Dirt: Nowhere or New York
Neighborhoods are memes now.
Drew Austin on the real vibe shift.
At some point during the past two years, I realized I’d become strangely aware of a Downtown New York universe with which I had minimal contact in my actual, provincial, Brooklyn-centric life. Somehow, my various feeds — Twitter, Instagram, podcasts — had gradually become firehoses of information about Dimes Square and its associated haunts and characters, pulling me into a vicious cycle of ersatz knowingness that in turn ensured I would go deeper down the rabbit hole. Soon I found myself following accounts like @nolitadirtbag, which, as any good meme account does, trains its followers to get its esoteric jokes. Before long, the types of people who loiter their days away at Café Leon Dore were living rent free in my head.
Last year, a friend in Austin messaged me to ask about the Dimes-adjacent restaurant Lucien — only because I live in New York, not because I have ever mentioned it, nor have I even been. If I was paying attention to this stuff, it was becoming clear, then so were countless others who existed at various degrees of remove from the scene itself, whatever that scene even was. Dimes Square increasingly seemed like a combination of meme, brand, and Netflix series — less a place than a fictional world to engage with from afar, not by physically hanging out there or meeting any of the people involved, but by knowingly posting about it, iterating on the meme and tying it to one’s own online identity. Eventually, one might even make a pilgrimage to Dimes Square, like a tourist finally going on the Sex and the City Bus Tour. In the ‘00s, New York exported the concept of “Brooklyn” to the rest of the world; today, it exports Dimes Square.
On the surface, this seems like a classic case of gentrification — normies and yuppies descending upon a culturally vital place and killing the magic. But it’s actually more like metagentrification: the final sublimation of geography into pure content, available to everyone, set against a backdrop where everything is already gentrified. This may, in fact, be the real vibe shift: viewing the physical world less as a source of direct experience than as material for online consumption.
The journey toward this condition has been underway for a while. In a recent Curbed piece titled “The Nolitafication of Dimes Square,” Emily Sundberg writes, “The neighborhood had been creeping toward the inflection point that was the pandemic for years.” A longtime resident and waitress at the neighborhood’s eponymous restaurant, Dimes, observes that its original eclectic crowd was eclipsed by “students, rich kids, and overly intellectual internet incels.” As she continues, she adds a critical detail: Many of the newcomers are the types of people who would exclaim, with excessive self-awareness, “Not me eating breakfast at Dimes!”
Sundberg summarizes the neighborhood’s recent narrative arc, which aligns closely with that of the vibe shift: When New York emptied out during the pandemic, the Dimes Square crowd stuck around and had fun. “There was suddenly this Italian-piazza-type thing going on,” observes the bartender of neighborhood fixture Clandestino. When everyone else returned, “that Italian-piazza-type thing was being closely watched.” Tourists descended and social media awareness exploded. This was around when I started hearing about it.
The vibe shift concept has more or less dissipated into meaninglessness, but it originated as an acute collective sense that something suddenly felt different in early summer 2021, following widespread vaccination and the world reopening. The preceding pandemic year had been a time of unprecedented digital immersion. With less material to draw upon from the outside world, we frantically generated content about content. Memes evolved at an accelerated rate, all the more recursive because they were all we had. At the time, this didn’t even feel strange, because it was the mere culmination of what we’d been building toward for the prior decade, and we were already acclimated. 2020 put the finishing touches on that process of rewiring our brains for social media, fully orienting us toward a world where everything is content and potential raw material for memes and discourse.
Dimes Square, then, is the product of that widespread content-about-content perspective reentering the physical world and relating to it in a new way. The real vibe shift may lie in the energy burst generated by this collision. Geography was already content before, but now it is content first and foremost.
Sundberg frames Dimes Square’s recent evolution as a conflict between the neighborhood’s Original Gentifiers and New Gentrifiers. Original Gentrification is synonymous with millennial culture, Brooklyn, hipsters, and Instagram bait that yields legible content — all phenomena that Sean Monahan’s 2021 vibe shift essay pronounced dead (it died multiple vibe shifts ago, in fact). Today, Original Gentrification is just a straightforward playbook for corporations and real estate investors.
New Gentrification — metagentrification — is post-millennial, illegible, and hyper-self-aware (“Not me eating breakfast at Dimes!”). Micro-neighborhoods and scenes rapidly emerge, memeified from the start, encouraging an incessant exegesis among their ever-expanding horde of participants, many of whom seem to simultaneously exist within those worlds and at an ironic distance from them. The most sophisticated providers of detached commentary, and the most viral memes, become symbolic pillars of the neighborhood itself. The entire construct feels like a Russian doll of such knowingness, the center of which, if you ever reach it, may or may not turn out to be anything at all.
Uptown, meanwhile, TikTokers have rediscovered classic cocktail bars like Bemelmans and the Rainbow Room, adopting or feigning a naive posture of indifference to whatever preceded them while distilling the nostalgia, repurposing those august establishments as stage sets for the online performance of Main Character Syndrome. In all cases, one thing is certain: When places become memes and go viral, there are suddenly longer lines to get in.
This does not mean that Original Gentrification is dead. Quite the opposite, in fact: It is finally so ubiquitous that in many cities — certainly throughout much of New York — it is the status quo (those neighborhoods’ pre-gentrification residue, meanwhile, fades into invisibility). What else is left but to redeploy those same signifiers as postmodern pastiche?
‘00s hipsters frequently lamented the very colonization process of which they constituted the front lines. Today, that conquest is complete and there is no longer anything to lament. Hipsters had a coherent if embarrassing system of values, celebrating elusive objectives like authenticity; with so many of those ideals long since commodified or extinguished, an impenetrable nihilism has replaced it, accepting that if everything is just content, it can all be worn like a costume and then discarded when the starter pack of which it’s part evolves and renders it obsolete.
Sundberg quotes a Dimes Square local who worries that the neighborhood’s new hotel development will unleash another wave of thinkpieces and clueless tourists — people who “think it’s a real thing.” She continues, “It’s not a real thing. It was a joke that journalists and people who don’t live here kind of escalated into a reality.” To the tourists, the firsthand experience of the place must indeed be puzzling, even disappointing, like visiting the diner from Seinfeld. Clandestino is an ordinary bar, albeit more crowded these days. The real thing is anchored somewhere else, and those visitors have probably already found it. — Drew Austin