key but potent bar in a former appliances store, its low tin ceiling and narrow corridors making it indeed a decent place for a secret meet-up. The early issues of The Drunken Canal, the local paper, documented the comings and goings at Clandestino the way the Times Styles section covers the Met Opera. Hardly a live show goes down at the Montez Press Radio, the radio station across the street, without mentioning the post-show bar favored by on-air talent. Dimes Square the play, by Matthew Gasda, depicted a late-night conversation among speed-addled pseudo-intellectuals that could have taken place at Clandestino.

Gary Shteyngart used to live around the corner—“in the co-ops, they call them the J.P.s, the Jewish Projects,” he told me—and went on to depict the bar at length in his novel Lake Success, even giving then bartender and now owner Jeffrey Simon a cameo.

“I was at Clandestino the second it opened—those co-ops are by the FDR, and we were always looking for a watering hole and Clandestino was so nice compared to those other pieces of shit,” Shteyngart said. “I was in my 30s back then, and it was a bunch of weirdos: writers, graphic designers, architects. All my first dates took place there, all my drunkest nights, and back when you could hear yourself talk, all of that talk made its way into my books.”

Clandestino took on the mantle of the area’s boîte of choice after Good World, a tavern with Swedish nibbles and smoked-fish platters, shut down in 2009, its Division Street building demolished in 2010. Other early adoptees to the hood included the artists Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, who moved to the same building on Canal and Eldridge from the heart of the East Village in 2003. Nate Lowman lived with them off and on, and Aaron Young and Adam McEwen lived on Division and Orchard. In the winter of 2003, the French spot Les Enfants Terrible opened on the still-desolate corner of Ludlow and Canal. “It’s nice that the Manhattan tradition of opening a restaurant in an impossibly lonely, graffiti-bombed corner of town is still in effect,” The New Yorker wrote.

But Kama Geary saw something in the area. After working in Nolita and living in the East Village, the budding restaurateur stumbled upon the hidden corner where Orchard hits Division. She signed a lease in 2005 for an abandoned storefront that used to sell aquariums, with a basement that used to be a mah-jongg parlor. In 2007 she opened with her husband, Alain Levitt, the beloved underground grotto-esque Venetian restaurant Bacaro.

“We’re a Venetian restaurant, and when you find Division Street, it feels like when you’re in Venice, just bumping into things,” she said.

In the years since, an acceleration took place. The gallery 47 Canal opened in 2011, kicking off a yearslong run as one of the most reliably star-producing programs in the global contemporary-art landscape. A restaurant called Forgtmenot opened on Division Street, and its owners quickly expanded to the space abutting it, and opened Kiki’s next door, before expanding to open another Kiki’s across the street.

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