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Memo from Manhattan: The High Line at Dusk

By Sharon Zukin

Shortly before 8 p.m. on a warm September evening the High Line, Manhattan’s newest public park and the only one located above street level, is crowded.  Men and women, old and young, tourists from overseas and longtime New Yorkers have climbed the winding metal stairs to the former railroad freight line, now a mile-long, landscaped walkway, just to view the sunset over the Hudson River.  There are more people up on the High Line than down on the streets.  They are taking photos, chatting quietly, lounging on wooden benches and strolling between shallow beds of native plants, creating a new passagiata for the post-industrial city.

There’s a lot to like about the High Line.  It’s a gritty fragment of New York’s industrial past that was saved from demolition by feisty activists and wholesome volunteers.  It makes us think about how the city’s architecture was once built for function rather than for style.  It reminds us of what the rough West Side of Manhattan was like before a derelict Nabisco plant, where assembly line bakers manufactured the first branded American cracker, was transformed into the high-class bread shops of Chelsea Market.  And it recalls the days, not so long ago, when the Meatpacking District was a no-go zone for animal carcasses, blood-stained butchers and several kinds of street workers who made their nocturnal rounds, a far cry from the attraction for club kids and fashionistas it has become.

The High Line offers New Yorkers a novel way to indulge in two things that have become a passion since 9/11: spending time out-of-doors and hanging out in public spaces.  Maybe it reflects a hunger for community or maybe it’s a behavioral response to global warming, but this desire to be together in public flouts the ever-present eye of the surveillance cameras and revels in the diversity of strangers.  It’s the same passion that drives apartment dwellers to socialize on their building’s roof and eat lunch in the new “traffic-calming” islands that have been carved out of Broadway’s tumult.

While the number of people who use the city’s public parks has grown enormously in recent years, the High Line attracts a disproportionately huge number of visitors, as many as half a million in the first two months after it opened in 2009.

But this is what it took to “save” it:  A mayor – Michael Bloomberg  – who understands the value of attractive green space to brand the city for tourists and residents alike.  A city planning commissioner, Amanda Burden, who shares the city-branding vision and speaks the language of historic preservation.  A longtime strategy of “adaptive re-use” to find new business uses for old historic structures and an emerging strategy of “self-financing” for public parks, both of which rely on private funding.  Most important, saving the High Line depended on powerful backers in the “creative class” of art, media and fashion who have their own interest in redeveloping the neighborhood—in this case, the power couple of Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, who have both built corporate headquarters in this area.  And oh yes, did I neglect to mention them?: real estate developers who have surrounded the High Line with fabulously expensive new condos also swung around to support its transformation from eyesore to unique amenity.

Though it offers the public for free the same multi-million-dollar views that residents pay for, the High Line is a transparent illustration of how public parks have been privatized since the Reagan era.  The basic problem is that parks are expensive to maintain, and city governments are more strapped for cash now than ever before.  New York’s “elite parks,” from Central Park and Bryant Park in midtown to the new Brooklyn Bridge Park which opened this year, rely on private funds raised by public-private conservancies.

Like the other elite parks, the High Line is many times more expensive to maintain than “ordinary” parks in the neighborhoods.  This strains the already overburdened Parks Department and the private “friends” who are constantly thinking of ways to increase the revenue stream without charging admission fees.  After all, the High Line is a public park.

In contrast to criticism that New Yorkers of color and lower status don’t feel welcome here, the people who crowd the High Line at dusk are as diverse as Manhattan itself.  In fact Manhattan is “whiter” and richer than the outer boroughs, and a few years ago Mayor Bloomberg infamously referred to it as a “luxury product,” implying that those who cannot afford to live there should move elsewhere.  Tonight, though, an inter-racial gay couple walks hand in hand, a toddler tries out his legs under his mother’s watchful eye, a Latino couple pushes their baby’s stroller while a caregiver pushes a white-haired woman in a wheel chair.

No guards or security cameras are visible.  There’s a spirit of pure pleasure to be up in the air.

Back in the real city, under the High Line on 10th Avenue, two men in their early twenties are talking to two shorter, older women who appear to be their moms, maybe visiting from out of town.  “Want to go up to the High Line?” one son asks.

His mom cocks an eyebrow.  “The High Line?” she says.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

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