the group portrait

The Unhinged Observers of The Drunken Canal

Dimes Square gets the publication it deserves.

Top row, from left: Paige Labuda, photographer; Shanti Escalante-De Mattei, arts writer; Maya Kotomori, review writer; John Daily, cartoonist; Charles Martinez, review writer; Zans Brady Krohn, fiction writer; Tristan Depew, “How To’’ writer; Gutes Guterman and Claire Banse, editors; Sasha Mutchnik, writer and meme-maker; Savannah Galvin, health reporter; Marco Estrella, columnist; and Owen Langan, contributor. Bottom row, from left: Saoirse Bertram, astrologist; Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke, sex guru; and Rai Langlois, perfume columnist. Photo: Jake Chessum

Back in July, best friends and Lower East Side denizens Claire Banse, 23, and Gutes Guterman, also 23, were sitting in Tompkins Square Park drinking afternoon Aperol spritzes (their quar to-go drink of choice), reading a particularly juicy Daily News, and joking about what the headline of their own lives would be when, as they retell it, “genius” struck. Why wasn’t there a hyperlocal publication servicing the downtown area of “Dimes Square,” or the triangle where Canal and Division meet, as it is called by the community of stylish 20-something skaters and art types like themselves who frequent it? They saw a need for a print newspaper (not another zine) that treated “the inside joke that is downtown New York” as a serious subject, reporting on local gossip, (“COVID Outbreak At Lucien”), but also pertinent cultural trends, like which celebrities and companies were most-recently canceled. They would call it The Drunken Canal, and it would embody an unapologetically messy tone that read as if “the flow of information took a detour, got drunk along the way, and [was] now attempting to tell you all about it over its third Clandestino’s martini,” as they later wrote in their first editor’s letter. (The Unhinged Observer was a solid runner-up.)

They weren’t kidding. With no experience in putting together a publication, Banse and Guterman — who have day jobs at a restaurant and a gallery, respectively — got to work, enlisting the help of a dozen or so unpaid contributors, including a sex guru, a perfume columnist, and a meme-maker. An “Orange Wine and Ideas” stage was followed by a “Martinis and Materialization” stage, and then, finally, by a “Cheese Plate and Celebration” stage. By October, they had 400 copies of The Drunken Canal’s first issue in their hands, which they paid for out-of-pocket and distributed from 14th Street to East Broadway in stolen — er, “repurposed” — newspaper boxes. Overall, it embodied the kookiness of a small-town paper, the sincerity of a school assignment, and the dark humor of early Vice — without the misogyny.

On the surface, The Drunken Canal has the trappings of a traditional newspaper: Readers will find obituaries (RIP China Chalet), critical essays, fiction, and reviews. There’s even a sports section. But the closer you look — especially at the crossword clues — the more unhinged it becomes. The inaugural cover, for example, featured a piece of information that was “breaking news” to both its editors: “51 ÷ 17 = 3.” “Is that not crazy??” said Guterman, seeming intent on playing with the boundaries of what qualifies as journalism. “It makes total sense without making a lot of sense at the same time,” Banse added. “Which is also the ethos of The Drunken Canal.”

After a summer of “incorrect opinions” and people “presenting themselves as knowing about the news” on social media, as Banse put it, she and Guterman wanted The Drunken Canal to be an unfiltered antidote to the careful, conservative vibe that had recently taken over their feeds — like Instagram’s Close Friend’s feature, fit to print. “Are we meant to keep retweeting, liking, reposting, and sharing echo-chamber content that honestly becomes boring and dangerous after a certain point?” reads their manifesto. “You can, but we don’t want to.” Instead, the paper is “all feeling, not facts,” as Banse and Guterman explained in their second editor’s letter. Although it’s “not lies, either,” they assured me with a laugh. Writers can say whatever they want in its pages without fear of cancelation because it will never, ever run online. But just to be safe, there’s a “biased new source” disclaimer at the top of every cover.

That said, The Drunken Canal is still serious about being a paper of a certain record for a certain crowd. Marco Estrella, 21, a columnist who also does unofficial PR for The Drunken Canal (“I work in art, which is essentially PR”), maintains that, despite its downtown bent, there’s something in the paper for everyone — even going as far as describing it as “intrinsically international, and bigger than just Dimes Square. It’s Dimes Square of the mind.”

Even if it is biased or incorrect in some ways, or light in tone, it is actually a very authentic and genuine gesture,” said Zans Brady Krohn, 23, a contributor and fiction writer.

“It’s intimate without being exclusionary,” added Saoirse Bertram, 25, who writes horoscopes. (“I’m not a trained astrologer, but I have some background in metaphysical life,” he explained. “My father is quite in tune with the movements of the Milky Way and my mother’s a witch in her own right.”) “It’s very conversational,” he continued. “You can tell that the writer on the other side is looking you in the eye.”

The Drunken Canal’s next issue is holiday-themed and hits newsstands December 12. Banse and Guterman still have a lot left to figure out — they’ve already had to issue a public apology for accidentally canceling the wrong person — but Banse finally got Photoshop, and they both downloaded the Grammarly Chrome extension on their laptops. As for the future, their only real aspirations are to “make money without selling out.” They’d like to break even and pay their writers, instead of just buying them drinks, which they plan to do by selling select ads, classifieds, and merch. In the meantime, they’re going with the flow. “We are begging you, don’t cancel us,” read the last editor’s letter. “It’s not our time … yet.”

*A version of this article appears in the December 7, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Unhinged Observers of The Drunken Canal