The Next Dimes Square Is Just Around the Corner

New York City is constantly in a state of art scenes gentrifying neighborhoods and changing the city. Dimes Square isn't unique.

New York’s Chinatown, 2001 David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote “I have been dwelling upon downtowns.” If Jacobs, arguably the critical mother of urban planning, were still alive she would no doubt weigh in on the micro-neighborhood-meets-art-scene that is Dimes Square in what was formerly just called Chinatown. 

Dimes Square is specifically a small section of Chinatown, which Vanity Fair’s Nate Freeman describes as “just the three-block stretch of Canal between Allen and Essex and the two-block stretch of Division before it hits Seward Park.” I first went to what is referred to as Dimes Square in 2019. I was on a date at Dimes with a reporter I was seeing at the New York Times. The food was good and I left with a postcard featuring two ladybugs fucking. The small vibes of transgressiveness that define what is cool in New York City were definitely there, among the various diners who could easily be seen on your favorite timeline or heard on a podcast that maybe you had listened to. For a brief period of time during the early on in the pandemic renting an apartment in Chinatown was suddenly somewhat affordable. The rest is, sadly, history. 

In 2022 there is so little actually unique about Dimes Square when you look at the history of gentrification in New York City; what is notable in the current moment is grotesque and full of post-fascist aesthetics, so it seems that the cultural fascination and obsession is a sign of overall decline. 

Robert F. Wagner Jr, president of the borough of Manhattan, renames the busiest intersection Dimes Square as part of the ‘March of Dimes’ fundraising campaign on December 28, 1951. Even Dimes Square isn’t the original Dimes Square of New York City. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

New York City is a city of displacement, organized destruction, and reconstruction. Even places associated immemorial with the city such as gorgeous Central Park are rooted in a history of violent forced relocation. The park that puts on Shakespeare each summer was created through eminent domain which from 1853 to 1857 led to the displacement of 1,600 inhabitants of the mostly Black Seneca Village. The Lower East Side, formed and created on the remains of overcrowded immigrant tenements, saw artists move in during the 1970s then give way to yuppies as gentrification took hold in the 1980s. The artists of the 1970s, seeking cheap rent for both apartments and studios, embraced the slums of the Lower East Side until eventually the playground of the rich became a culture capital. 

Filmmaker Alan Benson’s 1984 documentary on author and Lower East Side art scene legend Kathy Acker takes note of the gentrification that had occurred in the Lower East Side during the 1970s while Benson takes note that by 1984 Acker’s life “revolves in SoHo near the Southern tip of Manhattan. SoHo is as distinct an area as Chinatown or Little Italy. Its few square blocks host the chic community of New York’s avantgarde. Like Greenwich Village in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, it’s the hub of the city’s artistic life. This once poor district has become one of the wealthiest and most fashionable parts of Manhattan.” 

It’s not a war zone or the scene of a headline-making disaster, but a kind of local “playground” on New York’s Lower East Side. Youngsters play with cardboard spools discarded at the site of old tenements that have been torn down. Bettmann Archive

In her book Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Sociologist Sharon Zukin quotes a resident of SoHo discussing their experience at a public hearing on a proposed artists’ district. The board quickly rushed through complaints from those in the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy about “rats, rent control, and things like that” yet when focused on the resident from SoHo, “all the press secretaries were there, and the journalists. The klieg lights went on, and the cameras started to roll. And all these guys started making speeches about the importance of art to New York City.” It is known by everyone involved that art and culture is integral to real estate interests that develop neighborhoods, and art scenes of all kinds have played integral roles in the displacement of poor people from all backgrounds. 

It cannot be denied that following the economic crisis and recession of 2008, the neighborhoods that make up North Brooklyn suddenly became livable to cool artists and writers who couldn’t afford Manhattan, and pushed out predominantly Black residents who had lived there for generations. The creation of Vice, a news media organization founded in 1994 in Montreal, played a direct role in the gentrification of Williamsburg and the development of the area surrounding the former Domino Sugar factory. Of course now if you go to Williamsburg you will find children playing, and baby strollers being pushed. As all spaces gentrified through art and temporal coolness do, they quickly become uncool. They quickly become dated. They quickly become places no one can afford to live anymore. 

This is not unique to New York City; however the speed at which New York cycles through these scene-neighborhoods that get gentrified is unique. It’s so unique that other cities would love to replicate what happens quite naturally as a result of self-important people congregating in New York City, to the point where many cities create art fellowships just to attract such an occurrence. 

My own home city of Tulsa—where every time I go back I hear of rents rising and there’s always a new gastropub that matches the traditional art-deco decor—has the Tulsa Arts Fellowship. The fellowship provides artists with $40,000 and two years of subsidized housing and studio in either the Tulsa Arts District (which used to be called the Brady Arts District until it resurfaced in recent years that one of the founders of Tulsa, Tate Brady, was a Ku Klux Klan member) or in the Historic Greenwood District, which many might remember as the center of one of the worst incidents of violent racist hatred, the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre. Similarly in Michigan there was the short-lived Detroit-based non-profit Write A House that in 2014 gave chosen writers a renovated house in gentrifying neighborhoods as long as they created in the city. Mid-tier cities seeking a facelift and a population backed by capital love the arts. 

Chinatown in New York, 2001 David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The streets of Mott, Pell, and Doyer are the heart of Chinatown, which soon expanded beyond those three, where 150 Chinese immigrants took residence in 1859 leading to 2,000 Chinese people living there by the 1870s. Barred from citizenship, those who lived in Chinatown formed tight-knit communities to survive. It wasn’t until the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that many of the earlier immigration restrictions, such as the pointed and racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were lifted and Chinatown truly was able to fully develop into the full-fledged community that makes home in lower Manhattan. 

With the existence of an art scene such as Dimes Square forming into a “micro-neighborhood” within their own, reporters such as Esther Wang at Hell Gate were smart enough to ask actual Chinatown residents who lived in the neighborhood before the pandemic what their thoughts on Dimes Square were. The owner of the Wedding Banquet Liquor Store, Sharon Lin, when asked about Dimes Square, she told Wang “Before, there were more Chinese-owned stores, but they’ve mostly left, and non-Chinese stores came in. This has impacted our rent, which has become more expensive. Our rent has gone up every year. I think other stores left because their rent went up.” 

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 21: Lower East Side residents join housing rights activists outside the first of the “Two Bridges” luxury towers to be built on January 21, 2019 in New York City. The city under the DeBlasio administration is looking to build several high rise luxury developments in the low-income and working class neighborhood of lower Manhattan. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) Corbis via Getty Images

In his 2019 book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, urban planner Samuel Stein defines gentrification as “the process by which capital is reinvested in urban neighborhoods, and poorer residents and their cultural products are displaced and replaced by richer people and their preferred aesthetics and amenities.” The description of Dimes Square, despite apparently being difficult for the average person to locate on a map, is often thrown together with: Clandestino, Dimes, Kiki’s, and whoever someone decides is important enough to take note of, they were there. But you weren’t. The time is already gone on this scene-neighborhood and what’s sad is the impacts will be felt for quite some time. Little has been said regarding how the pedestalization of the ‘tastemakers’ gentrifying Chinatown inherently must ignore the shadow of Peter Thiel’s money and right-leaning influence, and nearly nothing discusses how Chinatown has been in debates over rezoning for years. A lot has been said about how there is an unfortunate play named after the “micro-neighborhood” though. 

Regardless of what happens next in Chinatown, the never-ending articles debating if Dimes Square is cool just proves that it is already long past being cool. Despite what some papers might have you believe, it would be definitely giving Dimes Square a little too much credit to attribute aesthetic Catholicism’s recent popularity to a gentrified neighborhood.

I wish I could say there is something unique about Dimes Square, I wish I could believe that the culture could end there but it would be too devastating and also ignorant of the history of New York City. After all, the next Dimes Square is just around the corner. 

Subscribe to Observer’s Arts Newsletter

The Next Dimes Square Is Just Around the Corner