On Sept. 11, a group of graffiti writers who became friends and collaborators over long days of painting the thick, concrete walls of 5 Pointz gathered on a bleak stretch of Bergen Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They were there to paint a 9/11 tribute mural, something they’ve done every year since the fall of the Twin Towers. Led by Meres One, the former curator at 5 Pointz, this was the first 9/11 commemorative piece spray-painted on a wall that didn’t belong to the graffiti mecca.
Photographs of 5 Pointz crumbling under the force of wrecking balls have circulated via social media, closing the chapter on a long and painful fight to preserve the arts space. 5 Pointz was slated to be demolished last summer, and in the months that followed, Meres fought to make the site a landmark, hosting rallies and gathering signatures from 21,000 supporters. Despite the momentum to save the building, the property owners, Jerry Wolkoff and his son David, and developer G&M Realty had plans to turn the space into two high-rise apartment buildings.
Exactly one year ago today, in the early hours of the morning, a group of workers hired by the Wolkoffs whitewashed the walls of 5 Pointz, covering years of tags, throw-ups, and murals. To Meres, the whitewashing extinguished 5 Pointz’s last hope. “The whitewashing occurred to destroy the art so there would be nothing to landmark,” Meres told me during the painting of the 9/11 mural. This month, news broke that Jerry Wolkoff tried to name his new towers “5 Pointz,” a move that was rejected by the city because of a previous trademark. Meres told DNA Info of Wolkoff’s attempt to register the name he created, "The disrespect continues, I suppose.”
Although the graffiti mecca was established in 2002 by Meres (who’s given name is Jonathan Cohen), 5 Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burnin’ was originally built in 1982 as a factory that made water meters. In the 1970s, Jerry Wolkoff purchased the building, and in 1993, he allowed Pat DiLillo to turn it into the Phun Factory, a space for graffiti writers to paint. Nine years later, Meres stepped in and renamed the space after the convergence of New York's five boroughs.
When I asked him about how he became curator at 5 Pointz, Meres said, “That was easy. I changed the name, changed the vibe. I didn’t really have any expectations starting.” Now that his passion project is coming to an end, Meres finds himself back where he started: “That’s why I’m kind of like in my mind going, ‘Don’t overthink the situation. Just go with the flow with it. See where it happens. See where it takes you.’”
One thing is for sure: 5 Pointz artists won’t let the loss of their space stop them from coming together to paint.
“It was a living, breathing museum,” said Lexi Bella, a street artist who first painted at 5 Pointz three years ago. She was spray-painting a fire fighter’s hat on the 9/11 mural when I spoke to her. “People came from all over the world to paint there, and then when they decided to tear it down, it was like something was dying,” she said. “But luckily, I think it’s more just the transformation of the idea of 5 Pointz and the organization of 5 Pointz continuing to be the heart of the graff and street art world in New York City.”
Many other graffiti artists I spoke to shared Lexi’s optimistic attitude that 5 Pointz will be reborn in a new form. Her longtime collaborator and friend Danielle Mastrion, known for her aerosol portraits of iconic figures, like Biggie Smalls and The Beastie Boys, spoke about how the ties between 5 Pointz artists are as strong as ever. “A community is a community because of the people. Yes, it happened to be at a building, but just because the building’s gone, it doesn’t mean that the community broke apart,” she said.
For the artists that hung out there, it’s clear that 5 Pointz was more than just a place for people to paint. It functioned almost like a community center or church—a place for people with a common interest to gather, socialize, work, eat, and build relationships.
Esteban van Leuven, who goes by Remix, said he used to consider graffiti a solitary art, often painting alone. “At 5 Pointz, I realized that graffiti is just a big community of people. Even though it’s so anonymous on the street, in between everyone else, it’s just one big family even though we have to keep it on the hush,” he said. “It seemed like every time we did a wall, it was more than just doing a wall. We had coolers, music. After the wall was done, we’d just hang out the rest of the night, talk, and have a good time. Every weekend was like going to the park for a barbeque except we would go to 5 Pointz.”
But 5 Pointz’s community extended beyond the “hush” world of graffiti writers. Until 2009, when a near-fatal accident during the collapse of the fire-escape stairs injured an artist, Crane Street Studios occupied five floors inside 5 Pointz, serving as cheap studio space for New York artists. It has also been used as a site for raising awareness about various issues. Not long before 5 Pointz was sentenced to be torn down, Remix created a mural and set up a table to distribute information about lupus, a disease that affects his niece, and raise money for a walk supporting a cure. During protests to save 5 Pointz, street artists BAMN and gilf! hung a banner that read, "Gentrification in Proccess" in front of the building. But the most salient community that found a home in 5 Pointz, aside from aerosol artists, may have been hip-hop heads.
“It wasn’t only graffiti. Graffiti is the obvious major element of 5 Pointz. If you were to go there, that’s the first thing you noticed. But we celebrated everything relevant to youth. It could be breakdancing, MCing, DJing, even bike events. To me, bringing that together was the ultimate form of hip-hop,” said Meres. The 9/11 mural he was working on also had ties to this music culture. It depicts Bronx native Joe Conzo, one of the first responders during the terrorist attacks and a photographer who documented the early era of hip-hop in New York City. Meres spoke about how 5 Pointz became a neutral zone for many sects within the hip-hop world. “There is no unity if you follow it,” he said. “We’ve got the commercial hip-hop, which I can’t stand, underground hip-hop that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, breakdancing, etc., and they all do their own things. We were able to mesh communities together and form friendships between breakdancers, DJs, MCs, and that was priceless. It could never be duplicated.”
That sense of community being broken apart makes it easy to sympathize with the artists for whom the space embodied so many memories. The harrowing images of walls being pulled from their foundations only drive this sense of mourning home. But even though there are many discussions about keeping the community alive, it's clear that the 5 Pointz artists are looking to Meres for the next thing. 5 Pointz was his vision, and even though he believes that the community will stay together, losing his artistic home has taken some of the fight out of him. Meres says he’s “in a limbo state right now,” and he doesn’t have major plans to start a new 5 Pointz. Instead, he seems pessimistic about the state of his city.
“It’s disturbing. You’re getting rid of everything, and it’s becoming a honeycomb," Meres said of the changing urban fabric of New York. "People sleep and live, but where do you go to have fun? You’re getting rid of all the landmarks, all the historic places, things that I grew up with that are iconic places in New York are gone. There has to be a balance because otherwise you’re going to have a stale city.”
For both the Crane Street Studios artists on the inside and the graff writers outside, 5 Pointz offered something that’s constantly a struggle for New York artists: cheap (or free) space to create art. Meres spoke about how hard it is to find walls in the city and how expensive mural projects are now that his urban canvas is gone. But the fall of 5 Pointz is not a unique tale in a city that’s swiftly pricing out artists with climbing rents.
With new developments seeming to spring up each month, thanks in part to Bloomberg's re-zoning 37 percent of the city to make way for urban growth, cheap space is becoming even more sacred. New, glassy towers are turning industrial buildings like 5 Pointz into dinosaurs. Take the $1.5 billion development of the Williamsburg waterfront, where the 157-year-old Domino Sugar Factory will be replaced by a family of blocky apartment buildings. (Thankfully, Mayor de Blasio has demanded that the new developments include affordable housing.) Although the Domino Sugar Factory was a place for making sugar, not art, an alternative development plan put forth by local representatives suggested turning the factory into an arts space. The plan cited London's Tate Modern, a former industrial building that's become a hub for art and tourism, as a successful case study. It's no surprise that Kara Walker's massive sculptural installation, A Subtlety, which took part in the Domino Sugar Factory this summer, addressed the destruction of the building and the shifting identity of the area.
5 Pointz and the Domino Sugar Factory are only symptoms of this space crisis in New York. As richer (and whiter) people stretch further into Brooklyn and Queens, artists struggling to pay for studio space will continue to be pushed out. While Bushwick seems to be the current nexus of New York graffiti, rents there are on the rise as well. (It's also worth mentioning that artists are often the reason poor neighborhoods become desirable, granting them a status of hipness that works to gentrify the area, like what is happening in Bushwick right now. But that's a separate essay.)
Where will artists go when they can't afford New York? Jersey City may be an option, and the fact that Mana Contemporary is located there makes it a logical destination for young artists. The Bronx may also see an influx of artists in the coming years. The borough has more to offer in terms of studio space and a burgeoning artist community already, according to The New York Times. It's a terrifying concept but not one impossible to imagine that artists will have no place to work in New York some day. Although many 5 Pointz artists are still painting together and are hopeful that they will eventually find a new home for aerosol art, the destruction of their graffiti mecca should be a cautionary tale about the spaces New York needs to protect to preserve its cultural identity.