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Saying Farewell to Long Island City Graffiti Mecca 5 Pointz

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits Long Island City's 5 Pointz.

[The iconic Queens graffiti landmark 5 Pointz, curated by Jonathan Cohen, may soon be demolished to make way for two residential towers. All photos by Nathan Kensinger]

As the landscape of Long Island City continues to be transformed into a thicket of luxury residential towers, one block on Jackson Avenue has remained stubbornly undeveloped. Located across from PS1 MoMA and next to the elevated subway tracks, this block includes a handful of historic buildings that house an Irish pub, a gallery, a food cart garage, a neighborhood arts center, and 5 Pointz?the internationally-known "graffiti Mecca" that has covered the walls with spray painted murals. But after more than 100 years, these historic buildings may soon be torn down. Some businesses claim they have already been served with papers asking them to agree to vacate in September. Surveyors have been seen working on the property and soil samples are reportedly being taken. "All that is left is the City Council," said the building's owner David Wolkoff. The block will be demolished "by the end of the year, if all goes as planned."

Not everyone on the block is ready to see the existing buildings go. "People look at me as crazy, but I can't see this being anything else," said Jonathan Cohen, the curator of 5 Pointz. "In my mind, we're going to be here. I envision us not going anywhere. Time will tell." This summer has seen a flurry of rallies and community events organized to help save 5 Pointz. These efforts include collecting over 5,000 landmark designation requests which were hand-delivered to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, asking them to consider saving the older warehouses on the block. Originally, these warehouses were home to the Neptune Meter Company, which built its first water meter in 1892. Neptune moved out of Long Island City in 1972, but many of its Queens-built water meters are now in the collection of the National Museum of American History, which considers them to be "true national treasures."

Although the outside walls of these historic warehouses are colorful and ever-changing, much of their interior space has apparently sat empty for years, ever since the Crane Street Studios closed down in 2009.  "I had some great studio visits there," recalls Joi Bittle, a Long Island City artist who had a space in the building until 2005. "It was awesome?it was a really productive space." Bittle's studio was on the top floor and included a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. "We were paying like $400 a month for two people," said Bittle, but the studios were permanently closed down after an exterior stairway collapsed, injuring an artist. The largest warehouse on the block is now almost completely unused, its former arts spaces gutted and given over to dust and graffiti.

Despite being located on the sides of a half-empty collection of crumbling warehouses, 5 Pointz has grown to become an international tourist destination since its founding in 2002. "I can't tell you how many tourists have told me 'We saw the Empire State Building, we saw the Statue of Liberty, this is our favorite sight,'" said Jonathan Cohen. "It's the biggest tourism thing in Queens. You tell me one more thing. I know it's bigger than PS1." Yet the current plans for the future version of this block have set aside only a couple walls for graffiti. "Hopefully we'll work with them again," said David Wolkoff, whose plans also include two rental towers?one 47 stories and the other 41 stories?as well as a mix of public, retail, and arts spaces. "Unfortunately, a building takes a long time to build."

The block that 5 Pointz calls home includes several other buildings which would be demolished. They house the Shannon Pot pub and the Space Womb Gallery.

The oldest building on the block was originally the Neptune Meter Company headquarters. A photo from the Greater Astoria Historical Society shows the same building in earlier times.

Today, every surface of the old Neptune Meter Company is covered in graffiti murals, created by artists who travel to 5 Pointz from around the world.

"I've met people from Estonia, Senegal," said Katherine Consuelo-Johnson, the creative director of The Fancy Fox, a store located on the block. "They're just here for the graffiti. This is Americana but on an international level."

One of the last remaining industrial businesses in the complex is a seamstress shop located on the ground floor, just off Crane Street.

The arts group Local Project is also located inside the warehouses. "We've been in the neighborhood for 10 years," said director Carolina Penafiel, who was busy planning a fundraising campaign. "We have to move by September."

On upper floors, graffiti and dust have taken over the empty spaces that once housed the Crane Street Studios.

This corner window was where artist Joi Bittle had her studio. "Our space was really well mapped out," said Bittle, although it only had one heater for the whole space.

"They had to leave because the studios they built were illegal," said Jonathan Cohen, the curator of 5 Pointz. "God knows what kind of chemicals are in there."

"I remember crawling in that building as a child," said building owner David Wolkoff. "For a little kid it was wonderful?seeing all the different companies that have been there."

"We are transitioning from the past to the future, but we'll still have the flavor of the past," said Wolkoff. "That's the United States, right? The whole country is not as blue collar."

The roof of this building was once open to the community, hosting barbecues and 4th of July celebrations. During the blackout of 2003, "everyone went on the roof to sleep," according to Joi Bittle. "It was so hot."

Today, only an occasional tour visits the roof, which became less accessible after the Crane Street Studios closed. "Young people getting out of school now are going to Bushwick and packing themselves into spaces," said Bittle. "Unfortunately, Queens is not sexy or glamorous enough for the art world to claim it." 

The view from the old Neptune Meter building looks out onto PS1 MoMA, a successful example of how to reuse a historic building. "If 5 Pointz was to go, I will not be doing this someplace else," said Jonathan Cohen. "Why would I want to invest 10 more years somewhere else, and then that neighborhood changes?"
?Nathan Kensinger
· Nathan Kensinger [official]
· 5 Pointz coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archives [Curbed]