It is summer in New York, which, for those New Yorkers occupying that ever-growing demographic where hipster and child-friendly meet, means that it’s time to hit the High Line. For the uninitiated, the High Line is a city park built atop an abandoned elevated railway that winds through the southwestern side of Manhattan 30 feet above street level. A little more than a decade ago, in the waning days of the Giuliani Administration, the crumbling railway line was slated for demolition; today, just three years after the first section of the park opened to the public, it is one of the city’s most popular parks, drawing millions of visitors and spawning acres of new upscale retail outlets and residential high-rises in the former post-industrial badlands of Far West Chelsea.
My wife and I would almost certainly land in the bottom decile on the hipster scale, but we have a five year old who is very, very into trains, and the High Line has become the default family outing on summer weekends when the weather is nice and we don’t have anywhere else to be. Our journey always starts with lunch at Amy’s Bread at Chelsea Market, a high-end food mall located in a former Nabisco cookie factory that fills two city blocks between Ninth and 11th Avenues near the bottom end of the High Line. If we’re still hungry, we get a gelato at L’Arte del Gelato, and then after our son, Luke, tosses a few pennies into the Chelsea Market Wishing Well, we head out onto the street to ride the glass-encased elevator up to the High Line.
On a recent gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, we passed a crowd of overweight gray-hairs off a bus tour gawking at an anorectic blonde model doing a photo shoot in a skimpy black dress, oversized silver sunglasses, and not much else. We passed young couples, gay and straight, of every ethnic and socio-economic description, nuzzling on the ubiquitous benches. We passed rows of well-dressed young New Yorkers sitting, rapt, on wooden risers in the so-called 10th Avenue Square, a sort of amphitheater cantilevered out over 10th Avenue, with an enormous glass window at the bottom that allows you to watch the traffic below as if it were on a movie screen. As Luke ran ahead pointing out the old railroad tracks hidden in the gardens artfully sculpted to look like patches of common weeds, we passed the bricked-over delivery entrances of half a dozen former factories converted to hotels, galleries, and high-end residences.
To a certain degree, the success or failure of any public space depends on its ability to project the dreamscape of its users. New York’s Central Park, built in the latter part of the 19th century when Lower Manhattan was teeming with immigrant ghettos and soot-belching factories offered New Yorkers a pastoral fantasy of rolling hills and grassy meadows. The World Trade Center Memorial, with its sunken pools occupying the footprint of the twin towers, transforms a scene of carnage into a site for peaceful contemplation. What is fascinating about the High Line, what makes its design concept at once breathtaking and a little wince-inducing, is the particular dreamscape it evokes. Unlike earlier reclaimed urban industrial areas like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or New York’s own South Street Seaport, which airbrushed away the dirt and grime to transform the abandoned districts into theme-park versions of themselves, the High Line embraces its blight. Everywhere you look you see lovingly restored cracked plaster and million-dollar gardens made to look like neglected weed beds.
The High Line is the distressed skinny jeans of public parks, the gourmet taco truck of urban tourist attractions, and as such, it represents the high-water mark of the hipster aesthetic, which venerates poverty and decay as signifiers of authenticity. Thirty feet in the air, winding through the remains of one of the last blue-collar work sites Manhattan, the High Line is a monument to gentrification, a showcase of what can happen when hip young college graduates invade an impoverished area and repopulate it with art galleries and fancy restaurants. But here’s the truly amazing part: it all works. The underlying aesthetic of the park’s design may be a tad fatuous, girded as it is by unexamined assumptions about working-class authenticity, but the park itself is a gorgeously executed gem.
A visitor taking in the snazzy new glass-box condo towers and whimsically shaped office buildings that now line both sides of the park can be forgiven for assuming the High Line was dreamed up by some shadowy cabal of realtors, developers, and A-list architects. In fact, according to the 2011 book, High Line: The Inside Story of New York’s Park in the Sky, the park was the brainchild of two local guys, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who literally took on City Hall and won.
As the two men explain in High Line, the first train tracks were laid out at street-level on Manhattan’s West Side in the 1840s to connect the factories and warehouses along Tenth and 11th Avenues with the West Side Rail Yards, where goods could be transferred onto freight trains headed for destinations across the U.S. By the early 20th century, these tracks had turned West Chelsea into such a congested, dangerous area that the railroad employed men on horses dubbed “The West Side Cowboys” to ride in front of the rail engines waving red flags to warn passersby of oncoming trains. In 1934, the railroad built an elevated rail line from the West Village to 34th Street, but as trucks replaced railroads and globalization drained industry away from New York City, traffic on the elevated tracks slackened until the last train, reputedly carrying three boxcars of frozen turkeys, rode the High Line in 1980.
For the next 20 years the rail line essentially rotted while the city tried to figure out what to do with it. By the time Hammond and David got involved in 1999, the city, prodded by property owners hoping make a killing by redeveloping the neighborhood once the unsightly old railway was gone, was preparing to demolish what was almost universally seen as a dangerous eyesore. “To me it sounded romantic: a train running through your neighborhood,” writes Hammond, who then worked at various small tech start-ups. “But to the people who had lived there when the High Line was running, it wasn’t romantic. They didn’t just live on the wrong side of the tracks. They lived under the tracks. It was loud. It was dirty.”
But it was just this sense of grittiness, the structure’s link to a bygone era, that attracted the two young would-be park designers. Hammond writes:
There was a powerful sense of the passing of time. You could see what the High Line was built for, and feel that its moment had slipped away. All the buildings alongside it were brick warehouses and factories with smokestacks and casement windows, like buildings from a Hopper painting.
Their insight was to incorporate the decades of neglect into the design of the park, to make it in essence a walk-through garden celebrating New York’s forgotten industrial past. First, of course, they had to keep the city from tearing it down, which took nearly a decade and required, among other things, an innovative bit of zoning sleight-of-hand that allowed landlords to sell their right to build tall buildings over the site of the railway to owners of nearby parcels of land, whose zoning would have otherwise prohibited tall buildings.
But, really, what got the High Line built was a shift in how Americans, particularly younger Americans, view city life. Forty years ago, when men like Hammond and David were children, America’s big cities, abandoned by the manufacturing and shipping industries that had built them, were seen as crime-ridden cauldrons of poverty and ethnic conflict, and the middle class was doing everything it could to escape to the suburbs. Today, that migration has reversed, and the children of the suburbs are returning in droves to the inner cities, drawn not only to the night life and good restaurants, but to high-wage jobs in finance, media, and technology.
Just as the escape to the suburbs was abetted by a mythology of the inner city, exemplified by movies like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as a savage land of violence and moral rot, the return to the city has spawned its own mythology of the suburbs as plastic and unreal, with cities standing for authenticity and grassroots truth. White kids in the suburbs grow up listening to hip-hop with its roots in New York’s South Bronx projects, and twentysomething hipsters affect urban slang and spend thousands on clothes skillfully designed to look like they were found in a dumpster.
When today’s urban sophicates aren’t harkening back to a bygone industrial age, they’re dreaming of an agricultural Eden full of strapping yeoman farmers in overalls and small town folk gossiping around the wood-burning stove at the general store. Check out the names of the shops in Chelsea Market: Ronnybrook Dairy (ice cream), Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (butcher shop), Friedman’s Lunch (restaurant), Lucy’s Whey (cheeses), and The Filling Station (olive oil, vinegar, and craft beer — don’t ask). Everything is everywhere declared “artisanal,” “farm-grown,” or “handcrafted,” all of it no doubt marketed by college-educated children of the American suburbs who wouldn’t know how to milk a cow if the directions were printed on the udder.
This is the governing aesthetic that, as much as the zoning tricks that dampened developers’ objections, brought the High Line from a quixotic idea proposed by a couple local guys without design experience or political contacts to a $150 million cutting-edge city park. As with Central Park and Fisherman’s Wharf and Disneyland, and dozens of other once-iconic leisure-time design conceptions, the High Line will be copied endlessly, each time with a little less sincerity and a little less skill, until 30 or 40 years from now when today’s hipsters are nearing retirement age, the concept will seem as cheesy and dated as South Street Seaport — an obvious Fisherman’s Wharf knockoff — seems today.
But the High Line, whatever else you can say about it, is a sincere and original response to a genuine social phenomenon. It does what any great work of visual art does, which is to take an inchoate emotional sense shared by a large group of people and make it concrete, visible in three dimensions. What you make of it is largely determined by what you think of its underlying subject, which in this case is gentrification. If you are part of the community pushed out by the new wealth gentrification inevitably brings, then no doubt the High Line’s precious attention to symbols of decay and ruin — all those meticulously landscaped weeds — will seem calculated to piss you off. If, on the other hand, you are part of a gentrifying wave, as so much of young New York now is, then the High Line will seem to be singing from your hymnal, and you will revel in the distressed steel girders and exposed brick walls.
Or, if you are like me, fortysomething and relentlessly unhip, a child of the suburbs who has been at the business end of the gentrifying spear more or less your whole adult life, then you may be made a touch uncomfortable by the air of self-congratulation that seems to hang so very thick 30 feet over 10th Avenue. You may be put off by the way the project seems to insist on its own good taste in recognizing the beauty in the things other people wanted to throw away, as if the people who lived and worked there for generations were blind to the value of things they themselves had made. But for all that you may well still think, as I do, that it’s a hell of a nice place to spend a sunny summer afternoon in New York.
Image Credit: Wikipedia