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Eye on the News

Matthew Hennessey
What Vandals Call Vandalism
The whitewashing of 5Pointz sparks outrage from the usual quarters.
21 November 2013

New York’s high priests of hipsterdom awoke Tuesday morning to find their temple destroyed. A block of colorful warehouses in Long Island City that had become a public canvas for the city’s aerosol artists and a sacred shrine for graffiti lovers was whitewashed by its owners overnight. Developers Jerry and David Wolkoff announced that they will demolish the buildings—known as 5Pointz—next year and replace them with a $400 million high-rise tower containing condos and shops. “I own the property and I have the right to paint over it,” said Jerry Wolkoff.

In predictable fashion, Gotham’s spray-can vandals and their admirers decried the move as the heartless act of greedy capitalists. The New York Times reported that those participating in a candlelight vigil at the site on Tuesday “reeled in shock” at what one mourner called “a really big slap in the face” to as many as 1,500 street artists whose work was erased. French-born artist Marie Cecile Flageul told a reporter for 1010 WINS that the Wolkoffs’ act was equivalent to “murder” and “genocide.” Pierre Fillet, also French and also an artist, told the New York Daily News, “This is vandalism.”

That reaction was common on Twitter as well, especially among those with no memory of an earlier era, when New Yorkers didn’t find graffiti charming. “So sad to see graffiti mecca #5Pointz painted white to prep for luxury condos,” tweeted journalist Marcus Baram, a former senior editor at the Huffington Post whose Facebook page notes that he’s from Boston. BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray tweeted a link to the story, adding “I can’t believe this is really happening.” A 2012 profile in Glamour notes that Massachusetts-born Gray is 23 and moved to New York “a few years ago to study at NYU, yet is already on her second full-time journalism gig.” Some acknowledged that the owners had a right to paint their property, but asserted heretofore unknown rights of their own. “#5Pointz painted white over night. I know the bldg had an owner, but it was our view,” tweeted Greg Mocker, a television reporter with local station WPIX. Mocker’s online bio says he moved to New York in 2008.

Maybe, to put a different spin on mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s favorite image, there really are two New Yorks—the city that remembers how graffiti contributed to the high crime and lawless atmosphere of the pre-Giuliani/Bloomberg-era, and the one that doesn’t. The first New York looks at the kaleidoscopic walls of 5Pointz and feels a chill run down its spine. The second sees 5Pointz and thinks, “This is what makes New York special.” The first asserts that the city has an obligation to protect the rights of property owners. The second thinks that defacing private property is a consequence-free creative choice.

As mayor-elect of the largest city in the United States, de Blasio now inherits the responsibility to govern both New Yorks. Luckily for him, graffiti is not a new public policy issue. As Heather Mac Donald has noted, conquering the graffiti problem in New York’s blighted and dangerous subway system in the 1980s was key to rescuing the city from the chaos that had engulfed it in the 1960s and 1970s. “The final elimination of subway graffiti in 1989 was the precondition for the reincarnation of New York in the 1990s as the embodiment of urban cool,” she wrote in 2011. Without that reincarnation, 22-year-old aspiring reporters from Massachusetts and hyperbolic French artists may never have felt comfortable migrating to a city where a developer could consider investing in a luxury building in Long Island City—a neighborhood long given over to factories and warehouses.

The outrage of the hipsters and the media class signifies more than just their misguided preference for living in a city with some “grit” to it. Graffiti artists and their supporters, Mac Donald rightly observes, “often dress up their disregard for others as grand political gesture. Naturally, they turn to that tired trope of privileged Western leftists: the evil of business.” This is the heart of the 5Pointz drama, for those ruing its loss are as offended by the “desecration” of its murals as they are by the crass commercialism of the development plan. One online commenter chalked the developer’s move up to nothing more than “banal greed.” Another said, “It’s all about greedy capitalists”—ignoring the probability that the truly greedy capitalist would have sold the murals on the doomed building’s walls instead of painting over them.

Here’s an idea. If Bill de Blasio wants to bridge the divide between these two New Yorks, he could offer the street artists and hipsters his beautiful Brooklyn brownstone to use as their new temple. I’m sure his neighbors won’t mind.

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