It's a breezy Sunday afternoon in Queens, N.Y., and MoMA PS1, one of the largest institutes of contemporary art in America, is desolate. Instead, art lovers crowd on a block of abandoned buildings across the street.
5 Pointz, as this block is known, was the graffiti mecca of New York. For two decades, it was an ever-changing display of work by aerosol artists from all over the world. And it was absolutely breathtaking to see in person. Standing in the center, I was surrounded by endless colors swirling in every direction. Depictions of pop culture characters, memorials to dead relatives and studies in human features stood painted with techniques not learned in some French or Italian art class, but invented and perfected on American streets by people who had nothing but a vision.
Graffiti and street art are an American invention. An invention crafted in the true American spirit of going against rules the powers that be set in place, and turning that rebellion into something beautiful and inspiring, something that the rest of the world then rushes to emulate.
Also in true American form, street art entices those who can capitalize off it.
In our country, where almost every message we see in public has been focus-grouped, sanitized and expertly edited by the finest marketing professionals, places like 5 Pointz attract the cool crowd desperately seeking something soulful and authentic. They attract the mainstream who want to be cool, and this eventually attracts the soulless profiteers desperately seeking their next million, who can't wait to knock it down and build high-priced condos. At these places profiteers see nothing but dollar signs and are blind to the spirit that drew the crowds in the first place.
A week after my visit, the incredible work of hundreds of artists at 5 Pointz had been painted over with white, and the buildings were prepared for demolition. It was a scenario I had seen play out before, on a much smaller scale here in Charlotte, in NoDa.
NoDa was once a working-class neighborhood in north Charlotte inhabited by former mill workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas. In the mid-1990s a place called Fat City opened. The bar, deli and music venue attracted the best and most outlandish in Charlotte counterculture and became the spot for witnessing all the Queen City's underground had to offer, including graffiti.
Soon after, galleries began opening on North Davidson Street. Artists began renting out spaces in the old mills, turning them into studios. Graffiti artists from around the country were painting pieces on the exterior walls of Fat City. Art lovers, hipsters and curious bankers with a wild streak came to gawk, and photographers shot it constantly.
The neighborhood eventually became so trendy, it earned its stylish new moniker, NoDa. That nickname was like a beacon for real estate developers, who began to pay off building owners and draw up plans for luxury condos, the likes of which were popping up in other areas of the city whose residents had neither the income nor desire to live in them. Fat City's owner took the money and ran, but the building stayed in all its artistic glory. Artists continued to make it their canvas.
I knew its days were numbered, though, on a night in 2004 when my husband stopped our car in the middle of North Davidson Street and yelled an obscenity. I looked up to see the intricate mural on the front of Fat City painted by Atlanta artist TOTEM had been replaced by an advertisement for Big Red gum.
I'm sure the execs at Wrigley's thought themselves very forward-thinking with this campaign, but all it did was leave a bad taste in our mouths.
Months later, the building was mostly demolished, and a sign stood on the lot advertising Fat City condos, with a logo containing a small picture of the building's original graffiti piece, because in America, art is nothing more than an important marketing tool. It can't exist unless it's making money for someone who doesn't give a damn about it. If it's available for public view, it must carry a message driving you to make a purchase. If it doesn't, it's labeled as vandalism, a crime, a menace.
We can't celebrate a worldwide art form our nation gave birth to. We can't leave it standing when there's money to be made. We must take condos over culture. Cash rules everything.