Nicole Gagne doesn’t remember the fall itself, or any of the month that followed. She spent almost all of it in a hospital bed, pumped full of a painkiller that had the happy side effect of causing temporary amnesia.
So she doesn’t remember the concrete staircase dissolving under the weight of her step. She doesn’t remember dropping three and a half floors, or landing on her side, wedged between two piles of wooden pallets. And she doesn’t remember being buried under the spall and rebar that fell more slowly than she did.
Gagne had complained to the building’s super about the pallets the day before. That she remembers. They had been sitting in that corner of the otherwise bare cement courtyard for weeks, maybe even months. Too long, in any case. The super asked the pallets’ owners, proprietors of a T-shirt manufacturing business on the first floor, to remove them an hour before Gagne fell. They didn’t, and it is probably the only reason she is still alive.
She doesn’t remember the fire department arriving on the scene, or the firefighters setting up airbags to lift the rubble off of her one piece at a time. She doesn’t remember clawing at the breathing tube that was inserted into her throat, pulling it out and damaging her vocal cords.
Debra Hampton does remember. All of it. Hampton, Gagne’s friend, rented a space across the hall from her inside Crane Street Studios, the artists’ workplaces that used to occupy five floors of the drafty, dilapidated former Neptune Water Meter factory complex that most people know as 5 Pointz: Long Island City’s world-famous graffiti temple.
Hampton had four interns working with her that day. Two of them had bounded up the stairs, balancing an order of coffee between them, just 10 minutes before Gagne walked out of her own studio and started down the stairs.
The staircase was narrow — just concrete steps and a metal railing — but, outlined in graffiti, it cast an outsized shadow diagonally across the building from the fifth floor all the way down to street level. It wasn’t the only means of getting from one floor to another (there was another set of stairs on the inside, as well as a fussy freight elevator), but it was the fastest way to get from any floor to the Court Street subway station across the street. (That stop services the 7 train, the line that curves past the old Neptune complex’s interconnected technicolor structures on its way to and from Manhattan, like a Disneyland ride for urban aesthetes.)
Hampton remembers the sound of the collapsing staircase (“a big explosion,” she calls it) and recalls looking out her window, seeing that the concrete landing outside her studio was gone. Torn clean off the building. The aerosol imprint was still there, but the platform and a large section of the steps themselves were not.
She looked up the staircase, toward the fifth floor, and saw two terrified tourists, Italian teenagers, stranded one landing above. “They had to come down the stairs and into my door — there were no stairs below [the fourth floor],” Gagne says.
Thinking about it now, she adds, those stairs “were crawling with tourists and teenagers all the time. All the time.” Several tour buses a day would deposit a new crop of international visitors at the 5 Pointz loading dock, usually for a tandem visit to MoMA PS1, located directly across the street.
The stairs, Hampton says, “seemed really kind of old and ragged, but we all kind of trusted that nobody would ever let something that awful happen. It was like the rest of the building — it looked very kind of D.I.Y., and, you know, ragtaggy, but that was part of its charm.”
Jerry Wolkoff, the building’s owner, climbed the stairs himself just two days before they collapsed. The graffiti artists who christened Wolkoff’s building “5 Pointz” — signifying “the five boroughs coming together as one” — pointed out in legal papers filed last year that British singer Joss Stone filmed the video for her single “Tell Me ‘Bout It” on those stairs in 2006.
These are the stairs:
The video is on YouTube. You can cue it up and see Stone dancing alone on the staircase, belting the song’s verses and cooing its choruses. And you can imagine the media firestorm that would have engulfed Wolkoff if the staircase had fallen out from underneath Stone’s feet on that day — if it had happened in front of a visiting film crew instead of a couple of Italian tourists on a languid April evening two and a half years later.
If the stairs had fallen during filming, the 5 Pointz artists probably would not have invoked the video in their argument to keep the derelict building open and operating for graffiti artists. It was touted as an example of the building’s artistic importance in an unsuccessful Visual Artists Rights Act complaint the street artists filed against Wolkoff last fall. The complaint was part of a last-ditch effort to prevent him from tearing down the building and erecting a pair of high-rise apartment complexes in its place.
A divide always existed between the artists who painted the outer walls of the building and the studio artists who rented space on the inside. The street artists were the ones who gave 5 Pointz its iconic look. For years the graffiti that covered the outside walls made the old Neptune building one of the most recognizable structures in the outer boroughs. But the renters who worked inside were more serious-minded. As Henry Chung, one of the studio artists, explains: “When people say, ‘Oh, you were in the 5 Pointz building,’ It’s, like, no, 5 Pointz was a group of kids that was spray-painting on the outside.”
But the key difference between the two camps didn’t really surface until years after the studio artists had moved out: As late as 2013, the street artists still thought there was something left to save. But for the artists on the inside, it was all over at 5:15 p.m. on April 10, 2009 — the day Nicole Gagne fell.
In the summer and fall of 2013, the fight to “Save 5 Pointz” transmuted from a loosely organized civic campaign to a popular movement with so much momentum that you can still see its tagline scrawled on lampposts and on the insides of subway cars.
In the sunset of Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term as mayor, the story, as related via blog posts and newspaper articles, fit a tidy narrative: neighborhood is rezoned; artists and poor people are pushed out; decades-old buildings are demolished; luxe condos rise in their place.
5 Pointz, a candy-coated shell of a long-shuttered factory, provided the perfect test: Are you for old New York or new New York? For art, or for condos?
But few of the media reports at the time acknowledged the fact that for years the building, in addition to acting as a canvas for graffiti artists, was the home of an entire ecosystem of artists, workers, and a ragtag collection of fledgling businesses. There was a clothing company that employed women who sat at rows of sewing machines churning out Powerpuff Girls T-shirts; an apparent DVD bootlegging operation; a stable of halal carts; a taxi dispatcher; and, somewhat ironically, an elevator repairman.
For the most part, those artists and entrepreneurs who worked inside the building kept quiet as the fight over 5 Pointz raged on. For one thing, they’d already lived through the experience of being kicked out of the building once, and they knew how it ended. Others may have agreed, in theory, with the argument for preserving the building but considered it futile to keep on fighting to save it. The reason 5 Pointz existed in the first place was because the building was slated to be demolished.
“Like, I want to save 5 Pointz, but 5 Pointz has to save itself by getting new wall space,” says Greg Vande Hey, whose collective, Freestyle Arts Association, rented space in the building for 10 years. “The building was going to get torn down [and] they’re trying to landmark it. Stop it. It was all just kind of nonsense to me. You’re spending all this energy? You should be spending that energy on finding new wall space.”
Renzo Ortega, a painter who rented space in the building for almost a decade, remembers watching uncomfortably as the rhetoric around the campaign to save the building heated up and commenters on social media began attacking Wolkoff personally. “Everyone got really violent in insulting [Wolkoff],” Ortega says. “I can understand how [the graffiti artists] feel about it, but in the end it was his building.”
Wolkoff’s former tenants say he never made secret his intention to develop the property. “I knew the building was going to be destroyed the minute we signed our lease in 1999. They [had] told us already it was going to be gone,” Vande Hey says.
The common refrain, Vande Hey and his partner, Aaron Redlin, remember, was that any arrangement would only last two years.
“Two years, they kept saying that,” Vande Hey says. “That’s what developers do. They move artists into neighborhoods, kind of prop them up, give them affordable rent for, like, a minute, and then as soon as they can, they knock it down and build a big building. But that’s New York City.”
Vande Hey and Redlin weren’t outliers: Wolkoff tells the Voice that anyone who signed a lease on a studio space would have been apprised of his plans for the building because it was written into the lease agreement. Every rental contract had the same terms: $1 per square foot, and that rate never rose for the duration of the lease. And, Wolkoff says, “I had a clause there, like a demolition clause, [so I could] cancel their lease if I was going to build something.”
The graffiti artists, of course, never signed a lease. They weren’t charged anything to paint on the building. But an expiration date was implicit in the original agreement between Wolkoff and Pat DiLillo, the man who first invited graffiti artists to exhibit their work on the Neptune building — then dubbed the Phun Phactory — back in 1993.
“[Wolkoff] told him at the time, ‘Yeah, take it, do whatever you want. We’re going to get rid of this building anyway,’ ” says Redlin, who knew DiLillo from his own time in the building. “From the get-go it was, like, ‘Yes, of course, use the wall space, get paint on it.’ But now they’re trying to blame him.”
For almost as long as Long Island City has existed, it has been considered New York’s next “hot” neighborhood. It was incorporated in 1898, and by 1929 the New York Regional Plan Association (an independent “urban research and advocacy organization” that still exists today) was speaking in glowing terms of its development potential. In 1980, New York declared it the next SoHo, an “oil field” for real estate investors.
The prognosticating persisted through the 1990s, through the dawn of the millennium, and even into this year. In January, when DNAinfo published its 14 predictions for the New York City housing market in 2014, number 10 was “Long Island City will become the next ‘It’ neighborhood.” The story quoted a broker who said, “I think it’s the next DUMBO to come, possibly.”
But Long Island City never really took off the way the real estate experts predicted. More than one declared it would become a destination for artists being priced out of Lower Manhattan in the early 1990s. But those artists went to Brooklyn instead — specifically, to Williamsburg. In 1999, around the time artists were taking up residence inside the 5 Pointz building, the New York Times ran an item that questioned how Long Island City had ended up eating Williamsburg’s dust, in terms of neighborhood cachet. (The short answer: “Real estate forces, transportation access, and geography,” although “intangible forces, like the self-driven nature of a bohemia” were also said to have played a role.)
When, in the late-2000s, Williamsburg began making its inevitable transformation from artist enclave to expensive playground for newly wealthy 30-somethings, the same “bohemians” responsible for its rise began migrating to other up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and DUMBO. Again, Long Island City failed to reap any significant benefits from all the hype about its cheap rents, killer views, and transit benefits — just one stop from Manhattan!
Wolkoff saw potential in Long Island City when, in 1971, he purchased the Neptune factory on Jackson Avenue, between Davis and Crane streets. Born in Brownsville and raised by a single mother on home relief (a predecessor to welfare), Wolkoff went to work at age 11, brushing lint off suits at a Brooklyn department store for $16.50 per week. After that, he got into floor waxing, and eventually started his own business. He used the money he made by selling that company to start investing in real estate.
When he saw the Verrazano Bridge being built in the early ’60s, Wolkoff purchased his first properties on Staten Island. He believes that for a time he was the largest property holder in the borough. (He even built and owned the island’s sewage plant.)
In 1990, the year Citicorp erected its boxy, oversized, turquoise tower at One Court Square, Wolkoff saw what he thought was a similar opportunity to the one he’d seized on Staten Island. Until the year before, the factory had just one major tenant, a company called Recoton, which made needles for record players. When the popularity of records waned, the company began making 8-track accessories, then CB radios, and eventually gold-plated VCR cables. In 1989, Recoton decamped to Central Florida, leaving Wolkoff’s building essentially empty.
Now 77, Wolkoff is a spry, grandfatherly type with white hair and whiter teeth. His face brightens when he recalls the construction of the Citicorp tower — “that beautiful building,” he says of it. When it was built, Wolkoff recalls, “I said, ‘Oh! Now this area is going to change.’ ” He immediately began making plans to build his own one-million-square-foot office tower.
But it wasn’t until the business- and development-minded administration of Mayor Bloomberg more than 10 years later that the city got around to rezoning Long Island City’s commercial area in a way that made it more attractive to businesses like the ones Wolkoff and others hoped to lure across the East River.
Wolkoff wasn’t the only one who believed the Citicorp tower signaled that Long Island City’s moment had finally come. “When that was built, it was commonly thought that its construction would herald a boom of following projects,” says Dan Miner, who spent 13 years working for the Long Island Business and Development Corporation. “Didn’t happen.”
For whatever reason, Miner says, “[the] tower ended up being isolated for a very long time.” And what that meant for developers like Wolkoff was that they just had to sit on their property and take a loss for a while.
In 1993, three years after the completion of the tower, Wolkoff was approached by Pat DiLillo, whom Wolkoff knew as the man who would “go around washing off the graffiti from other people’s buildings.” DiLillo had a proposition: He had developed a rapport with the artists whose work it was his job to destroy, and he asked Wolkoff how he would feel about letting them use the walls of the Neptune building to display their work. Wolkoff agreed but with a few ground rules: no politics, no porn, and nothing anti-religious. Otherwise the artists would have free reign.
With DiLillo spreading the word, street artists quickly began coming to the building, Wolkoff says, “One after the other after the other. And I liked what they did, so I said, OK, take some more space, take some more space, take some more space. They were painting over one another continuously, so I gave them more space and it just — just grew.” (DiLillo could not be reached for comment despite several attempts by the Voice to contact him.)
A few years later, the building’s interior was colonized in much the same fashion. It started in 1997 when Israeli artist Yigal Ozeri was looking for storage space. A mutual friend inquired if he might use some space inside Wolkoff’s building. “Before I knew it, I had about a half a dozen artists in there just warehousing,” Wolkoff says. He set up temporary walls (they stopped a few feet short of the ceiling because he didn’t want to spend money installing air ducts), took out the showers (to discourage artists from squatting), and started renting out the new, partitioned units as makeshift studios.
All this history Wolkoff recounts from a well-appointed room in a squat, concrete bunker of a building across the street from a golf course he owns on Long Island. The waiting room table is piled high with golf magazines, and the atrium is filled with framed newspaper items about properties he either owns or built. One is a full-page piece that ran in the Daily News in ’99: “ART COLONY IS TAKING ROOT: Influx of artists at former factory remakes LIC area.”
“Just as former factories in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, became artist havens in recent years, the area is beginning to attract more ‘creative types’ from Manhattan,” the article reads. It quotes Tom Knierim, the executive director of Long Island City Business Development Corp., commending the “fantastic” idea to turn a “less desirable” building into artists’ studios.
The Crane Street Studios certainly appeared less than desirable at first glance. The already drafty warehouse was often made even breezier by the graffiti artists who would throw their spent aerosol cans through the windows, which gave pigeons the opportunity to nest indoors. And the chemical fumes wafting in from outside fried some nerves, too. “We’d be breathing it in, and it was affecting, not just us, but our artwork,” Chung says. But most who worked inside the Neptune building remember it as the best working environment they’d ever had.
“People always talk about the outside of the space bursting with color and creativity. But to me, the inside of the space was really that,” says Brooke Baxter, an artist who came to the building after answering a Craigslist ad. She would later found the legendary Williamsburg music venue Glasslands. “When I think about things [the other artists] said to me, books I read, and then discussed, paintings I saw — I’ve never met such an incredible group of individuals working in one space.”
The raw, unfinished interior layout imbued the space with a kind of intimacy — aided by the temporary walls that, because they didn’t reach to the ceiling, allowed sound to travel through the studios. “If someone was in the other studio having sex, you would hear it; if someone was in the other studio next to you playing music, you would hear it; if someone was in the other studio arguing, you would hear it,” King Famous, a rapper who lived and worked in one of the studios in the early 2000s, says.
The building was not zoned to be residential space, but, despite Wolkoff’s best efforts, many of the artists did live there. The absence of showers was not an effective deterrent. “We would shower in the slop sinks,” Baxter recalls of the six months she lived there with her boyfriend. They had everything they needed: a couple hundred square feet, a hot plate, and a shitty black-and-white TV.
In the basement, there was a half-pipe and an open floor that was used as an indoor soccer field. Tucked into a corner of the building was an Irish pub called the Shannon Pot, where the Freestyle folks hosted an open mic every month.
But, for the artists, the building’s best feature was the price. Rent was cheap enough that most tenants didn’t have to work two or three jobs to afford their own space. Instead, they could use that time working on their art and getting to know their like-minded neighbors.
Crane Street acted as an incubator for several artists who would go on to high-profile careers. Ozeri — who would later start Mana Contemporary, a 1.5-million-square-foot artists’ complex in Newark, N.J. — credits Wolkoff for giving him the opportunity to focus on his art in the early years. “I’m a well-known artist today — a famous artist — but he helped me in the beginning,” he says. “It’s a lot to help an artist to give studio for free, for two or three years, and not to raise the fee.”
At its peak, Wolkoff estimates that about 100 artists with studios were working in his building. The artists themselves believe that around the time of the stairwell collapse in 2009 the number of artists who either had a studio or a share of a studio was closer to 400.
Brett Doar got his start at the Crane Street Studios and today is a prominent artist whose signature Rube Goldberg contraptions have appeared in high-profile ad campaigns, a music video by the band OK Go, and on The Colbert Report. But he says he didn’t truly consider himself an “artist” until he participated in the renowned Crane Street open studios — the twice-yearly weekend events when the building’s studio doors were opened to the public. At first, he hid out from the visitors roaming throughout the building. But eventually, he says, “People started looking in and started actually appreciating what I was doing, and that was so, so important. I think that is something that every aspiring creative person needs.”
In 2004, one of the visitors who walked into Doar’s space during an open studio was Nicole Gagne, a jewelry designer who had just gone through a divorce. She was looking for a studio outside of the Hell’s Kitchen loft where she lived and worked, and almost as soon as she stepped into Crane Street Studios, she says, she knew she needed to be a part of it.
“The energy in that place was just so creative and so energetic,” she recalls. “It was alive, almost tangible. It felt like you could touch the air. I saw people, and I saw how serious they were about their work, and it was kind of the first time that I’d ever been to an open studio like that.”
Until Gagne arrived at Crane Street, the open studios were actually pretty disorganized, plagued by a kind of chronic fatigue. “Each person that would organize the next open studios would get exhausted and say ‘I can’t do this again,’ and then somebody else would take it over,” she says.
About a year and a half after she moved in, Gagne started the Crane Street Artists Association, a collective that took responsibility for the events, which offered artists the opportunity to benefit from the excitement that finally seemed to be building around the Long Island City artistic community.
For most of them, the open studios weren’t big moneymakers, but they yielded other benefits. Some were invited to participate in larger shows or offered teaching positions, which seemed to indicate that the neighborhood was actually gaining the kind of artistic reputation that had been predicted for decades.
“Actually, it was kind of strange,” Vande Hey says. “Right when the stairway fell, there was, for the first time, real momentum in the art community in Long Island City.”
After firefighters successfully extricated Gagne from beneath the fragments of staircase, the jewelry designer was taken to the hospital, where, doctors would later tell her, she was in surgery for so long that they were worried they wouldn’t be able to sew her back up.
Her tailbone was broken (there’s a three-inch screw in there now), her rib cage was fractured, her lung was punctured, as was her diaphragm. Her spleen had exploded, requiring doctors to remove it completely. Her jaw was broken on the left side. Her wedding ring finger was also broken. She would spend a total of five weeks in the ICU, two months in the hospital, and a year in physical therapy.
The day of the accident, fire officials escorted inspectors from the New York City Department of Buildings through the Crane Street building’s five floors. They noted a long list of violations: “Illegal occupancy” (fine: $2,400), “work without a permit” ($1,600) and four “Failure to maintains” ($1,000 apiece) and issued a vacate order for the building that day.
Wolkoff met with the renters afterward, and assured them that the closure was only temporary. He just needed a little bit of time to make the necessary repairs, he told them. Then months went by.
Throughout it all, no one spoke with the press. “The media was pretty much shut out from the details,” Chung says. For the most part, it was out of respect for Gagne’s family. But the decision to keep quiet was also motivated by the fact that the artists didn’t want to jeopardize the sweet deal they had with Wolkoff by speaking publicly about the building’s deteriorating condition.
Instead, people traded rumors about the status of the building in Yahoo! groups and swapped leads on new studio space in email chains. And some of them continued to sneak into the building to work but only during the daytime, when they wouldn’t give away their presence by using lights.
“For a while the building was padlocked, and then it got reopened and there were police stationed in front of it,” Chung recalls. “It was a really anxious time, an uncertain time.”
Finally, in July 2009, three months after the stairs collapsed, Wolkoff informed tenants they would need to be out of the building by August. DOB officials had told him it would take “millions of dollars” to bring the building up to code.
Some people blamed Gagne for losing their studio space, a view that only became more entrenched when she retained a lawyer and pursued legal action against Wolkoff. In August 2009, her lawyers filed a lawsuit seeking $100,000,000. The suit was ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, but Gagne’s lawyer, Todd Strier, characterized it as a “very successful” settlement.
Most of the artists just accepted that it was over, and returned to the building to clean out their spaces one last time.
After 10 years in the studios, Vande Hey says Freestyle’s space had become a repository for the props and videos of their performances. “We saved maybe 200, 300 pieces,” he says, adding that they probably threw away thousands more. “At a certain point, we just didn’t have time or didn’t want to pay to store it. We just kind of had to accept that it was the end of an era. We each took, like, five books and called it a day.”
With the help of a few friends, Gagne secured a new studio space in Red Hook. When she showed up to clear out her Crane Street space, some people asked if she was scared to be in the building. She said no: “The building didn’t hurt me,” she told them. “The building was like a hurt dog, a beat-down dog. It attacked, you know, because it was tired, and it was done.”
By the end of August, all the artists had packed up and scattered to new spaces as close as Bushwick or upstate New York, and as faraway as Germany or Korea. A few stayed in Long Island City, and those who did say the community it is still kind of searching for its place.
Debra Hampton is one of them. Hampton moved into the Wills Building after leaving Crane Street. She still works there. “We’re constantly in the shadow of Brooklyn,” she says. “I don’t go to the Long Island City Open Studios, but I did go to the Bushwick Open Studios. For better or worse, it’s a different scene, and many of my friends are over there.”
If you walk past 5 Pointz today, you can still see the mark the street artists left on the building over the years. Ghosts of some of the 24 murals the 5 Pointz artists sued under VARA to protect — Francisco Fernandez’s “Dream of Oil,” Spagnola’s “Tiger” — are still barely visible beneath a hastily applied coat of flat, white paint. On top of it, on the corner of the building nearest the corner of Jackson and Davis, is a message scribbled in black marker: FUCK U WYCOF.
It has been eight months since the whitewashing, and there’s still no telling when the structure will actually come down. “We’re in the process of going for a demolition permit. It’s harder to get a demolition permit than a building permit,” Wolkoff says, shaking his head, exasperated. “[We] never anticipated the problems.”
Still, he’s optimistic he can get his planned mixed-use development built and opened in (you guessed it) about two years. “Probably by 2016,” he says. “That’s our goal.”
In addition to the 1,100 residential units and 50,000 square feet of commercial space, Wolkoff insists that the development will also be a home to the next generation of Long Island City artists — plans call for the two-tower complex to include 12,000 square feet of artist studios.