- Words and Photos by Joanna Pan
5Pointz: From There to Here
It’s been nearly four years to the day that real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff had workers stealthily whitewash the turn-of-the-century, industrial facades of 5Pointz; destroying nearly a city block’s worth of lovingly curated, masterfully executed aerosol art in the wee hours of the morning. Now Wolkoff and a group of 5Pointz artists — respectively represented by privately-held G & M Realty, and 5Pointz artist and curator Jonathan “Meres” Cohen — are facing off in federal court over the 2013 annihilating whitewash. The trial began in Federal District Court on October 17th, and continues at this writing.
The overnight, blitz-like annihilation of belovéd and internationally lauded art did not afford the artists’ time to preserve their work via documentation and other means. And the sheer thoroughness and speed of Wolkoff's destruction — some nine months ahead of brick-and-mortar demolition — is hard to interpret as anything but a calculated ploy to block ongoing initiatives that might have disrupted the buildings’ demolition. (A landmarking initiative had been denied that August, although 5Pointz supporters might well have reapplied.)
Particularly bewildering about the surprise whitewash is its stark contrast to Wolkoff’s altruism in the past:
It was Wolkoff who permitted artists to showcase their creations on those buildings in the first place, a time when “legal graffiti” might have been a preposterous oxymoron to other area realtors.
Wolkoff — as effective owner of the 5Pointz buildings — might have asked artists to waive certain of their artistic rights under the law, but chose not to: a decision that may have demonstrated big-heartedness, respect for the artists and their work, or both.
Wolkoff once rented studio space within the graffiti mecca to some 200 artists at “below-market rates,” according to reporter Cara Buckley for the New York Times in 2009.
As the trial is ongoing, outcomes are purely speculative. Plaintiffs Jonathan "Meres" Cohen and some 20 other artists "appear to have a good shot at showing that the artists’ work meets the statutory standard under VARA, affording the works protection,” says Mark H. Moore, partner at Reavis Parent LLP in Manhattan. VARA -- the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 -- is a federal law granting certain rights to artists [see heading "1990" for more].
"If VARA prevails in this case, we get closer to protecting the integrity of an art form that has changed the world," notes Ming, a New York City graffiti writer who adored but did not paint at 5Pointz.
How did a real estate developer, the spectre of the exquisite art he destroyed, and a group of renowned aerosol artists wind up facing off in federal court? Below, some chronological highlights:
At the turn of the century, a warren of industrial buildings comprising Neptune Meter Works rises from the soil of Hunter's Point, Queens. In the distant future, much of this realty will gain a second career as 5Pointz, but in the early 1900s the buildings are used solely to manufacture water-use gauges. Neptune Meter Works and its promise of work gives the area poor and newly-immigrated a degree of social mobility. The factory chugs on for some 60 years, but by the 1970s heavy-industry employment is on the wane, and the Queens facility falls prey to a national wave of deindustrialization. The factory is shuttered, although the company exists today as Neptune Technology Group.
In the early 1970s, real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff — a Brooklyn raised, entreprenurial Wunderkind who opened his first business at age 16 — purchases the abandoned Neptune factory at a time when New York City finds itself spiraling headlong into financial insolvency.
The Visual Artists Right Act of 1990 — VARA — is enacted. VARA expands the protections of existing copyright laws to include additional artists' rights: rights of claims to authorship or anonymity; rights that compel those using artists' works to credit them by name; rights that prohibit art from being modified in a way that would negatively impact artists' reputations. Collectively, these added protections comprise "Moral Rights.” They are "the law's way of saying that an artist's contribution to society should be accorded value outside the commercial marketplace," explains attorney Mark H. Moore, partner at Reavis Parent LLP in Manhattan.
In the 1990s, Wolkoff enters into an unlikely partnership with a rotating collective of urban artists, allowing them to showcase legal graffiti and other forms of visual art on the abandoned industrial complex. Around 1993, the site is given its own art name — Phun Factory — and curated by Pat DeLillo, a former plumber.
In 2001, the Department of City Planning rezones a significant portion of the Queens Plaza Area to “facilitate commercial development at increased densities” and “to allow new residences to mix with commercial and light industrial businesses,” an act that heralds gentrification initiatives.
In 2002, the site is renamed “5Pointz” by artist and new volunteer curator Jonathan Cohen -- graffiti name “Meres One” -- who seeks to elevate the quality of graffiti at the site. Wolkoff allows Meres to curate the open art gallery — no artist gets up at 5Pointz without Cohen’s express permission. Cohen may put up art largely as he wishes, governed only by a few, broad stipulations from Wolkoff: the creations may not be pornographic, religious, or political. 5Pointz will go on to thrive as an adored visual arts destination frequented by locals and tourists alike, its walls are both painted and lauded by internationally-recognized visual artists, and the site becomes a source of social and financial cachet in its Long Island City environs.
Joss Stone, Grammy award-winning singer, films music video for her single "Tell me 'Bout It" at 5 Pointz.
Wolkoff meets with city planning officials to discuss replacing the 5Pointz brick-and-mortar complex with two highrise residential towers.
Joss Stone tweets support of efforts to save 5Pointz from demolition.
To present her Spring/Summer 2013 collection, Donna Karan uses photographic murals depicting 5Pointz on the walls of her Madison Ave store, adding to the graffiti mecca's upper-class cachet.
Wolkoff officially announces replacement of 5Pointz with a highrise residential complex.
5Pointz supporters submit application to the Landmark Preservation Commission in hopes of having the site recognized, a move that would disrupt efforts to raze 5Pointz. But the LDC rejects the application: the aerosol art is less than 30 years old, too "young" to receive designation.
City approves Wolkoff’s development plan to replace the 5Pointz art and buildings with residential high-rises.
Jonathan Cohen and other 5Pointz artists file lawsuit in hopes of winning a court order that would prohibit Wolkoff and G & M Realty from destroying the buildings’ aerosol art.
Nov 12, 2013
Court denies Cohen and other 5Pointz artists the above court order, meaning Wolkoff and G & M Realty will not be legally prohibited from destroying the 5Pointz art. Court says a written opinion will soon follow (and it does, on November 20th).
November 19, 2013
Building owners Jerry and David Wolkoff — accompanied by police — whitewash the lion’s share of 5Pointz walls in the wee hours of the morning, at once veiling and destroying the work of some 1500 graffiti and street artists. That the art was destroyed so stealthily and fast — long before the building was slated to be razed — makes the act fairly pulse with ill will. “It [was] a David and Goliath scenario,” notes Ming. 5Pointz artists and supporters around the world are heartbroken. “I grew up on the 7 line, and literally couldn’t picture my childhood without that building in the backdrop. It was genuine New York for me, one of the symbols of Queens that gave me pride,” Ming notes.
November 20, 2013
Federal District Court Judge Block submits his opinion of the court’s November 12th decision not to prevent G&M Realty from destroying the 5Pointz complex and its art. “Cohen … always knew that the buildings were coming down, and that his paintings, as well as the others which he allowed to be placed on the walls, would be destroyed,” he writes. Of Wolkoff, Block writes: "While he was supportive of these artists and appreciated their work, he also stood to benefit economically from all the attention that had been drawn to the site as he planned to market these buildings’ new residences." Block writes that G&M Realty will incur "significant monetary damages [for the art's destruction] if it is ultimately determined after trial that the Plaintiff’s work was of recognized stature.”
The 5Pointz buildings are razed, despite the lengthy and rigorous campaign to halt the demolition by 5Pointz artists, supporters, and luminaries like Banksy.
September 14, 2015
G&M Realty is given permission to retain the 5Pointz name for its high-rises on the site of the former graffiti meca. “It is clear to me that the owners want to keep the 5Pointz name because of the cachet for the property, developed through tourism and the ambience drawn by the artists’ works. The owners then are trying to associate themselves with the very works they demolished,” says Moore.
May 26, 2017
The legacy of 5Pointz artists and their work is co-opted by design firm Mojo Stumer Associates for G&M Realty. The two luxury high-rises replacing 5Pointz will have "graffiti-style artwork scattered throughout," reports Jeanmarie Evelly for DNAinfo.com.
October 17, 2017
Current trial begins in the Eastern District Court of New York to determine whether the graffiti and other works of aerosol art at 5Pointz carries significant visual merit and expert recognition to warrant protection under federal law.