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Why 5Pointz's Wolkoffs Won A Battle Robert Moses Lost In '45

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Curbed contributor Keith WIlliams of The Weekly Nabe considers a rather analogous preservation battle to 5Pointz's—except Castle Clinton got saved by the skin of its teeth.

At over 1,200 pages, Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, is probably my most effective paperweight—not just functionally, but in terms of knowledge, as within those covers is a history of this city that repeats itself often. To wit: Moses, the longtime Parks Commissioner and shaper of our city, sought to tear down Battery Park's popular Castle Clinton before it could be approved as a National Monument. If he could, there'd be nothing left to protect, and the designation would be moot.

Compare this with the rush by Jerry and David Wolkoff, owners of the site of graffiti mecca 5Pointz, to paint over the public art before opponents could file another injunction under the Visual Artists Rights Act. Now that there's nothing left to preserve, what's the point?

Castle Clinton was saved only because its defenders had the ears of very important people.

Moses was peeved that his plan for the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge was driven underground by FDR, so he sought revenge on the preservationists who had brought the President into the fight. Castle Clinton was near and dear to their hearts. Built for the War of 1812, it had served as the entry-point for immigrants for 35 years before Ellis Island opened in 1890, and as such, was an important part of the city's history. It was also the site of the city's aquarium, with 2.5 million visitors each year.

In 1941, Moses moved the fish to the Bronx Zoo and surrounded the area with a tall fence. He made erroneous claims as to why the Fort needed to go: it was in danger of falling into the tunnel; it was a "large red wart" with no historical value. It did, of course, have defenders, who spoke out.

"It's a landmark. We've been destroying too many of our landmarks recently."—Joseph A. Palma, Staten Island Borough President, 1941 With World War II dominating domestic manpower, Moses couldn't get a demolition crew together. So he bided his time, leaving the Castle—and much of Battery Park—inaccessible to the public for five years.

One Friday after the war ended, Moses had the Board of Estimate approve demolition plans. Castle Clinton had never fired a shot at an enemy target. Now it was about to be destroyed. A Congressional National Monument designation was in the works but not yet fully enacted.

Preservationists knew that Moses worked quickly, and that waiting until Monday for a court order would probably be too late. Attorney Frederick Van Pelt Bryan convinced a Supreme Court Justice to sign an injunction that same day. Before being handed the papers, Moses had already burned down the ornate doors—replicas of which guard the entrance today. A few hours later, the whole place might have been gone.

Even if the defenders of 5Pointz were able to secure an injunction against its demise now, what would be the purpose? The Wolkoffs, in one fell police-protected swoop, struck at the very heart of a movement, succeeding where Robert Moses failed 70 years prior.
—Keith WIlliams
· 5Pointz Owners Whitewash Graffiti Mecca Overnight [Curbed]
· All 5Pointz coverage [Curbed]