THE WASHINGTON POST – Robert Hammond has known two periods of stillness on the High Line.
The first was in the late 1990s, when he and fellow civic activist Joshua David walked the abandoned, elevated freight railroad on New York’s West Side and knew it could be revived as a beguiling public park.
Trudging past the corroded rails and jungle of self-seeded plants, Hammond did not see this industrial relic as anything but magical. No decay could overcome the feeling that the rusting hulk, perched 30 feet in the air, offered a strange and alluring platform from which to view the Manhattan skyline on one side and the Hudson River on the other.
“It looked hard and soft, beautiful and ugly,” he said. “It was so different from the rest of the city.”
The second pause, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, reflects an entirely different emptiness and in some respects a more dystopian one because of the way the High Line became so popular since it opened in 2009. This silence is far more jolting.
Restored, redesigned and repurposed as a pedestrian greenway on stilts, the 1.5-mile linear park now draws some eight million visitors annually, so many that there are times when the entrances must be closed to prevent overcrowding.
Perhaps unfairly, it has also been seen as a catalyst for the hyper-gentrification of the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea neighbourhoods through which it threads.
What was once a down-to-earth blue-collar area has morphed into a playground for the rich, with an eruption of high-rise offices, shops and condos catering to the wealthy. These glitzy buildings have closed in around the High Line over the past 11 years. The starkest transformation is the creation of Hudson Yards, the USD25 billion mini-city that has sprung up at the northern stretch.
How these condos and offices fare through the pandemic and beyond is open to speculation.
The more pressing issue is, how can the High Line reopen safely when much of its path is just eight feet wide?
The space is operated by the Friends of the High Line, co-founded by David and Hammond, who is the Executive Director. While most New York parks, including Central Park, have remained open, the High Line’s entrance gates have been closed because of the obvious difficulty in keeping people apart.
One approach, adopted by public gardens around the country, is to issue timed tickets so that a much reduced visitor flow is metered. Hammond, however, wouldn’t be drawn into specifics. “We are still working with the city to determine how many visitors we can sustain while maintaining good distances,” he said by phone. “We are considering a lot of options.”
(The Department of Parks and Recreation referred operational questions to the Friends group.)
The silver lining, for New Yorkers at least, is that when it does reopen, the High Line will be far more welcoming simply because it may take years for New York to return to the level of tourism – some 65 million visitors a year – it attained before the coronavirus crisis. In the interval between limited reopening and a world back to normal, whenever that may be, the High Line will become something closer to its original idea, a quirky postindustrial gift to the West Side. It may become for New Yorkers what the cultural treasures of Florence and Venice are now for their citizens: havens devoid of the hordes of out-of-towners.
“If we are having to limit the number of people for safety, it’s going to give people a different experience, and it’s going to be mostly New Yorkers,” Hammond said.
If this prospect has New Yorkers salivating about a tourist-free High Line, Hammond said, he hasn’t felt the pressure to fling open the gates. “We want to open, but when it is safe,” he said. “We don’t want to open and then have to close it back down because it’s not safe.”
A survey of High Line users last year indicated that more than half were international visitors and that just one in five lived in the city. Justin Davidson, writing last year in the Intelligencer, described it as “a cattle chute for tourists”.
For lifelong New Yorkers such as Wendy Goodman, the High Line has been a place to avoid, except in foul weather. “I love the High Line, I’ll walk it only in the worst weather, when it’s freezing or raining, because it’s the only time you can walk it without blocks of people,” she said. Goodman is the design editor of New York Magazine and lives in nearby Greenwich Village.
The High Line opened in three sections over its first five years, the last part running alongside Hudson Yards before finally curving around close to the Hudson River. A short fourth section, the Spur, opened last year.
High Line users find areas of repose – a lawn, for example, and a performance stage overlooking Tenth Avenue – but most of it features a decked promenade alongside mass plantings of perennials and grasses devised by the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf and redolent of the wildflowers that seeded in after the High Line’s disuse in 1980. Throughout, railroad tracks function as design elements. Sculpture and other artworks are exhibited on a rotating basis. Live performances are staged regularly.
Less obvious is the engineering and construction that went into rebuilding the High Line, including the extensive drainage systems that underlie what is essentially a rooftop garden.
The project architects were Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the landscape architects James Corner Field Operations.
Hammond said the initial, raw sense of the abandoned High Line as an unlikely platform to view Manhattan has evolved into an experience that relies on all its component parts. “One of the things that makes it special is not just the plants, the architecture, the city, but the people,” he said. “You need all four.”
For many, the aura of luxury living embodied by Hudson Yards has become emblematic of New York as a city no longer belonging to common folk, except as an audience to wealth.
Look online, and you will find a one-bedroom apartment renting for more than USD5,000 a month and a two-bedroom condo going for USD3.7 million. The conglomeration also houses a 720,000-square-foot shopping mall, an art venue named the Shed and a USD200 million monumental sculpture named the Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick, essentially a basket of interconnected stairs.
Built over 28 acres of rail yards, Hudson Yards didn’t displace anyone, directly at least, but critics have assailed its bombast and disconnection from the reality of city life.
Alexandra Schwartz, writing in the New Yorker, said Hudson Yards feels like “a nice airport terminal, with the High Line as its moving walkway.”
Goodman calls it “an aberration of horror”. The wonderful thing about New York City is that all these neighbourhoods had a purpose,” she said. “The warehouse buildings were warehouses, the schools were schools, and now it’s all condos. God forbid we should have an authentic neighbourhood.”
Hammond said the High Line may have been given too much credit – or blame – for the development around it, but he acknowledges that a greater effort could have been made to preserve space for more affordable housing. In hindsight, “it’s easy to say,” he said. In 1999, “the project was thought to be crazy, and most people thought it wasn’t going to work.”
As a result, the Friends organisation has established the High Line Network to advise reuse projects in other cities about ways to mitigate gentrifying effects, including the 11th Street Bridge Park over the Anacostia River in the District of Columbia.
The negative effects of the High Line’s popularity shouldn’t distract from the park’s value as an exemplar of adaptive-reuse landscape architecture and horticultural design. By witnessing Oudolf’s artistry and the work of the gardeners, millions of people have registered, if only subconsciously, a form of esoteric herbaceous gardening previously thought avant garde.
As for the first empty spring since the High Line was reincarnated, “people just miss it,” Hammond said. “The number one question has not been, ‘When are you going to open?’ it’s, ‘How are the plants doing?’ “