For two decades, artists from New York City and around the world used the walls of a 200,000 sq ft warehouse in Queens as their canvas. Known as 5 Pointz, this worldwide “graffiti mecca” was a reminder of the city’s past and a celebrated landmark. Last fall, the famed 5 Pointz walls were painted over in advance of the building’s impending demolition. With rents continuing to rise across the city, the owners of the 5 Pointz warehouse are cashing in on this opportunity to build two residential towers on the site.
As soon as the intention of the developer was known, there was a large public response. On one side was the private property argument, maintaining that the owners of the property have the right to do whatever they choose with their own land; in this argument, the artists should be grateful that they were allowed to plaster their art on someone else’s property for so many years. Alternatively there is an argument that tends to demonise the developers and owners for destroying this famed historical artifact, comparing the 5 Pointz whiteout to the destruction of a sacred cultural monument. Of course there are more than two responses, but the debate I have encountered fails to address the complexity of graffiti’s history and the possibilities of learning from this moment to reclaim the public realm of our cities.
The story of 5 Pointz is part of a much larger global development strategy that is replacing productive communities with spaces for consumption. Artists produced 5 Pointz as an art space and commons, which came to represent the local NYC culture and history of the post-industrial American city — creating a community of local artists, engaging residents in lively events, attracting international visitors, and sustaining the local creative economy. The high-rise condos that will replace it represent an anonymous global market, namely that of international speculative real estate. It is in this context that 5 Pointz is a call to reinvent the public realm, not as some centralised management scheme from above, but from the everyday practices of self-sufficient, productive communities.
Public space as urban practice
This is particularly a challenge in New York City, which in the last 20 years has deliberately pursued an agenda of privatisation of public space, resulting in an explosion of business improvement districts (BIDs) and privately owned public spaces (POPS). While these privatisations have been contested — based on charges that they use aggressive policing to demonise homelessness, silence free speech, or sanitise formerly lively public spaces — the larger problem is the particular image of “public” that this period in New York history promoted and enforced.
In the last several decades, public space has come to be seen increasingly as a void into which people are inserted to promote consumption or a backdrop for preprogrammed leisure activities. The possibility for democracy and participation that is necessary for civil society has been destroyed in this vision of “public”. In its full expression, the public is that which we hold in common — not just institutions and spaces that are technically “accessible” to people, but the fundamental right for people to shape and democratically participate in the making of the city. As Nancy Fraser suggests in her important 1990 article “Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy”, there are multiple publics and counterpublics, not one universal abstract conception of public. Every particular public has a history of specific groups advocating and coproducing space. Public space it not something that is already made; it is an urban practice in the making.
This concept of multiple publics is key because it creates a new understanding of public space beyond the long-dominant Eurocentric history of public that produces manicured ornamental parks and passive consumer spaces. The singular vision of public space that prioritises leisure and consumption (which has manifested in modern societies, from Habermas’ coffee shop through to today’s privately owned public spaces) is not natural or inevitable. The desires of urban planners or business interests reenact this “public” of leisure and consumption through sweeping clearances and small gestures each day. A singular conception of public, intentionally or benevolently, produces a city that maintains dominant power relations, prevents full democratic citizenship, and further subordinates marginal groups.
In this context, 5 Pointz was undoubtedly an example of a counterpublic supported by the continuous urban practice of a productive and self-sufficient community — a particular public art(work) born in the hostile political situation of the early 1990s. Often with graffiti, and art in general, the outside observer only sees a small window into the creative process (and the same is true with other applauded spaces that are impulsively removed at the mercy of market forces, such as urban market gardens). Graffiti is not just an aesthetic form to be commodified as an art product or a crime to be eradicated; it demonstrates that “space [ … ] only emerges from practices,” grounded in a particular experience of history and creatively produced in a specific space to reflect a different kind of existence.
Graffiti in the US has a particular history, closely tied to its reputation as a visual representation of post-industrial New York (see Style Wars for more on this history). As a visual component of hip hop culture, graffiti has been characterised as a sign of rebellion and creativity born in some of NYC’s darkest days. Beyond aesthetics, graffiti was a means for the disenfranchised to symbolically reclaim city spaces by “tagging” buildings, playgrounds, subways, or trucks. And such spaces, as defining features of the urban public realm, have long been contested. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists competed for the most visible spaces to leave their mark, often spraying over the competition.
Through the Koch and Giuliani mayoral administrations in the late 80s and 90s, graffiti was erased and prevented in large scale by police, Transportation Authority employees, and new surveillance measures. The rise of Broken Windows theory, infamously implemented in the 1990s, considered graffiti to be a sign of disorder that needed control in order to prevent further vandalism. The legacy of this reaction continues to be evident — high fences or barbed wire often “protect” vacant public land and security cameras adorn nearly every public space in the city. The proactive tactics of whiting out all graffiti in public spaces and harshly prosecuting graffiti artists for “trespassing” or “destruction of property” consigned graffiti to a mere memory.
Ironically, the “vandalism” that some New Yorkers fought against for so long, as a sign of crime, decay, and financial hard times, has now become desirable as a nostalgic artwork. Banksy’s recent appearance in NYC was closely followed with much anticipation over how he might leave his trace on the NYC public realm. Some have even gone as far rip out a chunk of a warehouse wall that he adorned with graffiti to turn a large profit. Beyond Banksy, such a moment of literally ripping out and selling public art symbolises the triumph of the consumer city and the dire state of urban public realm.
From graffiti to the creation of the next urban commons
This nostalgia for graffiti demonstrates that we are aware of losing something significant, even as possibilities for collectively producing the city are increasingly constrained. Graffiti symbolically represents the possibility that we might actually be able to contribute to the production of spaces that we pass through each day, but now this possibility is being foreclosed and commodified. When we understand graffiti as an urban practice that produces space, it is clear that 5 Pointz was a particular group’s effort to constitute an urban public. In this sense 5 Pointz is bigger than graffiti.
Rather than romanticise graffiti or decry it as a form of vandalism, we can more significantly ask: where in our city today are there signs of people trying to create their own publics? The 5 Pointz art community had an active passion in what they were making, and with this dedication they were the ones producing part of the New York City that newcomers love.
As NYC continues to lose important assets like affordable housing and cultural landmarks to the advancing luxury city, long time New Yorkers sometimes wonder how the city they used to love is vanishing before their eyes. Alternatively the rubble represents an opportunity, based on nothing other than the fact that the next urban commons is being created in this very moment. Where markets and governments fail to provide critical infrastructures for food, housing, or public safety, people are providing for themselves. This is why it’s crucial, now more than ever that we seek to understand what kinds of urban practices these resourceful residents are employing to create counter-publics, as we participate in the co-creation of this next urban commons.