The Queens Graffiti Mecca 5 Pointz Was Never Just About the Painting on the Outside

C.S. Muncy
Nicole Gagne doesn't remember the fall itself, or any of the month that followed. She spent almost all of it in a hospital bed, pumped full of a painkiller that had the happy side effect of causing temporary amnesia.

Courtesy Nicole Gagne
Nicole Gagne in her Crane Street studio before the stair collapse.
So she doesn't remember the concrete staircase dissolving under the weight of her step. She doesn't remember dropping three and a half floors, or landing on her side, wedged between two piles of wooden pallets. And she doesn't remember being buried under the spall and rebar that fell more slowly than she did.

Gagne had complained to the building's super about the pallets the day before. That she remembers. They had been sitting in that corner of the otherwise bare cement courtyard for weeks, maybe even months. Too long, in any case. The super asked the pallets' owners, proprietors of a T-shirt manufacturing business on the first floor, to remove them an hour before Gagne fell. They didn't, and it is probably the only reason she is still alive.

She doesn't remember the fire department arriving on the scene, or the firefighters setting up airbags to lift the rubble off of her one piece at a time. She doesn't remember clawing at the breathing tube that was inserted into her throat, pulling it out and damaging her vocal cords.

Debra Hampton does remember. All of it. Hampton, Gagne's friend, rented a space across the hall from her inside Crane Street Studios, the artists' workplaces that used to occupy five floors of the drafty, dilapidated former Neptune Water Meter factory complex that most people know as 5 Pointz: Long Island City's world-famous graffiti temple.

Hampton had four interns working with her that day. Two of them had bounded up the stairs, balancing an order of coffee between them, just 10 minutes before Gagne walked out of her own studio and started down the stairs.

The staircase was narrow — just concrete steps and a metal railing — but, outlined in graffiti, it cast an outsized shadow diagonally across the building from the fifth floor all the way down to street level. It wasn't the only means of getting from one floor to another (there was another set of stairs on the inside, as well as a fussy freight elevator), but it was the fastest way to get from any floor to the Court Street subway station across the street. (That stop services the 7 train, the line that curves past the old Neptune complex's interconnected technicolor structures on its way to and from Manhattan, like a Disneyland ride for urban aesthetes.)

Hampton remembers the sound of the collapsing staircase ("a big explosion," she calls it) and recalls looking out her window, seeing that the concrete landing outside her studio was gone. Torn clean off the building. The aerosol imprint was still there, but the platform and a large section of the steps themselves were not.

She looked up the staircase, toward the fifth floor, and saw two terrified tourists, Italian teenagers, stranded one landing above. "They had to come down the stairs and into my door — there were no stairs below [the fourth floor]," Gagne says.

Thinking about it now, she adds, those stairs "were crawling with tourists and teenagers all the time. All the time." Several tour buses a day would deposit a new crop of international visitors at the 5 Pointz loading dock, usually for a tandem visit to MoMA PS1, located directly across the street.

The stairs, Hampton says, "seemed really kind of old and ragged, but we all kind of trusted that nobody would ever let something that awful happen. It was like the rest of the building — it looked very kind of D.I.Y., and, you know, ragtaggy, but that was part of its charm."

Jerry Wolkoff, the building's owner, climbed the stairs himself just two days before they collapsed. The graffiti artists who christened Wolkoff's building "5 Pointz" — signifying "the five boroughs coming together as one" — pointed out in legal papers filed last year that British singer Joss Stone filmed the video for her single "Tell Me 'Bout It" on those stairs in 2006.

These are the stairs:

The video is on YouTube. You can cue it up and see Stone dancing alone on the staircase, belting the song's verses and cooing its choruses. And you can imagine the media firestorm that would have engulfed Wolkoff if the staircase had fallen out from underneath Stone's feet on that day — if it had happened in front of a visiting film crew instead of a couple of Italian tourists on a languid April evening two and a half years later.

If the stairs had fallen during filming, the 5 Pointz artists probably would not have invoked the video in their argument to keep the derelict building open and operating for graffiti artists. It was touted as an example of the building's artistic importance in an unsuccessful Visual Artists Rights Act complaint the street artists filed against Wolkoff last fall. The complaint was part of a last-ditch effort to prevent him from tearing down the building and erecting a pair of high-rise apartment complexes in its place.

A divide always existed between the artists who painted the outer walls of the building and the studio artists who rented space on the inside. The street artists were the ones who gave 5 Pointz its iconic look. For years the graffiti that covered the outside walls made the old Neptune building one of the most recognizable structures in the outer boroughs. But the renters who worked inside were more serious-minded. As Henry Chung, one of the studio artists, explains: "When people say, 'Oh, you were in the 5 Pointz building,' It's, like, no, 5 Pointz was a group of kids that was spray-painting on the outside."

But the key difference between the two camps didn't really surface until years after the studio artists had moved out: As late as 2013, the street artists still thought there was something left to save. But for the artists on the inside, it was all over at 5:15 p.m. on April 10, 2009 — the day Nicole Gagne fell.

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