The battle for 5 Pointz embodies the value we put on gentrification and public art.
When I lived in Queens, New York, I often made my way over to Long Island City, a neighborhood that borders the East River, to check out 5 Pointz. The site consisted of a 200,000 square foot building covered in graffiti, which I preferred over MoMA’s PS1, which sits nearby. There, I found artists re-covering the walls with murals and tags, small crowds in the courtyard blaring music and dancing, curious onlookers, and locals hosing down their food carts which were stored in the bowels of the building. The warehouse, which was originally a water meter factory, has had its walls covered by well-known street artists from around the world and been featured in movie scenes.
But in 2013, the site turned into a symbol embodying the tension that gentrification provokes and also questioning the value of public art. In a deal worth $400 million, the property is slated to be converted into two high-rises and retail shops. Despite protests and injunctions which called for the building to be given historic landmark status, the exterior was painted white during the night of November 19.
Since then, a group of street artists has filed a lawsuit pursuing damages for the destruction of their work, and artists gilf! and BAMN have wrapped banner-sized, yellow-and-black police-like tape reading “GENTRIFICATION IN PROGRESS” around the building. Asbestos removal has also been carried out in preparation for the demolition and renderings for the new development have been created. Included in the plans is a wall for artists to paint on although they will have to get permission. There are also 210 affordable housing units in addition to the 1,000 apartments—no word yet if the design includes a ‘poor door’ —a set up employed at other mixed-income buildings that has subsidized tenants using a separate entrance.
With demolition coming in the next two weeks, the outlook for the site is pretty bleak. Symbolically, 5 Pointz illustrates the city’s disposition towards its artists and public spaces as well as the growing complications that gentrification bears. While there are positive aspects of gentrification such as increased local revenues and more social integration, these are often accompanied by negative repercussions like displacement and neighborhood polarization. In many ways this case also resembles problems we face on a national scale as income inequality continues to grow and money’s influence shuts out the voices of the people.
Photo courtesy of the author.