PHILADELPHIA – A popular public art space called Graffiti Pier has been shut down by Philadelphia police over safety concerns, prompting a push to turn the former coal loading dock into an official park and saving it from the fate of other graffiti meccas that were razed by developers.
Pier 124 along the Delaware River was shuttered in the early 1990s and since then, intrepid artists, picnickers and fisherman have skirted the locked gate and turned the post-industrial artifact into a vibrant, non-official park and popular photo shoot locale.
Apparently, that surge in popularity helped lead to its closure.
Capt. Krista Dahl-Campbell of the 26th district said Conrail, which owns the pier, reached out to police over concerns about the safety of the increasing numbers of visitors to the site. Over the years she said there have been rapes and robberies at the site. In recent months, there’s been an uptick of theft from cars on streets near the pier, as out-of-towners have come back to find their vehicles have been broken into.
“I understand that people love the space and I understand why they want to utilize it,” Dahl-Campbell said. “But there is no lighting and it’s on private property that is not patrolled by us. It’s not an area that’s looked after.”
The closure has some supporters calling for the city or another agency to take over the property to establish an official park in hopes of preventing the loss of the art in any eventual development of the area and helping Graffiti Pier avoid the fate of New York City’s 5Pointz site, and Austin, Texas’s HOPE Gallery.
The Long Island City, Queens, graffiti site known as 5Pointz became a tourist attraction, drew thousands of spectators daily and formed a backdrop to the 2013 movie, “Now You See Me.” It was also a site for an Usher tour. All the while, the crime-ridden neighbourhood gradually improved, making it a prime spot for development. The owner whitewashed the building in 2013 and then tore it down to build luxury apartment towers. In February, a judge awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued after dozens of their spray paintings were destroyed to make room for high-rise luxury residences.
In Austin, Texas, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, also known as “Graffiti Park,” is set for demolition at the end of June, but photos of the current graffiti will be taken to document it. The gallery will then be moved and expanded at a new location with new wall space for street artists, a parking lot and art classes. The gallery will save one of the current graffiti walls.
Back in Philadelphia, Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the city and Conrail have had preliminary discussions about the future of this site. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a non-profit that focuses on developing and managing the waterfront, is also interested in looking into developing the pier, but no specific plans are in place, according to Lizzie Woods, vice-president of planning at the group.
A Conrail spokesman said the company realizes the importance of redeveloping former industrial sites like Graffiti Pier.
“Conrail’s history with Philadelphia dates back over 100 years to the Reading Railroad. We are committed to this city and plan on being a part of the community for at least another 100 years,” Conrail vice-president of corporate development Jonathan Broder said. “Right now, we’re exploring exactly what that means and are considering several options.”
Shila Griffith is an architect and interior designer in New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, who feels historic and crumbling sites like Graffiti Pier can be rescued and transformed.
“There aren’t many places where graffiti artists can do their work,” she said, noting that those locales often turn into popular tourist destinations like the “Lennon Wall” in Prague.
Griffith said the same could happen for Graffiti Pier.
“The thing with Graffiti Pier is people in the community have taken it on as their own. It’s essentially a park already,” she said.
She understands the safety concerns but said if it were developed into a park there would be maintenance and trash cans and police patrolling the site.
Conrad Benner is the founder of a popular street art blog called StreetsDept and has been making the case for years that the city should protect the pier.
“It could easily be swept up into the development that’s transforming the neighbourhoods around it and be sold to the highest bidder only to disappear like New York’s legendary 5Pointz,” Benner wrote on his blog in December. “That would be a painful loss not only to the people and communities that have made Graffiti Pier what it is but to Philadelphia as a whole.”