A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy waxes nostalgic about the disappearance of Five Pointz in Long Island City, New York.
In 2007 I was in New York City for a writers’ conference and after a few days, I was ready to escape the written world and go photograph somewhere. My friend, a native New Yorker and fellow poet, Amanda Lichtenberg, told me she knew of the perfect place to take me. She had been scouting it from the windows of the #7 train for a long time and thought I would probably love it. On the Sunday of that week of the conference, we took the #7 line of the NYC subway, the one which goes to Brooklyn and Coney Island, and after it surfaced over the other side of the River Hudson, I saw it: Five Pointz.
A short walk from the Long island City subway stop, the 200,000-square-foot (19,000 square meter) building had originally housed a factory built in 1892 for the construction of water meters. The tallest part of the structure was at least four floors high and it spread out massively. Its architecture was the basic industrial design of the time: exposed brick, tall windows, metal stairs on the outside, vents and chimneys on various roofs, plus there were some smaller side buildings that clearly belonged to the same original plant. The thing was, it was entirely covered in street art. Top to bottom, every available inch: graffiti, street art, whatever word or phrase you use for it.
The property, long in disuse, had been bought for development but the idea later abandoned. When the owners were approached to see if the factory could be parceled into small artists studios and the external walls used to provide “canvas” for street artists, they agreed. Thus, “the world’s premier graffiti Mecca" Crane Street Studios was born. Street artists could apply for a slot and they would be assigned a stretch of wall for their art.
Climbing the metal staircases, you could see Manhattan across the river, the Chrysler building like a beacon. All around, even on the metal of the stairs, wild, were vibrant colors as far as the eye could see. Amanda saw my face and knew she had been right because I was swooning and running around shooting like crazy. But hers was a gift that kept on giving. Every three or four months, most of the walls would get whitewashed, new street artists would get their stretch of wall, and the place became instantly unrecognizable, totally transformed. So every time I went to New York City, I would go to Long Island City and photograph the entire place again, because it looked nothing like it had looked before.
Every chance I had to visit it felt like a minor urban miracle that this enormous piece of prime real estate would still be standing and still devoted to the madcap endeavor of high-end graffiti. For people commuting to and from Manhattan, it must have been a daily flash of color from the subway windows, no matter the weather. Any time somebody asked me for “not-to-be-missed places” in New York City, whether they were photographers or not, I would send them to Five Pointz.
As you can see in the opening image and in the one above, the place was made for playing with a Holga, creating Holgaramas (panoramas in camera), using the vignetting to bring out the saturated colors. Alas, in 2014, after asbestos was discovered in the buildings and the collapse of a staircase injuring an artist, the owners decided the insurance risks were too high. The place was demolished and a combination of affordable housing and high-end condominiums built on the site. I hadn’t had an opportunity to visit New York City for a few years, so I was never able to update my “Five Pointz portfolio” with the variety of cameras I use now.
I wish I could be writing this piece giving you detailed instructions on how to get there, and telling you to put this place on your photography bucket list. Five Pointz used to be the sort of place I love to be told about, like London’s Leake Street Tunnel or the isle of Burano near Venice. But maybe that’s the lesson: If you know of an awesome place to photograph, don’t it put it off because it may go away. Take all your cameras and go.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.