Neighborhoods

How the High Line Changed NYC

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There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line. Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

In recent years, mountains of ink have been spilled about how the ills facing contemporary New York and cities around the globe have been exacerbated by the High Line’s complicity, including its fostering of income inequality and “growth machine” politics, inequitable parks funding, and private influence over public space. Other books about the High Line either don’t engage these critiques or only do so through the eyes of Hammond and Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David, who authored a book promising “the inside story” in 2011.

Hammond often says the High Line “gets too much credit and too much blame” for the redevelopment of West Chelsea. But this elides the fact that the High Line was joined at the hip with the West Chelsea rezoning, which did not include affordable-housing mandates. The park’s sleek design and elite supporters also place the High Line at the center of a “creative class” vision for a hyper-gentrified Manhattan, to the point that the neighborhood’s transformation has even priced out all but the most expensive art galleries.

Defenders often praise the High Line as a modern-day project on par with Central Park, but beyond noting the role both parks serve as iconic green spaces, few make the connections illuminated by journalist Tom Baker. Both parks, he says, are pastoral constructions of an idealized past — for Central Park, a rural vision, and for the High Line, an industrial one — serving as romanticized respites in the ever-quickening city. Picking up that thread, architecture professor Christoph Lindner also notes the irony that both parks were built with the goal of spurring real estate development: These spaces are meant to be experienced slowly, but are also designed to accelerate the surrounding city.

Yet for all the High Line’s flaws, there is a silver lining, argues anthropologist Julian Brash: It was built primarily with public funds and envisioned from the start as a city park open to all. “We need to see the High Line not as representing a new paradigm of public space, or as its betrayal,” he writes. “Instead, we need to see the publicness of the High Line as an unfulfilled promise.” Without this belief in the High Line as a public endeavor, there would be little space for the parks-equity movement to question the wisdom of using private funding to support discrete components of the parks system while parks in less well-off areas face continued budget cuts.

While academics and the public continue to learn lessons at the intersection of private interests and public space, the billionaires who made the High Line possible are continuing down the road of ever-greater private influence. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who gave tens of millions of dollars to Friends of the High Line, have donated an even larger sum to the Hudson River Park Trust to build an elevated, undulating concert venue on stilts above the Hudson River at Pier 55. It would be open to the public but managed by a nonprofit created by Mr. Diller and his family foundation.

It’s this type of conspicuous, plutocrat-driven development that makes the High Line (and modern Manhattan itself) iconic, but it remains an example with limited utility to other places. Other elevated parks are either completed or proposed in Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and essays in Deconstructing the High Line look at efforts in Queens, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, each with its own series of parallel and divergent tracks from the glitzy West Side showpiece.

While other cities pursue their own elevated parks, the High Line’s location in the backyard of billionaires makes it a powerful symbol at the center of debates over our increasingly unequal and divided society.

But sometimes, it’s just a nice place to take a walk.

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