I have worked in Long Island City (LIC) off of the 7 train Court Street station for almost a year. When I began working in that area, I observed a relative abundance of artistic graffiti; as the 7 train comes above ground you quickly notice distinct enclaves of art on the abandoned trains and the sides of buildings. Also, when you walk around the neighborhood, especially down the main commercial street, Vernon-Jackson Boulevard, beautiful graffiti masterpieces pop out at you. Everyone in the area knows about the spooky Halloween wall that features huge murals of imaginatively rendered clowns, pumpkins, and ghouls leering at you.
Artscape DIY Creative Placemaking notes that “creative placemaking can be used by communities to engage residents locally, enhance public space and contribute to healthy sustainable communities. It is a strategy to improve community well-being and prosperity while also fostering conditions for cities to define, draw attention to and distinguish themselves on a global scale.” Graffiti seems to act as a tool for placemaking in LIC. The neighborhood became known for its graffiti not only among locals but also to people all over the world because of 5Pointz.
5Pointz was a 200,000-square-foot factory building, located at 45-46 Davis Street in Long Island City, that served as a curated mural space for graffiti artists. It featured hundreds of murals created by artists from across the five boroughs; in fact, it was called 5Pointz because it united artists from all the boroughs and beyond. The history of 5Pointz dates back to over 40 years ago when Jerry Wolkoff bought the building but never did anything with it. Then in the 1990s, he was approached by a group that cleans illegal graffiti off walls in the city, asking if the warehouse could serve as a safe space for graffiti artists to create their work. Wolkoff Agreed and 5Pointz flourished into a local and global community space with a strong sense of place.
5Pointz was once a landmark in LIC that defined the artistic and local community. It engaged local residents visually and physically; the space was often used to raise awareness about various issues and to inspire youth. Most importantly, it distinguished LIC on a global scale; people from all over the city and the world knew about the beautiful murals and community that could be found in LIC. Even so, the tide of gentrification slowly overtook the area, and in November 2014 5Pointz was demolished to be replaced by two apartment towers. This was devastating for the artists and the community on many fronts. Firstly, the warehouse was the location of Crane Street Studios, which offered below-market rent for studio space. Thus when the factory was demolished, artists lost inexpensive studios and one of the last cheap legal mural sites. The community also lost a defining feature of their neighborhood that served as a kind of social center, replaced by a mundane, placeless, glass-box of an apartment building. Lastly, 5Pointz was a big part of the 7 train rider community; it was an exciting sight to see on your way to and from work every day, making people look up from their phones momentarily.
This type of destruction of landscapes with a strong sense of place has become common in New York City. The former curator of 5Pointz, Meres One, makes an interesting observation about the state of the city and how placemaking is a thing of the past. He notes, “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.” When I ride the 7 train to work and it emerges above ground, all I see is an impersonal construction project slowly growing taller and taller. It fills me with grief because LIC is just turning into another oppressive, high rise residential community. Placemaking must become more highly prioritized to preserve the liveliness and culture of New York City; this may not be efficient or profitable, but it’s what is necessary to keep the city from fading to grey.