The Real Deal New York

The Closing: Jerry Wolkoff

The salty 5Pointz and Heartland developer on growing up poor, whitewashing Long Island City and cursing up a storm
By Rich Bockmann | December 01, 2018 10:00AM

Jerry Wolkoff (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff, who founded the family development firm G&M Realty, has worked in the real estate business for more than 60 years. His company now has a portfolio of about 12 million square feet of commercial and residential property in the five boroughs and on Long Island. Wolkoff is perhaps best known in New York City for the controversy surrounding his 5Pointz development in Long Island City — a former water-meter factory he bought in the early 1970s. The brash 82-year-old developer earned a place in the history of graffiti after allowing street artists to work in and spray-paint the property, which became known as the “Institute of Higher Burnin’.” But Wolkoff was later lambasted for whitewashing the city’s street culture when he had the entire building painted over late one night in 2013. At that point he and his oldest son, David, had decided to move forward with plans to turn the site into a pair of luxury rental towers with 1,115 units for an estimated $750 million. This past January, a federal judge ordered Wolkoff to pay a group of graffiti artists $6.75 million in damages — a ruling the developer is appealing. The case became a major flashpoint in the arts world and tested the Visual Artists Rights Act, which gives some rights to their work even it if it’s not their property. Wolkoff has also spent the last 15 years trying to build his massive Heartland Town Square in Suffolk County. The $4 billion redevelopment of more than 425 acres would mark the largest project on Long Island since Levittown with 9,000 apartments, 3 million square feet of office space, a hotel and an aquarium, among other additions. Wolkoff claims to have been the largest homebuilder on Staten Island in the 1960s, when he developed the 170-home Heartland Village.

DOB: November 8, 1936
Lives in: The Hamptons, Upper East Side
Hometown: Brownsville, Brooklyn
Family: Married with two sons: Adam, 49, and David, 51

Where did you grow up? I started in Brownsville, Brooklyn. My father died when I was 11. [My mother] never remarried and raised us alone. I have an older brother and a younger brother.

Was it tough financially? Yeah, it was terrible. My mother was on what you call welfare today. So we all went to work, and whatever we made we put into a pot. Money was never a thing that we would concern ourselves with. We just wanted to make sure we had enough to eat. I mean rent was $32 a month, but for us to make $32 was not easy, you know?

Did you drop out of school early to go to work? I finished high school, just about, because I was always working.

But you didn’t go to college. How do you think that impacted your career, for better or worse? For me, it was an asset, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else.

What do you think about all the Ivy Leaguers in the real estate business? Their real estate is different than mine, and most of these guys are brighter than I am. They know how to finance through investors and banks. I personally don’t know how they do it. So I build different than most of them because I’m not doing anything unless I know I can afford to build it with very little debt. They know how to play the game in their offices, but fuck it.

You had your own floor-waxing business, right? How did you get started with that? Well, I used to go around my neighborhood and pick up stops, and then I just kept on growing. I’m a big morning person because you can get a lot of things done in the morning and I hate sleeping. People love sleep. What is that? Did you ever make one penny sleeping? Never. Back then I worked at night because you can’t do barber shops and funeral parlors during the day.

So how did you get into homebuilding? I was blessed to meet people that gave me a stepping stone to where I am today. The one that I looked up to most was my older brother, Morty. In 1954, my brother told me he’s building two houses and I said, “Fuck this shit, I’m getting out of here,” and I sold my route to somebody that I knew in the window-washing business. He bought my floor-waxing route, and I went in with the money to buy land and build two houses.

What do the initials in G&M Realty stand for? That’s for Gerald and Michelle, my wife.

How did you meet? Through a blind date. The person that introduced us was my [future] brother-in-law. I bought land from him in Mill Basin, and I was busy on the site driving piles up and down and suddenly he came to me one day and said, “Listen, my wife’s sister is coming in, I’d love you to meet her.” I said, “Mickey, I don’t want to meet her. I’m going with somebody.” I wasn’t, but I owed this guy $350,000 at that time, and I didn’t want to piss him off. The fourth time he came back, he said, “Take a look at her,” and I saw the picture. I couldn’t believe it — she’s gorgeous — so I said, “okay,” and I met her and that’s it. After that, it’s been 57 years with her, married for 54, and I love her as much now, probably more than I did then.

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.

You’re still in court fighting a $6.75 million fine. Is that a significant chunk of money for you, or is it more about the principle? 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.

The local council member said that you reneged on an agreement to use union labor on the site, and that he’ll never approve another project of yours again. Does that concern you going forward? So Jimmy Van Bramer doesn’t want to bother with me, whatever. All these people have term limits — eventually they’ll be out of here — and my children are young. Thank God for term limits for our industry.

Your Heartland project is $4 billion. It’s taken 15 years, but nothing’s been built yet. What’s the deal? It’s going to happen. I believe I’ll get it because it’s the right thing. It took me 15 years to get to where I am now with the town. But now you’ve got one or two people holding back for no reason whatsoever.

Are politicians your biggest opponents at this point?  With almost everything I do, I need the approval of the political end of it, and generally I get it. But there’s always one little clink. It’s not always them, and to be perfectly fair, a lot has to do with me. Because I have a vision of what I want to do, and I want my vision built — not your vision. So that’s why I blame myself. Ninety percent of the developers want to give in: “Let me get the fuck out of here because it’s costing me money. What am I, fucking nuts?”

You curse a lot. Does it ever get you in trouble? Yeah, my wife gets upset. She said stop with it, and I try to — I do the best I can to try to stop. I don’t have the greatest command of the English language, but I tell you the way it is.

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.

Do you splurge on anything? No. I live comfortably. But I still take JetBlue. I drive a Prius.

Do you ever plan on retiring? If I didn’t retire now, why would I retire?

—Edited and condensed for clarity.