Uncapped: Rest in Peace Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff of 5POINTZ Fame
Hello Uncapped Brethren. Some of you may find this news a little late and not worth your time, but it came to my attention, that Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff passed away. He was 83 and had a neurological disorder unbeknownst to him. Death came quickly for the Brooklyn-born real estate Titan, and news of his passing faded beneath the pages and pages of stories regarding COVID-19 and other Trump atrocities. I decided to look into his life a little bit…what I found was the story of a man many did not know. If you made it past “Jerry Wolkoff,” stay with me…
Born into poverty in 1937 Brownsville, Jerry Wolkoff was the middle son of Bertha (Billie) and Irving Wolkoff, a milkman. They struggled to meet the $32 rent each month, so at the age of 10, Wolkoff began working at a local men’s clothing store. His father died when he was 11. Eventually Jerry started his own business waxing floors and by the age of 16, he had built one of the largest floor-waxing companies in New York City.
After watching his older brother build a couple of houses in Brooklyn, he also turned to real estate, selling his floor waxing company to fund his purchase of vacant lots. Within a few years, Wolkoff became one of the most prolific homebuilders in the outer boroughs, building hundreds of homes in Brooklyn and Staten Island. He would go on to purchase an old factory in Long Island City in 1971 and that factory is our next stop circa 2012.
5POINTZ (“5PTZ”). Graffiti Mecca. After 20 some-odd-years of becoming the gathering place for writers all over the world, Jerry sensed a real estate boom in Long Island City, and decided the time ripe to build over the crumbling structure and submitted demolition permits. Upon hearing this, pretty much every art enthusiast in the world jumped on the Jonathan “MERES” Cohen train (if you haven’t heard of MERES click here) to help save the art landmark. Many of us presented our unrelenting support to help. My conversations with MERES and his partner consisted of offers to help by putting together a Landmarks Preservation Commission and National Register of Historic Places application to effectively landmark the building, thereby preserving the art.
After the company left in 1972, the buildings transformed into artist studios and a light manufacturing plant. Eventually the site became known as the Phun Phactory in 1993 by Pat DiLillo (RIP) and later re-branded “5 Pointz” under the leadership of MERES.
(Please pause for Pat Dililio who died in 2013. His vision paved the way for 5 PTZ and he is too often forgotten.)
With elation and relief, I relayed a brief history of Neptune to MERES and his team, but they declined to proceed with landmarking. The next I heard from them was the call to arms after 5PTZ was whitewashed. (I found at later, they had tried to landmark using different criteria for historical significance, but that was unfortunately, rejected by the LPC.)
The whitewash heard round the world happened on November 19, 2013. Wolkoff was branded an “art mass murderer.” Tears, outrage, vigils and protests immediately ensued.
From The New York Times:
The owner of the buildings, Jerry Wolkoff, said painting over the artwork was the humane thing to do. A recent order by a federal judge allows him to move forward with his plans to demolish the buildings by year’s end, and, he said, watching the art-covered walls be pulled down piece by piece would be “torture.”
He also wanted to avoid a confrontation, adding that there would be a 60-foot-high wall near the new towers where graffiti painters can work again.
I followed the story closely, as many in the graffiti community did, hoping for a positive outcome. My hope was met by a historic decision in 2018. Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Frederick Block awarded the artists a total $6.75 million in a landmark decision. The sum included $150,000—the maximum legal penalty—for each of the 45 destroyed works at the center of the case.
Graffiti had finally won. But why? What did the court actually decide?
In summation, and in layman’s terms, because let’s not with legalese: the artists sued Jerry for violating their “moral rights” under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) after he erased their work. One of the chief complaints from those involved was that they did not have time to document their work before it was destroyed, but from another perspective, was a year not enough time?
Looking back at the case, court transcripts and news articles, I found a collection of quotes from Jerry that read differently now. He was not making excuses for his actions. Yes, what he did was morally wrong and in the court of public opinion and federal court, a jarring slap to artists around the globe who contributed to 5PTZ, but on the flip and much maligned side, he was just a real estate developer doing his job. We may not want to accept that, but Jerry himself summed it up:
“I’m a developer,” Wolkoff said at the time.” If you can explain to me what I did wrong, I’d be interested to know. I whitewashed that building so they wouldn’t get arrested by protesting. I never did anything wrong. I just gave them a place where they could express themselves for more than 20 years.”
“The worst part about all this is I still think I’m right while the whole world thinks I’m wrong,” Wolkoff said after the ruling. “Yeah, I painted over it, but they painted over their own work to make room for new murals, too. I guess I’ll just have to live with it.”
“For 25 years I allowed them to do [graffiti there], and I love what they did. I didn’t whitewash it to be mean,” Wolkoff told The Real Deal last December, adding that he whitewashed the graffiti to deter protestors who would have been arrested. [The City]— Kevin Sun
Were you surprised by the public reaction when you whitewashed 5Pointz? I was absolutely shocked, but I whitewashed it already. For 25 years I allowed them to do [graffiti there], and I love what they did. I didn’t whitewash it to be mean. I whitewashed it because I heard that they were going to put their hands together and stop the bulldozers from coming. Hell, they would be arrested. So I said, let me just get it over with, and that was the intent.
We reached out to some of the artists: they had no intention of holding hands and blocking bulldozers; they were going to disconnect the cherry pickers (lifts), but decided against it. Another idea was projecting “SAVE 5PTZ” on the building. That never happened either.
“First of all, I live my life watching pennies. But it’s not going to make a difference in my life. It’s the principle. I did nothing wrong. It’s my property, my building. What did I do? If you can tell me, “Jerry, in my eyes you did this,” I’d like to hear it.”
Your critics have used harsh terms. They’ve called you “a piece of shit,” “dishonest,” “not a man of his word.” How do you feel about that? Look, I’m not insulated. Nobody likes to be called “piece of shit,” but I’ve got a life to live. You can’t satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t make me wrong and that doesn’t make them [right]. Especially when you’re in business, you have people that are envious. I probably work harder than most people that you ever want to know. I don’t vacation. But I’m having fun.
In all the blind rage, many failed to realize that the Great Graffiti foe was actually a man who loved the art form. Had he not, 5PTZ would never have existed.
“The work these artists do with a spray-paint can is mind-boggling to me. I really appreciate their work,” Jerry Wolkoff told The Real Deal in 2014, soon after the whitewashing took place.
For 25 years, he allowed the walls of the warehouse complex to be painted. Surely, Jerry had his fair share of disagreements with the artists who worked there, given his “tough as nails,” “piece of shit” persona, but all in all, he let it rock. He let his property become the 5PTZ we mourn. And despite it all, Jerry still supported graffiti. At the time of his death, Jerry was actively seeking artists to adorn the new walls of his complex.
From The City, July 2019:
“It’s hard when you get bashed in the papers, but we’ve always been pro-artist and we always wanted artists and we would love to have some of the artists that were at the building before to come back again,” said David Wolkoff, who co-owns the complex with his father, Gerald. “That’s up to them. I would love to speak to them.”
Jerry is survived by wife Michele, his sons David and Adam, daughter-in-law Stephanie, and grandchildren Zachary, Tyler, and Alexi. Here’s to you Mr. Wolkoff. May you rest in peace. I am sure we will see a memorial for you in the coming days because, despite your reputation, you deserve your place in graffiti history.