Visiting Places That No Longer Exist

5Pointz—also known as the Phun Phactory, the Aerosol Art Center, and the Institute of Higher Burnin’—was once a water-meter plant on Jackson Avenue, in Long Island City. For about two decades after that, beginning in the nineties, it was filled with ramshackle artists’ studios, and its exterior was eventually covered with a curated selection of murals by the kinds of painters who make pictures while looking over one shoulder for the police. The owner of 5Pointz painted over the murals in 2013 and demolished the complex several months later. Today, the site is occupied by a connected pair of high-rise residential towers, called 5Pointz LIC, which the developer describes as “THE BUILDING OF YOUR DREAMZ.” Almost twenty years ago, the artist Ellen Harvey made a small unauthorized contribution to the old exterior; more recently, she included the vanished façade in an ongoing project of hers, “The Disappointed Tourist,” which consists of paintings of beloved places that no longer exist, all suggested by other people.

Harvey was born in southeastern England in 1967 and moved to the United States in time for high school. “Immigrants like myself are the most nostalgic,” she said recently. “The thing that’s nice about this project is that people stand in front of it and tell stories, forever.” Nominations for subjects come from all over the world, usually through the Web site disappointedtourist.org. Each painting is twenty-four by eighteen inches, and is executed in wistfully monochromatic acrylic with oil glazes, lightly tinted, on wood panels. The work has been shown in Austria, Ireland, Poland, the U.K., and Wisconsin. Its current version, which includes renderings of three hundred or so vanished places—the Satellite Motel, in Cape Canaveral; the Shrine of Sidi Mahmoud, in Timbuktu; successive iterations of the Birmingham Central Library, in England—is on view at the Rowan University Art Gallery & Museum, in Glassboro, New Jersey.

“I haven’t actually submitted anything myself, but other people have suggested places I would have picked,” Harvey said. 5Pointz is one of those. On a monochromatic day last month, she returned there for the first time in a long time. “Oh, my God,” she said, as she got out of the car. Harvey has brown shoulder-length hair with bangs, and she was wearing a wool overcoat with biggish buttons. Two immense towers, which looked as though they’d been erected from squat blocks of cookie dough, loomed above her. “This is so anodyne,” she said. “I can’t believe they took the name.” A sign in the window of the rental office listed twenty-three amenities, among them a poker lounge, a spin room, golf simulators, an indoor pool, outdoor barbecues, shuffleboard, and boxing. A perk not mentioned—but evident on the sidewalk—is a lenient attitude toward residents who don’t clean up after their dogs.

Harvey headed next for Florent, a now defunct all-night diner, on Gansevoort Street, a block from the Hudson River. “Florent had the most amazing mix of people—drag queens, artists, celebrities,” she said. On the drive over, Harvey’s car navigation warned that Florent “may be closed,” thereby raising the slender hope that it wasn’t. But it definitely was. Heavy black plastic sheeting hung like a stage curtain inside the big front window. “I met my husband at a dinner here, in the late nineties,” Harvey said. In her painting, their initials are enclosed in a graffiti heart under the same window.

A little over a mile east of Florent, on Third Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, is the old site of New York Central Art Supply, another lost landmark that Harvey would have picked if others hadn’t. It closed in 2016, after a hundred and eleven years. “I used to go twice a week,” she said. “The paper people were upstairs, and the canvas-stretcher people were downstairs. When you paid, everything was written down by hand.” Today, the old storefront is hidden behind scaffolding and green plywood. A small window, maybe a foot square, has been cut into the plywood at eye level, near where the front door used to be. “They were in their death throes for a year,” she continued. “They were, like, ‘No, no, no, we’re not closing,’ and I was, like, ‘Yes, yes, yes, you are.’ ” Nothing was visible on the other side of the plywood except a steel security gate. “I’m going to start crying,” Harvey said. “When you live in the city, you no sooner fall in love with something than it disappears.”

Her next big project—which will open in September, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Central Library—will be a forward-looking corrective, she said. The library’s patrons will suggest elements of a “much needed positive future,” and she will create “a huge composite fictional patent drawing” for a contraption to produce them all—a device she calls “Utopia Machine.” ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *