5Pointz is no more
Several New York City forums have been lamenting the final demolition of graffiti mecca ‘5Pointz’ this month (October 2014). The disused-factory-turned-graffiti-hotspot in Queens had been a magnet for street artists from around the world since the early ’90s, becoming an unofficial ‘graffiti museum’. The street art emblazoned on the building’s dilapidated exterior held the story of NYC’s graffiti history of the past couple of decades – while factory owner Jerry Wolkoff’s decision to finally transform the site into new condos is the all-too-familiar story of ‘urban progress’ translating as commercial property development. 5Pointz was whitewashed without warning last year, wiping out the works of thousands of street artists, and now the walls themselves are currently feeling the force of the wrecking ball.
5Pointz was already something of a compromise, however. Though the building was hailed as the apex of street art, it also symbolised New York graffiti artists’ diminished power since the subway graffiti heyday of the 1970s: for while subway graffiti art was subversive and temporary (though often dangerous to make), 5Pointz by contrast offered a legal and more static showcase – the only real option available after city authorities adopted their hardline stance in the mid-80s. This stance was based on the ‘broken windows’ theory, which proposed that visual signs of urban disorder – such as broken windows and graffiti – lead to escalating anti-social behaviour and crime. A well-ordered, clean urban environment conversely signals that crime won’t be tolerated, so the theory goes. New York City Transit Authority (MTA) was tenacious in its adoption of this theory, targetting subway graffiti especially intensively – a path famously continued by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
This hard-lined stance was a success in terms of crime reduction, but also led to a decline in the vibrant subculture celebrated in Subway Art (1984). Written by photojournalist/anthropologist Martha Cooper and photojournalist/filmmaker Henry Chalfant, this book, now 30 years old, documented New York City’s burgeoning subway graffiti subculture. Growing up with a hip hop and US-obsessed brother in the ’80s meant that the book was part of my lexicon from a young age, an unlikely seminal text – not so much for the images themselves (I left that obsession to my brother, who invited a local graf artist into our house to spray-paint his bedroom wall), but more because it was the first time I realised that you could actually have a job that involved being interested in and documenting other cultures. Looking back at this book fills me with nostalgia for a particular era – even for a city I barely set foot in until my twenties. Critics of the big clean-up of NYC talk in longing tones about the cultural sanitizing of their beloved city, while others believe the reduction in crime has made it all worth it. It’s a controversial and complex debate that touches on other urban debates, including the one about the changing status and commercialisation of street art itself.
But while 5Pointz was something of a compromise, its evolution was still organic and its pieces breathed life into the area. (Something tells me that the CAD-designed ‘graffiti wall’ that’s due to be part of the new condo complex won’t quite have the same sense of vitality.) When I visited 5Pointz in 2011, I remember feeling much more engaged than I had been half an hour earlier when visiting MoMA’s more solemn PS1 gallery, which sits opposite the site. The factory buildings occupied almost an entire city block, and the works ranged from classic wildstyle graffiti to cartoon-like images, as shown in the photos I’ve posted above. There’s no doubt that street art can humanize urban areas, providing ever-changing interest – the often politically charged stencil art of Buenos Aires was constantly grabbing my attention when I lived there in 2004/05, and Mexico’s versions work amazingly with its colourful buildings (see below). Whether you should try to preserve street art is a tricky issue – but knocking it down to make way for swanky new condos is surely another sad step towards cities that prioritise those with money.