With the wind blowing, people huddled in circles to keep their candles from going out. The free floaters mostly stayed against the wall; they were scrawling on the blank posters 5 Pointz volunteers put up over the freshly painted stone. The drawings and notes were to stay strictly on the posters, lest the messages, most of them damning father-son owners Jerry and David Wolkoff, be called graffiti. After all, the Wolkoffs had just spent thousands of dollars white-washing the structure to get rid of decades’ worth of tags.
For the most part the scene was quiet, but the hushed voices belied the roiling anger at the whitewashing of 5 Pointz, a monument to and museum of New York’s graffiti and street art cultures. A paint crew hired by the Wolkoffs buffed the structure in the early morning hours on Tuesday. They covered the structure from floor to ceiling in a layer of white paint thick enough to conceal that there had ever been graffiti there.
As sudden as the whitewash was, 5 Pointz was not the victim of a predatory developer or real estate speculator looking north from Williamsburg. Not exactly, anyway. The building has been owned by the Wolkoff’s since the 1971, before it was the “mecca” for street art it’s known for today. The family had allowed artists to use the warehouse regardless.
Rumors that the Wolkoffs would tear down 5 Pointz began swirling as far back as 2011, when the elder Wolkoff reportedly entered into conversations with the city planning agency about the potential for new development.
Rumor it remained until summer 2012, when Jerry Wolkoff presented Community Board 2 with a plan to demolish the old warehouse and replace it with high-rise luxury condos.
The announcement tipped off a yearlong battle between the Wolkoffs and 5 Pointz supporters, playing out the familiar anxieties of neighborhood gentrification. At various times in the last year, community backlash succeeded in extracting promises of substantially more affordable housing and studio space than the initial plan contained.
But opposition to the development continued to mount, and on October 10 5 Pointz sued for a temporary restraining order against the Wolkoffs, which was granted, then extended, then finally removed November 13 when a federal judge ruled that he lacked the power to grant an injunction to stop the Wolkoffs.
Up until last weekend, there was hope that 5 Pointz could earn recognition as a historic landmark, permanently derailing the demolition. Supporters held a rally at the site to collect landmark petitions, reaching over 20,000 in all. But paint crews got there first.
According to Jerry Wolkoff, the whitewash under cover of night was meant as a mercy to 5 Pointz supporters, not an attempt to sabotage the historic landmark petition. He told the New York Times that watching bulldozers destroy the art would be “torture”.
“I am telling you, I did not like what they did — I loved what they did,” Wolkoff told the Times. “I cried this morning, I swear to you.”
“The only tears he possibly had this morning were tears of joy,” snarled Marie Cecile Flageul, a 5 Pointz spokesperson and an outspoken opponent of the Wolkoffs’ plans, to vigil attendees.
In between re-lighting her cigarette with a votive candle, Flageul inveighed against the painting over of 5 Pointz well ahead of its demolition. “If he really cared, why did he deprive the public two months of enjoyment?”
When asked whether 5 Pointz supporters would become violent, Flageul condemned violence on behalf of the site, then added: “Jerry Wolkoff just committed the biggest genocide of art in the 21st century.”
Standing elsewhere in the crowd was Meres One, curator and long-time contributor at 5 Pointz. He was obviously sick of talking to reporters — he told the Voice as much. But when given the chance, Meres, whose given name is Jonathan Cohen, condemned the Wolkoffs (“he’ll be remembered for the piece of trash he is”), local councilman and city Cultural Affairs Committee chair Jimmy Van Bramer (“you don’t have the right to say you represent the arts”), and fairweather support for street art in a single jeremiad over the impending closure.
“People only come out here when [5 Pointz] is in the media,” he said, staring off into the distance. “Other than that they come out here for Banksy. I’m sick of it.”
The Voice found Jesus NYC — he refused to give his last name — and his girlfriend Rose Kearns watching from the margins of the vigil. Jesus began writing at 5 Pointz in high school.
“I talked to Meres, and he used to let me do it,” explained Jesus. “I would paint and climb through the windows and hang out.”
“This was his start,” Rose noted, adding that Jesus went on to art school and continues to participate in the 5 Pointz community.
Now 31, Jesus stayed in touch with Meres and comes back to 5 Pointz every now and again, bringing along Kearns and friends. He brought Kearns here for her birthday, giving her a lesson in taking art out of the studio. “You gotta feel how it feels to do it outside,” he explained.
He pointed to all the spots on the now-blank wall where he’d tagged and explored the building, noting, finally, “No more climbing through the windows over here.”