Saturday, October 12, 2013

5 Pointz is Being Demolished to Make Way For Condos, and That's Okay

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In a long-awaited move, the owners of the iconic graffiti space 5 Pointz have finally cleared the last regulatory hurdles required to tear down the building. The land will be replaced with high-rise condos and some affordable housing units.

Undoubtedly some groups are upset. 5Pointz is an amazing example of skilled artists collaborating semi-spontaneously to create a beautiful amalgamation of art. But the disruptive logic and churn of urban evolution and growth is ultimately a greater boon to society, and I see this development as positive for New York, and the graffiti movement.

For one, the Long Island City neighborhood has seen tremendous gentrification and associated housing cost increases. LIC desperately needs new units to relieve this stress, and for all its amenity value, 5 Pointz is ultimately a fairly passive block of unused space. Additionally, dealmaking seems to have ensured that many individual surfaces will be preserved and displayed.

Rules that limit development, such as height caps and historic preservation designations, clearly have an important role in creating great cities. But often these powers are excessively utilized by incumbent residents and landowners to block changes, muddling the clarity of property rights. If a site like 5 Pointz is truly valued as an artistic work, artists and appreciators should "vote with their pocketbook" and pool their money to buy the land for preservation. If preservationists can't compete in an open bidding process, there's a strong prima facie case that preservation isn't the socially optimal use of the space. Market outcomes tend to allocate land efficiently, and overriding this useful mechanism should require exceptional social consensus.

On another note, excessive preservationism seems quite intellectually opposed to the essential character of graffiti culture. Part of what makes the graffiti enterprise subversive and exciting is its outsider perspective: artists critique the establishment by abusing written rules in adherence to deeper social norms about freedom and public acceptance. Aggressively employing institutional tools to preserve in amber artwork that revels in its own impermanence and material resourcefulness reeks of contradiction. Graffiti is about supplementing the artistic and public spirit in cities, which often gets undersupplied by capitalist land use and architecture. This works best on marginally productive surfaces, and once higher-value uses get identified and implemented, artists should gracefully step aside and move on.

Besides, I suspect the developers will face a massive onslaught of protest graffiti for some time as attached artists mourn 5 Pointz's destruction. Perhaps that's a healthy informal punishment for destroying such an impressive artistic site.

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