How a New York Developer Gentrified the #$&*!# Out of a Graffiti Landmark
By 2013, 5Pointz was a dead building with living skin.
Along the former factory’s flank slept a giantess in a sky-blue headscarf, beside a bright orange tiger in mid-leap; on a nearby door, Vincent Van Gogh stared out at a starry night. Skulls and grinning light-bulbs and a blunt-smoking Batman and even a three-eyed Homer Simpson swarmed across the brickwork, there one week and gone the next, always replaced by new characters. Most of the building’s interior might have been an abandoned wreck, but the outside walls bloomed vivid with chemical color.
5Pointz went by many aliases, including the United Nations of Graffiti and The Institute of Higher Burning. Street artists such as Tats Cru, Cope2, OD, Tracy 168 and Stay High 149 left their mark on its walls. Directors and musicians used it as a backdrop for videos; a scene from the heist film “Now You See Me” was shot there.
Its curator and protector, Jonathan Cohen (who went by the nom d’artiste Meres One), wanted to transform the space into a non-profit landmark. But those plans came to a crashing halt in late 2013 — because, despite its fame as a Queens landmark, 5Pointz also stood in the way of progress: over the course of several years, the surrounding neighborhood of Long Island City had become the latest target of the gentrifying forces that have altered New York City’s outer boroughs. For months, lawyers for a group of 16 artists fought in court to save the building, backed by a Greek chorus of bloggers, preservationists, anti-gentrification protestors, and residents who thought a multistory art-space — however crumbly and decaying — was preferable to yet another glass-and-steel luxury complex.
Even Banksy, the famed and divisive British street artist, finished up his October-long New York City “residency” (involving the near-daily appearance of new sculptures or aerosol/wall works) by writing on his Website: “And that’s it. Thanks for your patience. It’s been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye.”
As Banksy slipped out of town, and the artists lost their courtroom battle to preserve 5Pointz for posterity, a virtuoso tagger sprayed a patriotic image on a section of the façade overlooking Jackson Avenue: a bald eagle soaring above the Twin Towers, against a Stars and Stripes backdrop. “They’re betting the developer won’t ram a wrecking ball through that,” I joked to someone at the time. “Makes for bad visuals on the evening news.”
Jerry Wolkoff, who owned the building, must have thought the same thing. At around 3 A.M. on Nov. 19, 2013, a work crew arrived — with a police escort — and began whitewashing the exterior walls. “I repeat 5 pointz is gone,” the official 5Pointz Twitter feed posted at 7:57 A.M. that morning. “Painted white over night we almost got arrested.” By dawn the work was done, the murals reduced to faint mists of color.
The subsequent protest felt like a wake. By nightfall, roughly a hundred people had gathered on the building’s loading dock, along with a smattering of television-news crews. A pair of cops hovered nearby, looking cold and bored. Protestors scrawled dozens of messages on large sheets of paper taped to the pallid walls:
Who’s the vandal? Its ironic how you did just what a typical 16 yr old vandal would do deface a building @ night coward
Jerry enjoy your legacy ART MURDERER
We played by the rules!
Others lit a row of candles on the concrete, or peered into a battered dumpster filled to the brim with empty whitewash barrels. On the Jackson Avenue side of the building, a kid in a hooded sweatshirt screamed profanities at a newscaster before storming off into the windy night. Without its art, 5Pointz looked derelict, skeletal, abandoned, dead.
In interviews with local news outlets, Wolkoff assumed an air of regret. “Let me just get it over with and as I knock it down they’re not watching their piece of art going down,” is how he explained his rationale for the whitewashing to The Wall Street Journal. “The milk spilled. It’s over. They don’t have to cry.” Painting over the walls, he added, would have helped avoid a clash between artists and police: “The last thing I need is for these young people is to have a confrontation and get arrested. I own the property and I have the right to paint over it.”
Wolkoff’s new development on the lot will include two towers, divided into 1,000 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail space; local councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer reportedly helped negotiate for 210 affordable living units. Wolkoff also promised 12,000 square feet of artists’ studios, in addition to exterior walls reserved for aerosol art. As of January 2018, his dream is still an active construction site, a concrete framework rising high over Queens; at night, its lights blazing, it is visible for miles around.
Street art is, at its core, transgression: the idea of spraying paint within a corporate-sanctioned space, with the designs possibly subject to approval by a review board, would be anathema to most self-respecting practitioners of the art, who always prefer to color outside the lines. (Case in point: a few blocks from 5Pointz, on a wall fronting Northern Boulevard, aging posters for the Kanye West album “Yeezus” ask passerby to “Please Add Graffiti,” but nobody with a Sharpie or can of spray-paint has yet obliged that request. Who wants to give street cred to a corporate product, whether an album or a building?)
To be fair, the art of 5Pointz was never a case of pure transgression: in 1993, Wolkoff gave a nonprofit group the right to paint on the building as a way of keeping kids from vandalizing their neighborhoods with graffiti, so long as the imagery met a certain taste requirement: no porn, nothing overtly religious, and no profanity. For the next twenty years, those walls became a safe haven for artists, who journeyed from all over the world with aerosol cans in hand — the name “5Pointz” may have alluded to New York City’s boroughs coming together, but the space’s reputation went international. It was known as a place where you could come and render a photorealistic Biggie Smalls in glorious black and white, or Godzilla frying Tokyo with nuclear breath, or a giant hand pointing toward the sky, and nobody would deface your minor masterpiece with a competing tag. You just had to live with the knowledge that another artist would paint new work over it, someday.
The building also avoided devolving into a corporate billboard: no drone for Coke or Kanye West painted an album cover or product logo on those crumbling walls. Some people have always dismissed the building as a graffiti-splattered eyesore (especially in the comments sections of the New York Post), but just as many saw it as a canvas for real art.
You can thank Wolkoff for establishing the conditions for 5Pointz to thrive, even if you disagree with his decision on the building’s ultimate fate; given his role as a developer, its destruction was inevitable once real-estate prices began to rise. In terms of publicity, he just had the bad luck to raze the property at a time when the demolition of old structures to make way for shiny and expensive ones is viewed with particular malice by many City residents.
The Old New York
In the first season of Mad Men, advertising executive Don Draper tells a roomful of clients that, in Greek, “nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.” It produces a twinge in the heart “far more powerful than memory alone,” he adds, an ache that — if used correctly — can bond a customer with a certain product.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for the New York City that existed a few decades ago. It was gritty and real and raw, people will tell you over a beer or three. When I first moved here I felt alive, free to be anything I wanted. To hear them describe it, the city now risks becoming (to borrow a phrase from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) a “whited sepulchre” of a town, locked within a tomblike façade of antiseptic glass.
Others have never felt that peculiar ache when thinking about the New York City of their youth. In their mind, it’s forever the time and place where some punk stabbed them on the subway, or a random bullet pierced their shoulder. “When I was a kid, we called Avenue A ‘Firebase A,’ and Avenue B was ‘Firebase B,’” an acquaintance told me about his childhood in Alphabet City forty years ago. “Just like the firebases in Vietnam? And believe me, we had a whole lot of fun trying to get from one to the other.” The city of yesteryear exists in their memories as a hive of grinding misery.
Those with nostalgia may see the razing of 5Pointz as yet another sign of the life bleeding from a once-remarkable megacity, just as those with little sentimentality might applaud its destruction as progress. Across the boroughs, dozens of these fights over infrastructure take place every year, as money and immigration and a hundred other factors alter the metropolitan DNA.
The ultra-gentrification of the city, the musician David Byrne wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian, threatens to dim its imaginative spirit: “Aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people.” Little by little, “the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated,” putting its status as a creative hub in danger.
You could choose to see 5Pointz as Byrne’s point writ large: how much bigger of a symbol do you need, than an artistic space bulldozed to make way for condos that will — if other, similar towers in the neighborhood are any indication — sell for a million-plus dollars a bedroom?
Here’s some cold comfort: sooner or later, all art fades away.
The Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley endured for fifteen hundred years before the Taliban, armed with religious zealotry and a lot of explosives, pulverized them over the course of a few days in 2001. In 2013, a Romanian woman tried to protect her son by burning the artwork he allegedly stole from a Dutch museum — which included paintings by Picasso, Monet, and Lucian Freud. If those works can disappear, aerosol art on the side of a wall in Queens stands no chance. When a group of Queens artists assembled in Long Island City’s Jeffrey Leder Gallery in April to show off new paintings — much of it inspired by the loss of 5Pointz — the most striking pieces portrayed the building after Wolkoff’s men had finished their work, and the winter snow had fallen: landscapes of cold white in which swatches of color struggled to appear, to matter.
Yet art rarely fades without a fight. A few days after that whitewashing in November 2013, some defiant soul had written a small “5 Pointz Lives!’ in black Sharpie on the freshly blank bricks. More tags appeared in random corners of the building, left by bandits who did their work in the middle of the night and disappeared again, defying the march of urban progress with a few quick paint-sprays and pen-strokes. It was like watching green shoots emerge from the blackened ground after a forest fire. For a short time, in the most limited of ways, 5Pointz had become a canvas again.
Remember that when you think about the western edge of Queens turning into a sprawl of shining glass towers and antiseptic streets.
(But it wasn’t over yet; some of the 5Pointz artists filed a lawsuit, which turned into a massive legal battle with a somewhat-unexpected conclusion…)