Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Deconstructing the High Line

Next Tuesday, October 24 at 6:30pm, the editors of the book Deconstructing the High Line: Postindustrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park will explore the after-effects of the popular luxury park, looking at gentrification along with causes and consequences of the “High Line Effect.” (See more description and info here.)

I asked co-editor Brian Rosa some questions:

What motivated you to "deconstruct" the High Line? When the High Line first opened, and for quite awhile, it felt forbidden to critique it in any way. Why this book now? How has the possibility of deconstructing the High Line opened up over time?

The genesis for this project was when Christoph Lindner and I first met at an authors’ meeting for a book he was editing, called Global Garbage, in June of 2014. We were wondering out loud why the reception of the High Line had been almost unanimously celebratory. Your op-ed in the New York Times from 2012, along with a few articles here and there, was the only critical work we could find on the topic, particularly in the design and planning fields. In the meantime, as we were going through the process of publication, more critiques began emerging.

I had been studying the High Line since I was completing a Masters degree in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, and my PhD research in Human Geography at the University of Manchester was focused on the transformation of the spaces along and beneath the Victorian elevated railways of Manchester, England, and how they were implicated in the city’s attempt to reinvent itself as postindustrial.

The reimaging process of the elevated railway corridors in Manchester came along with quite a bit of property- and design-led industrial gentrification as these sites were gradually transformed from light industrial use and semi-abandonment to landscapes of leisure and consumption.

The whole time I was doing this research I would be asked about my opinions of the High Line, and my impression would be that we would see a number of the same dynamics, only on steroids because of the intense real estate speculation that defines urban redevelopment in New York City.

What do you think made the High Line so resistant to critique?

I think the High Line eluded critique at first because it was not yet apparent the impact that its creation—and the rezoning that was integral to the city’s support of the project—would have on the surrounding areas of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and the area which is now becoming Hudson Yards.

A particular concern of mine is how the High Line fits within the broader framework of rising economic inequality in New York City. Anyone reading the policy documents, along with Mayor Bloomberg’s and Amanda Burden’s support for the project, could have predicted that the High Line would stimulate property values, loosen height restrictions for luxury development, and cause widespread commercial displacement and residential gentrification. It is possible to have underestimated these impacts, but I think claims that the High Line had “unintended consequences” are at best naïve and at worst disingenuous.

One only needs to look at the economic justifications that undergirded the strategic documents that made the High Line possible to see that this was a project focused on priming the pump for further luxury development and the revalorizing of a district that had already gained attention and aesthetic prestige through its art galleries and adaptive reuse of industrial structures.

However, I do not think it was until the point that new buildings started going up, the experience of walking through a low-rise industrial landscape was diminished, and it became (as you called it) a tourist-clogged catwalk, that the backlash started finding a vocal presence in public discourse.

In an interview, High Line co-founder Robert Hammond recently said they "failed" to create the High Line for the local community. He has founded the High Line Network to help keep other "adaptive reuse" parks equitable and accessible. What are your thoughts on that project?

It was clear that Hammond received a lot of pushback from donor-members of Friends of the High Line because of his “the High Line failed” statement. I am a member of their email list, and I took note of the PR damage control email that was sent after that article was published. In essence, it said: “when I said the High Line had failed. I didn’t actually mean failed, just that we could have done better at addressing social equity issues from the start.” I agree completely, but I think it was worked into the very fabric of the project that issues of rising inequality would have to be sidestepped in order to see it through.

The area along the High Line has become among the districts in the United States with the highest levels of income inequality, with almost all of the only remaining low-income housing being in the public housing projects. The High Line played a huge part in this. If it weren’t for the projects and some moderate income housing in the form of co-ops, it would be exclusively for the wealthy at this point.

At the same time, I acknowledge that Friends of the High Line has become more focused on social inclusivity, and this is reflected in Danya Sherman’s chapter in Deconstructing the High Line. Along those lines, I am following the newly-created High Line Network with great interest, and will be discussing the topic at the NYU panel. I am trying to do so without cynicism, but it is very hard. Part of the problem is that so much of the discourse of “equity” is about inclusion and participation of traditionally marginalized, but short of making real demands for social justice.

Do you think it's possible for other High Line-inspired parks to be equitable, considering all the development that is attracted to them? If so, how might that be accomplished?

In reality, I don’t think such adaptive reuse projects can do anything but heighten socio-economic inequality in cities with high levels of property speculation, and I think it is doubtful to see such projects come to fruition if there is not a heavy element of market-rate property development incorporated into plans. In areas where there is less development pressure, the gentrification concerns might perhaps be lower, but at the same time there would be more difficulty in securing the sort of philanthropic funding required to create something like the High Line.

There is actually starting to be some real pushback against “vanity parks,” particularly those perceived to be driven by the personal ambitions of the wealthy: the Garden Bridge in London and “Diller Park” in Manhattan are a few examples of new, semi-private parks that have been defeated in the past year.

Bill de Blasio recently visited the High Line for the first time and seemed to refuse to give it any praise. This refusal was met with frustration from the press. What's your interpretation of that?

My interpretation of Mayor de Blasio’s choice not to visit the High Line until recently is that he has been positioning himself as a champion of neighborhood parks, particularly those in the outer boroughs which have been under-funded for decades. From my understanding, his administration has indeed shifted attention to such parks, which is to be applauded.

However, I would note that it is under his leadership that the management of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has been passed on to a parks conservancy, making the largest park in Queens less public and more commercialized. It is an extension of the “tale of two cities” narrative that got him elected, but in the end his strategies toward issues like affordable housing are largely market-led. I think this is a folly. In many ways, in the dual sense of the word, the High Line is a folly too.


Downtowner said...

Another likely reason the High Line avoided initial critique is because during the Guiliani administration, there was the threat that it would be demolished. Joel Sternfeld's book "Walking the High Line" showed how beautiful it had become, left alone, and the movement to save it began. And much of the initial "renovation" of the line was to make it safe for visitors - essentially removing and reinstalling nature to be mass-accessible.

Of course, the popularity of the park, and further gentrification around it, has turned it into a symbol of exclusion and hyper-gentfiication at its most uncontrolled.

Scout said...

Isn't it passé by now to bash the High Line? Yes, thinking people all recognize it as a complete failure. But the honking hordes of bourgeois tourists flock there, adoring the sensation of being cattle herded toward slaughter. And other, even more idiotic, people actually buy apartments directly facing the cattle.

I must admit that I once found myself there on a quiet weekday early morning, before the marching morons descended en masse, and it had a certain charm, but that was before all the new construction which has turned it into a viewless canyon.

But I see I've fallen victim to the, as noted, passé allure of High Line bashing myself. It's irresistible, isn't it?

David said...

The below sentence sums up why the NIMBY crowd must be ignored. You have to be open to change and renewal, then you work at managing it.

"In reality, I don’t think such adaptive reuse projects can do anything but heighten socio-economic inequality in cities with high levels of property speculation, and I think it is doubtful to see such projects come to fruition if there is not a heavy element of market-rate property development incorporated into plans. In areas where there is less development pressure, the gentrification concerns might perhaps be lower, but at the same time there would be more difficulty in securing the sort of philanthropic funding required to create something like the High Line. "

Unknown said...

The High Line is a beautiful, inspiring, amazing place open to the whole world for free.
A failure? I know that there are people who love to project their own inner crankiness onto the world and call it piercing social analysis, but this is a new level of negative naysaying. I guess we should call Central Park a colossal failure and sin against lower income residents too. After all, look at the property values all around it. Aye caramba guys, take some mushrooms or smoke a fatty and EXPERIENCE the High Line with your senses. Rather than overanalyzing it with your politically grumpy minds.

TJ DeRinger said...

It's too bad the High Line isn't still in use for what it was originally built for: Trains bringing goods into the city, to then be distributed in step vans. Now you have 18-wheelers traversing the already clogged streets of Manhattan creating absolutely miserable traffic conditions all over. I think the High Line as it is now is a crowded mess and mostly boring.

SadEnding said...

The High Line, is neither good nor evil, flawed or perfect: it is what it is to whoever is judging it at the time.

For me, the High Line is much more symbolic in its nature and cannot help seeing it that way.And that way is a rather negative one. To me, the Highline represents the end of New York, at least the New York that existed for 200 years or so, one based on commerce and industry and one that took full advantage of being the world's greatest natural harbor. All gone.

What has replaced it is far uglier than any critic of gentrification sees. By eliminating a large working middle class (which, let's face it, is what gentrification seeks to do) we have a city with out of control rents, where the cost of living is absurdly high, and all the things that made New York City, "NEW YORK CITY," is destroyed.

I recall a time when I was able to attend the opera regularly, along with theater, concerts, and museums. If I were to take a date out for dinner and a Broadway show now I would have to sell my car first. The opera? The time one could afford an orchestra seat is long gone. It's madness, and if not madness, it is at the very least decidedly NOT the city I once knew and loved, that was once loved by people around the world.

This is what the Highline means to me. There is no way to make it palatable.

Kink&Blue88 said...

It was better when there were no buildings blocking the view. That's honestly what ruined it. Proper planning and following the old city zoning laws would've eliminated this ( I'd be glad to dig up photos I took 4-5 years ago of my walk along the high line close to Christmas time). Proper planning and taking the neighborhoods into consideration would've prevented a great idea from being such a consequential disaster.

Robert Lederman said...
The High Line Hates Artists
by Robert Lederman


The High Line prides itself on being one of NYC's most important art venues. It even has a paid full time art curator. Unfortunately, the High Line hates artists.