The real estate developer who became infamous in western Queens for ordering the destruction of the world-famous 5Pointz graffiti mecca has died.
Jerry Wolkoff suffered a brief neurological illness and died at his home on July 17. He was 83.
Born into a low-income Brooklyn family in 1937, Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff was an exemplar of the American Dream. To help his mother, he began working at age 10 and started his first business by 16. Despite not having the opportunity to attend college, Wolkoff launched his real estate career in the 1960s, when he sold his floor-waxing business and built two homes with the profits.
He went on to be one of the most prolific homebuilders in the city and his firm G&M Realty and in the 1970s he acquired a former water-meter factory on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City. For 25 years, he allowed the walls of the warehouse complex to be painted over by graffiti artists.
In 2002, Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen became the curator at 5Pointz and before long the dilapidated complex became a center of the city’s hip-hop culture with busloads of tourists arriving each week. The colorful murals became the backdrop for rap videos and its loading dock became the place to be on weekends as renowned DJs turned it into an outdoor house party.
Wolkoff enjoyed the site’s growing fame and personal relationships with the artists, but as the real estate boom heated up in Long Island City, he announced plans in 2012 to demolish the complex to make way for two luxury residential towers. Cohen and his 5Pointz artists took him to court to protect their graffiti murals and the relationship turned caustic.
Under the cover of darkness on Nov. 19, 2013, Wolkoff ordered work crews to whitewash the walls of the 5Pointz complex. He was branded an “art mass murderer” by Cohen, and Wolkoff was flummoxed by the animosity.
“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.”
A federal jury ruled otherwise last year when it decided unanimously that Wolkoff violated the Visual Artists Rights Act invoked by 21 of the 5Pointz artists. Last February, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the $6.75 million judgment against Wolkoff.
Cohen said the landmark ruling validated graffiti as legitimate art and set a precedent for future aerosol artists in protecting their artwork from destruction.
Wolkoff, who named his nearly completed 1,100-unit residential complex 5Pointz Towers, could never understand the ruling.
“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.”
Along with his wife Michele and sons David and Adam, Wolkoff is survived by daughter-in-law Stephanie and grandchildren Zachary, Tyler and Alexi.
Additional reporting by Dana Chiueh.