5 Pointz and the Aspirational Outer Boroughs

I know 5 Pointz as the first thing you see when the 7 line subway breaks above ground on its way into Queens. The graffiti changed regularly as the curators rotated different pieces, and you barely noticed it when you passed by every day. The one bit I remember well is that for all of my high school years, someone had written “Made You Look” up at the very top of the building, like a childish throwaway joke. But it was right, and it got me to glance up at it every time and think, however fleetingly, that the New York I lived in was in some way connected to the New York of legend, full of graffiti and transgression and casual urban swagger, even though my everyday life in the early aughts was already pretty far from it all, and life in New York has only changed more since then.

Now 5 Pointz is painted over and slated for demolition, and everywhere you hear lamentations of its demise. But what exactly are we mourning? People talk about 5 Pointz in generally nostalgic terms, with an appeal to the sanctity of art and the culture of local communities. Hard to argue against something like that. But it’s also funny how the loudest champions of preserving street art seem more likely to be future residents of the newly-built towers of Long Island City than those who grew up in this borough. After all, 5 Pointz is most certainly the borough’s leading attraction for those looking to impress their high school friends visiting from Ohio. It’s been a long time since art and transgression and bohemianism stood for homegrown community interests in our cities.

Of course, there should be a place for art in Queens. Even the duller, poorer, and less romanticized boroughs deserve beautiful things. But what does it mean to see the aerosol on the walls every day?

Here in grad school, we talk a lot about the details of city planning and design, from the widths of the sidewalks to the landscaping of open spaces to the orientation of the buildings. The idea is that every little thing in the physical environment has an effect on our quality of life, and of course they do. Still, so many of these things seem subtle to the point of pettiness, and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they are mostly irrelevant until you’ve achieved a basic level of affluence and comfort.

But the one exception is that the urban environment is always aspirational. No matter who you are, and no matter the circumstances, you can feel it in the things you see every day. The city constantly gives us ideas about what we should aspire to, what we should want, and how we should want. It has always played an important role in molding and guiding the development of its citizens.

So of course it’s true that the art on those walls allow us to think about who we are and what we hope to become. But so does everything else. The way Broadway curves down Manhattan and the way the bridges span the East River, and even the way that Long Island City condos rise from the squat buildings around it — that’s aspirational too. The important question is what people should aspire to. What should be communicated to those who pass through 5 Pointz on the 7 line every day? What is it that they need? This is not so clear in today’s New York. Perhaps it’s not what they want, and not what you want them to want either.

The end of 5 Pointz doesn’t say much at all about the fate of street art, or of transgression and marginal culture in New York. Certainly graffiti as an expressive form will still be there even if there is no convenient exhibition space. Really, it takes a new and special kind of person to bemoan the loss of indigenous culture in Queens. It’s not so much about whether you see it and consume it or not. It doesn't have to be spelled out for you on run-down, yellowing walls.

5 Pointz is a snapshot in time of a changing New York. In the boroughs that used to be about vacant buildings and ignored, fringe groups, now anything that’s not the highest and best use will have trouble holding on. In light of this, what kind of message do we want to pass on, through the built environment, to the people growing up in the city today, who need to lean on the city for the kinds of life that are open to them? That’s what’s at stake in 5 Pointz and the many more developments that will come after it.

I will say that 5 Pointz was an institution for me, in the way that it stood for something to look for on the way through the mire that is the western Queens landscape. When you can recite each stop on your long commute in your sleep, and you know when to look to see the Unisphere and the churches and schools that pass for landmarks, and then the rows of houses that you like, and the way the borough changes in ethnicity and character from one to the next – 5 Pointz was one piece to hold on to in the long journey that reminded you of the spectrum of lives that one lived in the outer boroughs, on the fringes of Manhattan.

But times have changed, and what it means to be on the fringes of Manhattan has changed, and the idea of art and transgression and bohemianism and urban romanticism has changed, and so the message you convey to the ones who are here might need to be updated too.