Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Altruistic Transgressive Action

It's here! Fordham Conversations, which I mentioned in my last post, aired at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. on Saturday on WFUV. Thank the maker for the Internet, right? I have to say, I'm really happy with how the whole thing turned out.

When I met up with Robin Shannon and David Storey at the studios at Rose Hill, we chatted for a full hour,  so I knew a lot would end up on the cutting floor. It would have been nice to delve more into my thesis, as that's what led Robin to me, but it's totally understandable that the focus was more on graffiti as a general topic. When you get into the weeds of something like I had to for this paper, it's easy to take for granted that everyone knows the difference between a tag and a throw up.

It was also really awesome to return to radio after what has essentially been a decade away from it. I graduated from St. John's University in 1997 with a degree in journalism, but before I cast my lot with (what were then dubbed) the ink-stained wretches, I worked for the radio station there, as a DJ and as music director. Even if this wasn't live, it was great fun to sound off on a fun topic I care deeply about. Would have preferred that I didn't say "that's something I can get behind" twice at the end, but that's just the perfectionist in me.

And how about Storey? Does he know his stuff or what? We had never met before this, but I felt like we we had a great rapport. He's obviously a lot better at deploying phrases such as "altruistic transgressive action," which I'd never heard of before but definitely agree with. And Robin was a great host who made us feel comfortable from the minute we sat down. The entire experience definitely made me want to do more publicity and talk about graffiti. I hope you'll give it a listen.

On a more somber note, rest in peace 5 Pointz. I'd always suspected you weren't long for this world, seeing it actually happen, well, there aren't enough expletives in my meager vocabulary to express the rage and sadness (rageness?) I'm feeling about your loss. I may have more to say on this later, after I've been able to process it further, but for now I'll just say that NYC is a lot more boring today than it was three days ago.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The difference between street art and graffiti

So WFUV's Robin Shannon got wind of my work on graffiti, and has asked me to talk to her, along with two others, about the difference between street art and graffiti for a show called Fordham Conversations. It’s an honor to be thought of when it comes to a topic like this, considering how many folks there are out there who can speak authoritatively on the topic.

Anyway, I was hedging as to whether to lend my voice to the project, and then went for a nice fast three mile run last night. Talk about a whirlwind of thoughts that crossed my mind!

Now, before I try to answer the question, I must note that Banksy is in town this month, promoting a show in rather hilarious fashion: Putting up pieces of “graffiti, which is latin for graffito, with an I,” along with a phone number leading to a recording that excoriates the hoity toity-ness of the art world. How fortuitous it is to talk about the difference between “street art” and graffiti when the most famous “street artist” is referring to his piece as graffiti?

Right, so there’s a couple of answers I would give, in no particular order.

Q: What’s the difference between street art and graffiti?

A: Well, that depends. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
You could say the same thing for art, and as I discovered in my interviews, you could interview ten different people about a mural, and get ten different opinions about whether it was any good, or if it was even art, and not vandalism. A better question might be, is it vandalism, or art?
Graffiti? Yeah, probably
Not street art?
A: Street art is something that people buy; graffiti is something that gets erased. The aforementioned Banksy is a perfect example, as I mentioned back in December, walls with his work have literally  been carved up and sold at galleries. You just don't hear of the same thing happening with traditional graffiti anymore, mostly because, well, who the hell knows why. Maybe the traditional graffiti mural is just so well known and ubiquitous, it doesn't generate the same sort of feverish insanity?

A: To a cop, nothing. If it's illegal, it's illegal, and you can be arrested for it. To a building owner, also, nothing. I've seen countless times where owners buff art that has no relation to the traditional tags, throw ups and pieces that define what the public considers to be graffiti.
Alas, gone from Red Hook
A: Graffiti is done with spray paint, markers and stickers; street art is everything else, like wheat pastes, yarn, and chalk drawings. Oh, but then there are those times a graffiti artist like REVS distributes iron sculptures of his tag in out of the way locales.
Does that look like spray paint to you/?
A: No, wait, graffiti is text-based, and street art is pictures. If that's true, there are an awful lot of graffiti artists who have unwittingly done street art in their murals.

Say hello to my little friend, Queens
A. Graffiti is old school; street art is a new phenomenon. This seems somewhat plausible, since guys like Shepard Fairey only burst onto the national scene in 2008 when he designed the HOPE poster for Barack Obama's campaign. Old school graffiti, with wild style lettering on the sides of subways, dates back to the 70's and 80's. Alas, to buy into this requires forgetting Keith Haring, who got his start by posting his work in New York City subways. By any measure, he would qualify today as a "street artist."

A. Graffiti is done in poor areas; street art is done in rich areas. Ah, now this is more interesting, isn't it? I can't say I've been to a ton of poor neighborhoods in New York, but when I think of the few that I have been to, there is something to this. You can find lots of graffiti and street art in wealthy places like SoHo and DUMBO, for instance, but head up to Hunts Point in the Bronx or out to Jamaica, Queens, and you can be pretty certain that the only adornment you'll find will be traditional spray paint-based graffiti. To every rule there is an exception, of course; I've seen RAE sculptures in the not quite gentrified area of Bed-Stuy.

Which brings me to my final possible answer:
A: Graffiti is local; street art is international. Eh, sort of? It's awfully hard to make that case when an art form (graffiti) that started locally has gone world wide, and artists regularly travel here from across the globe to ply their craft on NYC walls. I would venture that in areas that are low visibility, either geographically (Hello Staten Island!) or socio-economically, graffiti, in the traditional sense, is the outlet of choice. If you're aspiring to be the next big thing in street art, you're not going to plant your artistic flag on Third Avenue in Sunset Park, but if that's your neck of the woods and you're searching for an outlet to make your mark, well, there are tons of nooks and crannies beneath the BQE over there.

Stay tuned for more on Fordham Conversations. Can't wait!

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Pitch

Hey, ya like this? When I was a kid, we used to say stuff like this was "ill". Do kids still say that sort of thing? I have no idea, but I think we should bring back the term, if for no other reason that we could maybe hear You Be Illin' on the radio again. Ah well, one can always dream...

Speaking of dreaming, the truly hard work has commenced as far as the thesis is concerned. It's done, but at the moment, it's still just a PDF sitting on the hard drives of myself, a few friends, family, and Fordham (who will eventually make it available here). What good is that though?

So I've begun poking around looking for someone to publish this thing. One of the first problems I ran into was that many journals have word count limits. Public Art Dialogue, which was suggested to me by the fellow who runs Vandalog, for instance, has an 8,000 word limit for submissions to theirs. When I did a word count on my opus, I came out with 41,186 words. Yowza!

Now, granted, this includes appendixes, the bibliography and a whole chapter on 5 Pointz that can easily be cut, as it's more or less bonus material. But still. How the HELL does one cut that down to 8,000 words? Forget cutting to the bone; that feels like I'd be cutting it down to a shadow.

Then there's the issue of who would want to publish such a thing? It's a scholarly piece of writing, but not in the strictest sense, as I've been told my tone is much more colloquial than what is expected for peer-reviewed journals. But also it's not really the kind of work you see in popular publishing either, as it's not a picture book. Well, it does have nearly 80 pictures, so that helps!

Since this is all so new to me, I've been reaching out to as many people as I can think of who might know someone who knows someone who might be willing to have a peek at my work. If I can whittle it down to a fifth of what it currently is, I will submit it to Public Art Dialogue. At the suggestion of Eric Felisbret at @149th St, I e-mailed four publishers; two never responded, and one said they really only do visual books. But another actually responded Wednesday (I'm not going to name them, lest I jinx myself) and asked me to submit, as part of a formal proposal:

-Table of Contents or outline
-A proposed introduction
-A few pages of text
-Six or so sample illustrations


Oh wait, I feel the need for a break here.
So yeah, it's very exciting. Also, predictably scary. I've been writing professionally for 15 years, but this is the first time I've put forth something this big. Given how many terrific books there are about graffiti and street art, it's easy to wonder where my work fits in the existing canon.

I've cut and pasted the Brooklyn chapter, the intro and a slightly pruned down table of contents into a proposal, and will throw in a few images from that case study, and tweak it all so it all seems to go together seemlessly. Then it's back to the old "What do you think of this?" query to a few trusted sources to see if it makes any sense.

Then, who knows? Maybe a book? Stay tuned.

Oh, and for what it's worth, the preceding images are courtesy of the Bushwick Collective and nearby surroundings. Do check them out. It's jaw droppingly good out there.

P.S. If you'd actually like to read the thesis, drop me a line at pverel(at) I'd be happy to send you a copy.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Geisha returns

When it comes to street art and graffiti, the Boerum Hill/Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn has nothing on places like Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed/Stuy, Dumbo or Long Island City. It's hip here, but not that hip, and in any case, brownstones don't make for the best canvasses.

But we do have enough of a scene to keep things interesting, if you pay close attention. A lot of what we have is pretty amateurish, and even the Zemo (thanks to my wife Kelly for casting the sole vote in my poll to determine his tag) is often seen as more of a work in progress, every so often, someone comes along who clearly has chops.

Back in May, we were graced with paste ups of "boom box Geisha."

On a phone booth
On the side of a building
On the side of an abandoned kiosk

On a mail box

On another mailbox

On a construction fence

They varied a bit, but you get the gist. Not bad, right? Kind of a nice addition to the tags. I prefer the red one on the green box. Being paste ups, they didn't last long, of course; I'd say by late June, most were gone.

But the Geishas have not left  for good. They returned last month, just as we were embarking on a pilgrimage to Martha's Vineyard for some much needed beach time. On July 18th, I walked out to get some bagels for the long ride, and found this at the entrance to my subway:

Yup, the Geisha is back, and she brought a friend. A rainbow tooth? A Pac-Man ghost? Not really sure what that little guy is, but he seems to go with this variation of the Geisha. Again, she's now ensconced all up and down Smith Street:
By the bagel joint (alas, this construction fence has been removed)
On another construction fence

Here tooth guy accompanies two of the Geishas with boomboxes on another one of the abandoned kiosks. Bonus view of ZEMO.

On the door of the Met Supermarket
Grateful that these whimsical characters have resurfaced in the hood, and intrigued to learn who might be behind them, I turned last night to Flickr and did a quick search for the words "boombox" and "geisha," and bingo; I found Geisha Boombox by Jonathan Wakuda Fischer. Seems Fischer is in town from Seattle for a job, and from the looks of his blog, he's quite the street art fan. Interestingly, you can also find these pieces on display in some very reputable places.

His second round on Smith Street has also yielded a definitively positive response from the locals, if this recent buff is any indication. Gone are the tags from Trooz and Merdz (whose work was, lets face it, pretty lacking), as well as the rainbow tooth. But the Geisha remains, alone in amidst a dark red sea, for who knows how long.
So cheers Jonathan! Thanks for visiting the neighborhood!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

And then there's this guy...

So now that we've visited the highest profile graffiti locale in NYC (Brooklyn Street Art just called 5 Pointz a "graffiti holy place" yesterday), I thought it would be fun to come back down to more low key, under the radar phenomenon.

Whereas the artists who write at 5 Pointz are in many cases internationally known, this guy or gal seems, so far as I can tell, is limited to a very small section of Brooklyn. Namely, mine. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, um....well, I have no idea what to call this dude. Z-Dog?
This was taken on the side of a construction fence along Smith Street, which is the major commercial thoroughfare that runs between the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill. The F and G trains rumble along underneath it, and on street level, it's chock full of boutiques, restaurants and bars. It's one of something like 35 versions of the same tag, which is always in the shape of a Z, (or maybe a 2?) and usually adorned with an eye, a mouth and some script inside.

Doors are a popular target
It's is a relatively new tag in the neighborhood, and it got my attention because like UFO, EKG and Jellyfish, it's obviously meant to be more graphical than textual. It's also fairly compact, which you can see compared to the purple tag above. It can be found along Smith Street, Court Street, and some of the side streets, as far up as Atlantic Avenue, and as far south as 9th Street. Basically, the three neighborhoods sometimes known by the horrible portmanteau BOCOCA, plus a few in Gowanus for good measure.

Mail boxes are also a popular canvas.
Unlike those three, however, this has letter scheme attached to it, and for the life of me, I have no idea what it says. I even asked Luna Park, who along with Becky Fuller, runs the site The Street Spot, if she knew what it said, and it was news to her too. Also unlike those three, whoever does this Z shaped tag is clearly experimenting along the way:
Look, I have a tail!
I'm duo tone!

And sometimes it's pretty obvious that he got spooked before he was able to finish.

If I had to guess, I'd say this is a kid from the neighborhood who is trying out his hand on something that is meant to stand out among the other tags in the neighborhood. And while I'm not terribly impressed with the script inside the outline, I'll admit I'm a sucker for a cute character, especially one who pops up in so many different places as I go for walks, pick up groceries or do whatever else it is I need to do outside of the confines of my apartment. It's also a reminder that one does not necessarily need a large space to make a mark.

So what do you think this guys' tag says? Thoughts? If you've just GOT to have more of this, there's lots more where that came from here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

5 Pointz (Pt. III)

So we've come to the end of the road for my essay on 5 Pointz. And as chance would have it, an article about the building's impending demolition has come to my attention. It's called LIC Parents: Demolish the 5 Pointz Building, Save the Graffiti, and and while the premise behind it is interesting, the tone of the letter is jaw dropping.

On the one hand, it's true that MoMa's high concrete walls would make a great canvas, both for their size and their visibility. So kudos for trying to think of something, anything that might preserve some of the painting. That said...

Um, don't you think maybe someone might have already thought of this? It's so obvious, how could it not have been brought up? Gee, I wonder why it might not have gone forward? Maybe because, large as the walls are, they're still a teeny tiny space compared to 5 Pointz. It would be like taking away someone's chalk board and handing them a note pad and then expecting them to be happy. Not that the folks from the LIC Parents' group are actually interested in promoting graffiti murals:

"Could there be a better synergy than between MOMA’s high concept art and mind-numbing street art of the aerosol kind?" (emphasis mine)

Uh yeah, mind numbing is the first thing that comes to mind when I see things like this:


Seriously, when your hostility to the form is that hard to repress, why even bother pretending you care?

Then there's this:

"They were generous (and a bit clever) by parceling up brittle floors with drafty windows into artist studios and renting the spaces at rates that few real businesses would be willing to pay."

Excuse me? Have they never heard of building owners renting out old buildings to artists until they can scrape together enough capital to renovate or replace the building and thus charge more rent? This aspect of 5 Pointz is not new or particularly unique. What is unique is the skin of the building, which I explore in more detail below.

All I can say is this is a depressing example of the ignorance that can be found in many corners the city. When you're in thrall with an art form, it's easy to assume that others dig it too. Alas...

Anyway, on to part III!

And what of the self-appointed curator of 5 Pointz? When asked why a place like 5 Pointz might be important, with its multitude of pieces presented together on nearly every conceivable space, MeresOne speaks not as someone concerned with the overall look; but as a promoter of a culture near and dear to him.

It’s about people, you know?  It’s more enjoyable; it’s kind of boring to [paint] alone. It’s not a gang or anything; when they paint, they just get together and do a wall.  (From an interview on Dec. 9. 2009)

Speaking with a croak that suggests he’s perhaps spent a few too many days painting without a mask, Meres also joked that one of the reasons why graffiti artists crave outdoor spaces like the walls of 5 Pointz and countless other mural locations over indoor spaces, is it’s better on their lungs. But of course, it’s really just a simple matter of being seen by an audience that’s either large or influential, the latter being other writers and fans of graffiti.

If you’re there, other people will be there, and they may say ‘Wow, there’s a piece where I didn’t expect to see it.’ I’ve done some spots where you’re out in the woods, like along in Jersey, you walk through a park, you ended up behind a factory. (From an interview on Dec. 9. 2009)

MeresOne estimated that 5 Pointz hosts 1,000 different pieces annually, with many writers returning to the space over and over. He didn’t say as much when he cited that number, but I suspect that doesn’t include installations such as one that I witnessed in person—A red and white blocky “Ricoh,” whose outline he painted on the southwest corner of the complex in December 2009.

Visitors take turn "tagging" the Rico logo
When I visited the site then, a group of about 25 visitors who’d piled out of a tour bus were taking turns filling in the outlines of the letters with red spray paint, while posing for pictures. “Tagging,” it seems, is something that people will pay for the privilege to do, as MeresOne said they’d compensated him for allowing them to try their hand at the famous 5 Pointz. After they left, he quickly spray painted over it again, creating a space ready for a new, less commercially infected creation.

MeresOne has wrestled with the competing interests of art and commerce, on the one hand trumpeting the validity of graffiti and the importance of 5 Pointz, and then accepting money from groups with no interest in creating art. He is not wrong to take money to support the greater cause of 5 Pointz, (as recently as November 8, 2012, 5 Pointz was featured on the TV show Project Runway) as he supervises the space for no salary.

When he explains the logic behind taking money from the likes of Ricoh, he pins some blame on Wolkoff’s greediness. This might come across as sour grapes from someone who has enjoyed a free lunch, but it’s worth noting that Wolkoff let the building fall into such disrepair that an outdoor stairwell collapsed in April, 2009, seriously injuring one of the Crane Street Studio’s artists. This lead to the eviction of the studio, and the building has sat largely empty ever since.

This raises the possibility that Wolkoff allowed 5 Pointz to fall into disrepair, thus making it easier to justify knocking it down and building something radically different in its place. In a sense, it’s a moot point though; the aforementioned rezoning gave an official blessing to the eventual demolition of the building. MeresOne may be living in a world where he has to cater to corporate tourists in order to keep his operation going, but Wolkoff is a developer in a town where, as noted earlier, the demand for housing is astronomical.

When he’s asked about the loss of the tenants of the Crane Street Studios, MeresOne is not terribly moved.

Q: Have things changed much since the closing of the studios inside 5 Pointz?
A: Not really. I don’t have to be as conscious if the radios are as loud outside, now we can turn the music on as loud as we want to. Otherwise it’s the same. There were some hypocrites who were two-faced, they’d say hello and then talk down on us and label us. So at times that would happen. 
(From an interview on Dec. 9. 2009)

If MeresOne is a little too caught up in the importance of his art to the exclusion of others, Wolkoff is much too confident that he can incorporate the past into the present. In a New York Times article about the impending demolition, he revealed that the space reserved for the graffiti artists would be a rear wall. This cannot be seen as anything more than a token gesture, akin to a scale model of the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel stored in the lobby of the Empire State Building. 
For the time being, the painting continues unabated, as writers can be seen daily adding layer upon ultrathin layer to the outside of a crumbling leviathan. The future of this state of affairs is in doubt, but even without the aid of architectural renderings of Wolkoff’s planned development, it’s possible to get a sense of say, the year 2016 by standing at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Crane Street and facing west toward the Citicorp Tower. Verticality is key, not spontaneity. Monetary capital will triumph here, as neighborhood cultural capital will be ceded to more trusted keepers at PS 1.

The past is the foreground; the future is the background.
 For now, the contrast between the squat, crumbling stone building with an ever changing skin and the cool, shimmering tall glass tower just down the street, can be illustrated neatly by Koolhaas’s explanation of the work of architect Hugh Ferriss, who first envisioned New York as the “mega-village.”

Ferriss’ most important contribution to the theory of Manhattan is exactly the creation of an illuminated night inside a cosmic container, the murky Ferrissian Void: A pitch black architectural womb that gives birth to the consecutive stages of the skyscraper in a sequence of sometimes over lapping pregnancies, and that promises ever new ones. 

One57, dubbed the "Billionaire's Haven," under construction
in July, 2012
It is important to note that this is a New York City where humble buildings such as 5 Pointz are 15 minutes from not only cultural beacons such as Carnegie Hall, but also out of this world havens where 11,000-square-foot duplex apartments now sell for $95 million. So it is depressingly understandable that Ferriss’ vision of a void that encompasses all of the Manhattan sky, just waiting to be taken over by successive skyscrapers, extends across the East River into Queens, a borough known more for its parkland and polyglot immigrant population than its skyline.

The “Ferrisian void” that will be filled between Crane and Davis Street in Long Island City may not contain the space of business the way its glassy neighbor to the west does, but in the scope of filling the void, and adding bulk to fill in the “cosmic container,” it is no different.

When the wrecking ball finally meets 5 Pointz, and the name, which is an ode to New York City’s five boroughs, is either retired or transferred by MeresOne to some other destination, what replaces it will pail in comparison, if for no other reason than its replacement will sync with the demands of monetary capital and the void will be overwhelmed with space primarily for generating profit. Among the oppositions that will disappear from the scene is change: The morphing, “that wasn’t there last week” quality of the vast canvas that is the exterior will be replaced by something static and predictable.

To expect anything less from residents within would be unrealistic. Wolkoff might truly believe he’s honoring the energy and history of graffiti by providing a space for future artists work, but unless it’s a space that is visible from the elevated 7 train and the myriad passersby in the neighborhood, it won’t be any more appealing to graffiti artists than the dozen or so spaces around the city that are also open to artists in the know.

A corollary might be the punk rock club CBGB, which closed in 2006 and was replaced 18 months later by high-end clothing John Varvatos store, which peddles $250 shirts. Remnants of the original institution remain, but it is an echo from the past, useful for reminiscing perhaps, but not much else.
A visitor takes in the site.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

5 Pointz (Pt. II)

And now, part two of my ruminations on 5 Pointz, a/k/a  "The Institute of Higher Burnin." If you've never been, I can't recommend it enough. I've been stashing pics of it from my various visits here.

One of my all time favorites is this:


This segues nicely into Rem Koolhaas’ discussion of the model of “Manhattanism.” Koolhaas is known as an architect responsible for unorthodox buildings like the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, but he has also meditated intensely on the zeitgeist of New York City development. In a chapter where he discusses how the Waldorf-Astoria hotel’s predecessor was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building, he notes:

The model for Manhattan’s urbanism is now a form of architectural cannibalism: By swallowing its predecessors, the final building accumulates all the strengths and spirits of the previous occupants of the sight, and in its own way, preserves their memory.

In the case of 5 Pointz, the space has been used as a cultural one since 1993, when Pat DiLillo, an artist in the Crane Studios, convinced owner Jerry Wolkoff to let graffiti artists paint the exterior. Wolkoff’s son David eventually took over, and gave his blessings to Jonathan Cohen, an artist who goes by the tag “MeresOne” and who changed the name from Phun Factory to 5 Pointz.

In interviews, David Wolkoff has expressed sadness that the building would have to come down, but noted that it would be prohibitively expensive to repair it so that it would be habitable again. While shrugging off complaints from neighbors critical of his decision to turn over his building to artists wielding those spray cans, he is also clear about what he sees as his role:

We’ve allowed them to have a safe haven to do their work, and now as a developer I have to be allowed to do the work I do, to create what I consider art, which is building buildings — which is an art form as well as an economic driver.

In the same interview, Wolkoff expressed confidence that the loss of the building wouldn’t leave the neighborhood bereft of art, citing PS 1’s presence. His view of that museum as an adequate replacement is unfortunately echoed by Joe Conley, chairman of the Community Board 2, which includes the building.

I can’t see that the community would lose anything with that building. It’s an outdated building, it’s from a bygone era, and it’s certainly not the efficient use of space.

To be fair to Wolkoff, he has also stated publicly that he would like to incorporate artists’ work into the new development, which would be made up of a 47-story tower and a 41-story tower, together encompassing 1,000 rental units and 30,000 square feet of retail space. And this is where the concept of Manhattanism’s “architectural cannibalism” comes into play.

Given the enormity of the project and the fact that Wolkoff is planning to build residential space in place of industrial space, it’s almost laughable to think the same sort of artistic freedom could abound in a place that Wolkoff told WNYC could have a gym, a pool, a billiards room and a supermarket.

But just as Koolhaas documents that the majestic Waldorf-Astoria was seen as a fitting site for the Empire State Building, so too does Wolkoff believe that his towers will, in Koolhaas words, “accumulate all the strengths and spirits of the previous occupants of the sight, and in its own way, preserve their memory.”


Next: MeresOne, the pressures of capital, and the future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

5 Pointz (Part I)

Aaaaaaaand, we're back to the graffiti. Woo!

So, just as I dedicated my last few few entries to the final paper for my last class, "Urban Political Processes," these next three come to you via "New York City Arts and Urban Expression," which I took in the fall.

I'd written a good chunk of it for "Issues In Urban Studies," the first masters class I took at Fordham, in the fall of 2010, but wasn't entirely satisfied with how it turned out. So I added a lot more theory, some excellent ruminations from Rem Koolhaas, and more details about the planned demolition of the site. This is one of the unintended perks of spreading studies out over five years-you get to revisit past projects and build on previous work.

Unlike the piece on public housing, I was able to include this paper my thesis as sort of a bonus chapter. It's very different from the other case studies in my thesis, but I think that's just as well. 5 Pointz is in a class of its own in the NYC graffiti world, so it deserves its own treatment. Hopefully you'll think so too.


Five Pointz
Fifteen minutes. That’s the amount of time it takes to get from Carnegie Hall, in glitzy Midtown Manhattan, to 5 Pointz, in gritty Long Island City. On a weekday afternoon, the 500,000 square foot former warehouse colloquially known as the “Institute of Higher Burnin” can be visited from Carnegie Hall during lunch hour, via the E train, which drops one off all of two blocks away, at the 23 St/Ely Ave stop.

5 Pointz, as seen from under the elevated 7 train
The M train, which passes through Rockefeller Center, likewise stops at 23 St/Ely Ave. Or for those who are closer to Grand Central Terminal or Times Square, there is the elevated 7 train, which slowly creaks around the buildings’ southeast corner on a serpentine track and stops at Court Square, also two blocks away.

Fifteen minutes by subway. In the scheme of New York City real estate, and the dreams, visions and fantastical amounts of capital cycling through regions in such close proximity, 5 Pointz never stood a chance. In July 2001, the city government signaled as much, when it included the building in a 37 block rezoning, adding it to the three block area that was rezoned in 1986 for the high density development that facilitated the construction of the 1.25 million square-foot Citibank tower.

At the time, the plan was such:

In the Long Island City core, the rezoning replaces existing low density light manufacturing zones with higher density, mixed commercial and residential zones to allow as-of-right developments, including office buildings with large, efficient floor plates.

City planners at the time were not thinking strictly in vague terms that would be sorted out by the forces of the market; as the second page of the aforementioned document contained a graphic that helpfully identifies sites ripe for development. In the bottom right corner is a figurative bulls eye on 5 Pointz.

5 Pointz can be seen in the lower right corner.
From "Long Island City Rezoning: Executive Summary."
And so, some 12 years later, 5 Pointz, which began its current incarnation as a graffiti magnet as the “Phun Factory” and for a spell housed a vibrant artist colony called Crane Street Studios, has a date with the wrecking ball, destined to join countless art meccas cleared out in the name of progress.

But I digress. Although the fate of 5 Pointz has seemingly been sealed, the space is still worth a critical look, both in terms of its contributions as a node of a global graffiti community that still practices a great deal of its craft in the shadows, and its relation to the city’s larger fabric. Before going into greater detail about the building, some theoretical framing is useful.

For starters, the French philosopher Michel Foucault addresses something that is often left unsaid when assessing the merits of public spaces: It is not important that a building or space is constructed in a particular fashion; what matters most is how space is experienced by people. He writes:

Our life is still dominated by a certain number of oppositions that cannot be tampered with, that institutions and practices have not ventured to change—oppositions that we take for granted, for example, between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure activities and the space of work. All of these are still controlled by an unspoken sacrilization.

The Citicorp tower looms over the diminutive 5 Pointz
Oppositions that separate 5 Pointz from the surrounding neighborhood are numerous, and helpful to mention, because they locate the building within its context. There is the obvious, in the painted figures, glyphs and texts that cover well over half the surface of the complex. This opposition is in fact its defining feature within all of New York City—there are spaces dedicated to graffiti scattered all around the five boroughs, but none rise five stories from the ground and wrap around 3/4ths of a city block. But there are other less obvious oppositions. There is purpose: This building was constructed for light manufacturing; as noted above the area has been rezoned to exclude this kind of space.

More preferable are structures like the 50 story Citigroup Building. There is the chaos of the space, when compared to PS 1, the satellite of MoMa that is stationed across Jackson Avenue. Whereas P.S. 1 sits seemingly in calm repose, behind clean concrete and a simple white façade, 5 Pointz is a garish mish mash of the low brow, high concept, simplistic and astonishingly complex. It also functions as a gallery turned inside out—whereas most spaces exhibit art inside, 5 Pointz’ exterior is the gallery.

P.S. 1, ensconced safely behind concrete walls across the street
from 5 Pointz
Additionally, the building is—thanks to its mass, color, outlet and location—a bone fide landmark that draws visitors from around the globe to see it. Although the art at PS 1 is no doubt impressive, and the architecture of the Citigroup Building is visually arresting (mostly because it stands so freakishly out of proportion with everything else), neither can compare to the uniqueness of 5 Pointz, with an exterior that changes almost as often as the seasons. It is akin to a chameleon, a living creature that alters its skin as it sees fit.

Unfortunately, one final opposition also exists, which is to say official recognition. PS 1 has existed since 1971, and has been affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art since 2000. Citigroup is a multi-national financial services company with 260,000 employees that was founded in 1812. The former institution is lauded as the type of culture inherently desirable to the city, whereas street art and graffiti get little to no official support from the city. The latter? As noted before, in form if not function, its space represents the high water mark for the city, which is to say maximum capital exerted from the space.

Next: Rem Koohaas' "Manhattanism" and the folly of the Wolkoffs.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

And Now, for Something Completely Different, Finale

And now, the thrilling conclusion to Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens: Neighborhood Anchors. Thanks for reading; hope you liked it. Will return to our regularly scheduled program shortly.

Signs of Hope

A funny thing happened in the neighborhood. Like the rest of the city, it became safer than it had been in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and as noted earlier, property values rose, including in areas in close proximity to the housing developments. In Boerum Hill’s case, the New York Times directly addressed the phenomenon in 2011 in an article about real estate on Warren Street between Nevins Street, where the Wyckoff Gardens lies, and Bond Street, where the Gowanus Houses preside.

While noting that the public housing projects are to many New Yorkers “enduring symbols of danger, social dysfunction and blight,” the author also states that “the presence of the Gowanus Houses, a 1,134 unit development on the west end o the block, and Wyckoff Gardens, 528 apartments on the east end, does not seem to put much of a damper on values.

121 Wyckoff Street, almost across the street from
the Gowanus Houses
Indeed, the article goes on to cite a four-family townhouse on the block that had been put on the market for $2.5 million, which at $658 per square foot is only $35 per square foot less than a comparable property on Bergen Street, two blocks north of the projects.

Joan Joseph-Alexander, a broker in the area, speculates that “When the market is down, the projects are a factor. When it is up, the projects aren’t a factor;” her assertion is born out by a study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York found that concluded that federally subsidized housing in New York did not typically depress values within a four-block radius.

Forget about four-block radius; in Boerum Hill, there is a million dollar condominium at 121 Wyckoff Street that has an unobstructed view of the Gowanus Houses from across the intersection at Bond Street, and the aforementioned $2.5 million townhouse is one block in either direction from two developments. Whatever issues they may have, their influence on the surrounding neighborhood is at the very least neutral.

I would argue that, as Bloom notes, it is management of the projects that is the reason for this, in spite of the aforementioned negative press. As he notes:

Good management also [means] arresting criminals, controlling tenancy, and collecting rents. Vigilance also means keeping patronage to a minimum, holding employees and tenants responsible for their behavior, seeking private sector help where necessary, and using politics to build and protect housing rather than destroy it. NYCHA’s success, and continuing effectiveness, should in no way be considered inevitable.

The results of this watchfulness are evident today. During my visits to the many NYCHA housing developments in every borough, I have found well-maintained brick buildings, mature plane trees and green lawns, active community and recreation programs, and first class play equipment.

Bloom does not dismiss the issues that public housing projects face, noting that many NYCHA developments house a high percentage of very poor tenants, in poor sections of the city, and are subject to graffiti, dumping, public urination and general vandalism. He also notes that small apartments, hallways of glazed tile and steel, and slow elevators are unfortunate facets of many buildings, making them less than ideal in many resident’s minds.

But although they may stand out from the rest of the three, four and five story brownstone buildings that make up the bulk of the neighborhood, Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens are not in poor physical shape. In tune with Bloom’s observation, both are blessed with an abundance of mature trees, shrubbery, community gardens, and playground facilities.

"Roots and Wings," on the northern side of the Wyckoff Gardens
The Gowanus Houses’ northern most playground, in a New York City park named for Nicholas Heyward Jr. on Wyckoff Street, was completely refurbished in 2011. Over at the Wyckoff Gardens, the community center on Wyckoff Street has been graced by a 30 by 45 foot mural “Roots and Wings,” by artist Amy Sananman since 2005, thanks to the ground Groundswell. Groundswell likewise organized a mural memorializing Heyward Jr. on a building just west of the Gowanus Houses.

Interestingly, it is not common, in my estimation, to see many people walking the grounds of the developments. Some of this may stem from the fact that, as noted earlier, there is a stigma attached to public housing in New York. Sensationalistic reporting in local papers doesn’t help either, like a 2011 story in the Brooklyn Paper about a group of teenagers who were terrorizing local residents around Halloween. It’s a given in the story that the developments are the source of crime in the neighborhood:

Groundswell's mural honoring Nicholas Heyward Jr.
Cops are investigating, but assaults like this are not uncommon in Boerum Hill, where historic multi-million dollar brownstones are cushioned between the Wyckoff and Gowanus housing projects and there are cavernous gaps in the neighborhood’s median income level — from $23,900 to more than $108,000, according to the 2010 census.

With stories like this in the backs of their minds, it’s not surprising that residents might steer choose to walk an extra block out of their way to avoid crossing the “super blocks” of the developments. Compounding the problem, New Yorkers intuitively know that a populated area is a safer area, so when they see paths devoid of activity, they steer clear. From personal experience, I can say there is nothing dangerous about walking in the midst of the Gowanus Houses; I did so with my year-old daughter less than a month ago.

Ironically, the landscaping of the NYCHA developments was meant to be a gift of sorts to the surrounding neighborhood. Bloom notes that former NYCHA chairman Alfred Rheinstein’s embraced “economized buildings” that featured things like elevators that only stopped on every other floor, but when it came to landscaping,

“He believed that the pleasant grounds of public housing could help reconcile those resentful citizens not lucky enough to gain access to housing projects if ‘certain benefits such as playgrounds, nurseries, assembly rooms and other recreational facilities were available to the entire neighborhood. Futhermore, ‘The landscaped uncrowded area should ventilate the neighborhood.

Brand new playground equipment at the Gowanus Houses
It takes more than just nicely trimmed shrubbery and trees to make a development a success though. It’s difficult to ascertain just how much crime the residents of the Gowanus Houses and the Wyckoff Gardens contribute to Boerum Hill, because a quirk of geography has the Gowanus Houses in the NYPD’s 76th precinct, while Wyckoff Gardens is in the 78th precinct. The bulk of Boerum of Hill, meanwhile, is in the 84th precinct, which encompasses all of downtown Brooklyn, tony Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO. But as Bloom notes, unlike public housing failures like Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis and Henry Horner Houses in Chicago, NYCHA fought to keep it a place for the middle class, as well as the poor.

NYCHA’s boom years were better than in other cities because its projects were better built, the tenants more carefully selected, and the buildings better managed than those in other cities. In most American cities, public housing was not only poorly constructed and maintained but became the housing of last resort for those displaced for urban renewal.

This is borne out both at Gowanus Houses and the Wyckoff Gardens in community activities of the past, such as a softball league that pitted members of different housing developments against each other in the 1970’s, including teams fielded by union members. (From “Gowanus Houses softball champs best 237 executive board, staff,” 237 Teamster New and Views, December 1971) -->

It is exemplified today in groups like the Gowanus Wildcats Drill Team, an all female drill team that has been performing stepping, marching and “cheerleading without pompoms” since 1970. Renee Flowers, a second generation resident whose parents Leslie and Victoria Baskett were among the first families to move into the Gowanus Houses, has run the club since 1972; today it counts 24 members ranging from 6 to 21 years of age.

Flowers has been credited with training 500 girls over the years, and some have even performed at the Apollo Theater. In recounting life in one of the developments 14-story towers, Flowers strikes an optimistic view of what is becoming a island within a quickly gentrifying neighborhood.

“The families still stick together, she said. One thing about Gowanus Houses, there’s no problem going up to parents and telling them if a kid seems to be in trouble. In that way, it’s like the old days. It really does take a village.”

None of this is to suggest that the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens do not have their issues. In the same story, Flowers is said to have posted fliers in the hallway of her building imploring residents not to dump trash in the elevators. This was in 2010, which suggests that many of the issues that Bloom noted are present there too. 


Although they engender feelings of ambivalence among many residents and physically stand apart from the rest of Boerum Hill, the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens do not materially affect the neighborhood in a negative way. Their designs lend themselves in many ways to isolation, but as noted earlier, neither these designs, which reflect the different time periods they were built, nor the developments’ association with crime, have affected the values of housing around them. In fact, gentrification of Boerum Hill, like many parts of Brooklyn, began in earnest in the late 60’s, and has continued unabated ever since.

Rendering of Gowanus Houses Community Center
Photo courtesy of NYCA
Unlike in places such as Chicago and St. Louis, public housing in New York City remained in high demand from its inception, and will continue to be so for the future. And although NYCHA has recently begun to float a plan to sell off land within eight developments in Manhattan to private developers, neither of Boerum Hill’s public housing developments has been included in the plans.

And while the fact that developers are willing to entertain building private market rate buildings in the midst of public housing shows how much the stigma behind “projects” has faded, residents of the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens might be troubled to hear how their Manhattan brethren are reacting. NYCHA needs to make up a budget shortfall that has gotten worse over the years, as nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds have been cut since 2001.

“You’re not going to have people who are paying market rent to want to live in the same place as low-income people,” said Thelma R. Yearwood, the residents’ president at Meltzer Tower, a building for elderly people on the Lower East Side that is to lose its only park under the plan. “They’ll find a way to transfer people out of here.” 

Unfortunately, if Boerum Hill continues on its upward trajectory, and NYCHA does not find a way to meet its financial obligations, this is a sentiment Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens residents may find themselves sharing. I for one, hope it does not come to that.

The Gowanus Houses Community Center today