Before it became a world-renowned example of urban renewal, The High Line was just a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across lower Manhattan. But to Robert Hammond, now the Co-founder and Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, those tracks sparkled with potential.
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I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Gesso — a podcast about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.
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Two decades ago, a young man named Robert Hammond toured a set of elevated, abandoned railroad tracks, which cut through Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
I mean, I fell in love. It was a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the middle of the city and it was just... magical.
This railway, called the West Side Elevated Rail Viaduct, was once home to freight trains. Later, it would come to be known as the High Line.
It sort of reminded me of like the aqueducts in Rome, except it's basically my dad's age and I thought somebody must be working to preserve it.
But nobody was. Today, the High Line is one of the world’s most famous green spaces. But at the time, it was just an unused swath of elevated railway in lower Manhattan. It was enchanting. It was abandoned. And it was about to be demolished.
And so that's when we really were like, okay, we have to do something.
Robert teamed up with Joshua David, a travel writer he’d met at a local community board meeting. Bonded by a sense of duty to the High Line, the two of them decided to start a nonprofit to protect it -- despite having next to no experience or desire to work in the nonprofit world. They couldn’t resist the feeling of uncharted territory, that gift of unused space.
Joshua always describes it as that feeling… It's a common, I think, New Yorker dream where you dream you discovered extra room in your apartment, you know, and then you wake up and then you're really bummed it's not there and he said that's what this was like. it was like a city that you thought you knew and you discovered this whole other space that's right in the city and it's running right through it.
But there wasn’t a clear blueprint for what to do next. Neither Joshua or Robert had backgrounds that matched up with the task ahead. So when they started their organization, “Friends of the High Line,” they were free to take a more creative approach.
We had to start our own organization and you know, my background was in marketing. So the first thing I did was get a logo, Paula Scher, from Pentagram designed this H logo for us.
There was a guy in the Giuliani [00:05:00] Administration who said this project, all this project is, is two guys and a logo. That was meant to be really derogatory but it turns out two guys and a logo can do a lot.
They pulled it off. Friends of the High Line swelled with financial and community support, and the High Line was saved from destruction.
Now, those old railroad tracks have been completely transformed. The High Line sits atop the Chelsea neighborhood as an elevated pathway built onto the rails. It traces about two kilometers, from the Whitney to Hudson Yards. Each step is carefully designed to include plants, art installations, performances, food vendors, and more.
As visitors walk down the winding path, they see Manhattan from an entirely new angle. They are surrounded by the tops of buildings laden with fire escapes, decorated with murals and billboards. Far below them, scores of yellow taxis rumble through the streets like toy cars.
It’s an unprecedented environment.
The traditional way of building a park is like [00:07:00] Central Park and it's meant to be an escape from the city and the high line is not an escape from the city. You can smell, hear, and see the city, and that’s what makes it work.
Twenty years after Robert and Joshua first toured the railway, the High Line is a full-fledged attraction. It hosts 8 million visitors annually and is home to blossoming creative and artistic experiments.
One of Robert’s favorite experiments was the Renegade Cabaret, which started by accident right around the park’s opening.
We got a call from a local resident, Patty, who'd been in the neighborhood, really interesting history. She was a photographer of the early punk rock scene.
Patty was calling to complain about a glaring light, which was shining into her apartment from the High Line. Instead of landing on the stairs, as intended, it beamed directly into her home.
She called to complain; we were so, you know, busy with opening we tried to get it fixed, but we weren't doing it fast enough and so like any sort of good New Yorker she made the best of it. She had a friend who was a cabaret singer and she would this on one night a week, she would string Chinese lanterns on her balcony on our fire escape.
And that was the signal that it was time for the Renegade Cabaret. And then this woman [00:18:00] would come and serenade the people on The High Line and she had this perfect spotlight on her! and I mean we loved it and you know, it was… it was just exactly how we wanted The High Line to be used, in sort of unexpected ways.
Not everyone is a fan of the High Line and its offerings. Many have condemned its role in the explosive development and gentrification of Chelsea. They call attention to the fact that the High Line’s ample visitors are, quote, “overwhelmingly white” -- according to a 2017 study.
I think we didn't fully understand -- and this is embarrassing to say, but -- just because something is free and public does not mean everyone feels welcome… just because you go to communities and say “you are welcome!” does not mean they will feel welcome.
He says that the High Line was conceived in a different era. It was post 9/11, jobs were disappearing, and the stock market threatened collapse. Over-development wasn’t even a question. No one expected the High Line’s rocketing success.
Regardless of the cause, not all locals were coming to the park. Shortly after its construction, Friends of the High Line held dozens of community input sessions for people in public housing in the area.
They weren’t coming [00:15:00] and they gave three reasons they felt it wasn't built for them. They said they didn't see people that look like them and they didn't like our program. They actually said they hated our programs.
After these meetings in 2010, Robert and the High Line team doubled down on their efforts to improve programming and inclusion. Recent surveys of the same public housing area have yielded better results. But the work continues.
We as an organization need to keep responding to the changing needs of the city. The city is dramatically different. So the needs of the people are different and we need to respond to that. So I think it's -- and it's not us being a leader in the neighborhood.
I think we're going to have the most impact partnering and working with others sort of like the network. We don't tell people what to do. We all get together and think, how can we work together?
Twenty years after his first fateful visit to the High Line, Robert still feels the magic of the space.
I think what I fell in love with was this. Juxtapositions of hard and soft, nature / man-made, beautiful and ugly and I realized when people look back at those pictures different people think different things are ugly and beautiful. I see the billboards and think they're beautiful.
I see the weeds and think they're beautiful wildflowers. I see the abandoned buildings and think they're beautiful. Other people, you know, something completely different… and I think that's, again, what's making The High Line work is all these juxtapositions and what we ultimately built was not just a park. It was a, part-park, part Botanical Garden, part Museum, Part Social Service organization, part Public Square, part walkway, and it's all those things together.
OUTRO: This interview featured Robert Hammond, the co-founder and Executive Director of Friends of the High Line.
This podcast was produced for Gesso Media, by Georgia Wright, and me, Henna Wang.
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