Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Park Gained, A Wilderness Lost

When I was in New York a few weeks ago, I finally made a visit to the High Line, the city's new park on an abandoned elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan.

The High Line, in 2007 and in 2010 on TwitpicLeft: the High Line in 2007 and in 2010: cultivating native plants and overpriced condo towers. Click to enlarge.

I had been pretty excited about this park for a long time - I first learned about it in 2006, the year I was working for the City as an Urban Park Ranger, when the project first broke ground. For me, the High Line was a vindication of my idea that a city's hidden pockets of wildness - often on the forgotten margins, like the abandoned industrial neighborhood around the High Line - could be celebrated for their unique ecosystems and natural resources, instead of being condemned as "blight."

Since it's opened to the public, there can't be any doubt that this abandoned railroad has been a cause for celebration from residents and tourists alike.

But when I visited last month, I had to wonder if something was lost in the High Line's transition from abandoned railroad to public park. The High Line is stunningly designed, packed with native plantings, and it's opened up new ways for New Yorkers and visitors to experience the city.

But is it wild anymore?

The High Line in 2001, by Jonathan Flaum:And in 2009, via Inhabitat:

The overwhelming impression I got from walking on the High Line this spring was of wealth. The park was clearly expensive to build, with tropical-wood furniture, elaborate fountains (they were under repair while I was there), and meticulously tended foliage. The carefully selected varieties of native plants were evenly, geometrically spaced in mulched planting beds outfitted with an irrigation system. A forest of new condo high rises and hotels, designed by global celebrity architects, loomed over the rehabbed warehouse buildings of the former industrial district.

Great architecture is all well and good. But I found that the High Line, in its "finished" state, was less like the wilderness I'd hoped for, and more like a formal garden for the gentry of Chelsea: a sort of post-industrial Versailles.

I feel like this is a missed opportunity. After all, ostentatious displays of wealth in New York City are not all that compelling or interesting - they're pretty much a dime a dozen.

The High Line, before it was a park, had been a refuge from a landscape obsessed with capitalizing and selling every square foot of space. Here there were acres of land that existed outside of the consciousness of real estate, where weeds, small mammals, birds, and the occasional human adventurer were free to wander in a two-mile meadow, simultaneously above and surrounded by the city. That's where it derived its wildness.

As a landscaped park, though, the High Line is obviously a real estate amenity. When every prospect offers views of shiny condo towers and expensive lofts in expensively rehabbed warehouses, and designer signage implores you to stay on the designer concrete pathway, it's obvious to the visitor that this park was financed and built by developers and neighbors angling to increase their own property values. In the process of becoming a public park, the High Line became co-opted by New York City's real estate juggernaut.

In the process, an essential part of the High Line's promise - its freedom, and isolation from the commodification and control of New York City's landscape - has been lost.*

The new High Line park's design also botches the structure's historical context. Until 1980, the High Line railroad had been used to deliver agricultural raw materials to various food processing plants in the neighborhood. Refrigerated boxcars full of cows, for instance, were delivered to the slaughterhouses of the Meatpacking District. Several spurs curve from the main line into adjacent buildings, and in some places, the High Line actually travels through the middle of buildings, with old loading docks on either side.

Here's a photo from the mid-twentieth century of the High Line where it runs through the National Biscuit Company (a.k.a Nabisco) complex. These are the same buildings pictured at the top of this post:

For decades, then, the High Line (and its surrounding neighborhood) played an important role in feeding New Yorkers, and commodifying the agricultural bounty of the Midwest into value-added processed foods. There's a rich historical narrative here about the industrialization of agriculture, the centralization of food processing, the rise of supermarkets... but there's no trace of any of this in today's High Line Park.

This was the other big thing that unnerved me about walking along the High Line. The structure's wrought-iron railings, steel I-beams, and the handful of high-ceilinged brick warehouses surrounding the old railway clearly hearken back to a lost industrial past. But everything about the park itself, and the expensive architecture that surrounds it, drives home the fact that that industrial past is entirely gone. This used to be a neighborhood that made things and trafficked in the heavy, bulky products that required massive railroads to move. The High Line itself used to be a vital connection between the City and the natural resources that fed it.

But today, the neighborhood traffics in abstractions: there's tremendous wealth here, but it's anyone's guess where it comes from.

Back in 2007 I wrote about how the abandoned High Line illustrated the ecological succession of urban vacant lots
Over the years, more dust, leaves, and soot blew in. Each fall, the topsoil gained another layer of dead grass and leaves from pioneer weeds like goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, and Ailanthus Altissima... the new High Line park will have benches, new concrete paths, easy access from the street level, and drought-tolerant landscaping that mimics the wild weeds that inspired the park.

It might seem like an interruption and commodification of the wild successional process, but New York is nothing if not habitat for homo sapiens, and the new High Line fits in perfectly with New York's typical neighborhood succession: places once run-down and diverse inexorably become unaffordable and boring. At least until the next large disturbance, anyhow.
When the new park opened in 2009, we were in the middle of a huge financial crisis that seemed to hold out the promise of being that "next large disturbance." Here's an excerpt of the post I wrote at the park's grand opening:
In the new economy, the High Line feels a lot weirder. It was meant to be a futuristic preserve for New York's past - especially its overgrown lots and abandoned industrial infrastructure. Now that the park is open, though, the ultra-slick High Line feels a bit out of place. Instead of evoking New York City's past, the High Line looks more like an expensive simulation of conditions in inner-city Detroit, or of a foreclosed backyard, or of any of the thousands of newly-defunct car dealerships nationwide. Those conditions were rare in New York City two years ago, but now that they're fairly commonplace in society's consciousness, the High Line seems more artificial and contrived.
Now that I've been there, though, I realize that the High Line doesn't feel anything like Detroit or an abandoned car dealership. That's its problem: it lacks any relationship to the economic or environmental conditions of the city. Instead, it sits aloof from the street, a walled garden guarded against the weeds and the history that used to reside there.

But the views are nice, I'll grant it that.

*Footnote: This is related to the age-old debate about whether we can open up "wilderness" areas to the public without ruining the essential qualities that make these areas feel wild - namely, their isolation and freedom. I'm typically inclined to believe that this is not a real trade-off, especially if we can help people appreciate the relative abundance of places like the (old) High Line that exist right under our noses, in our cities and neighborhoods. Cultivating a sense of stewardship for these places, whether they're in an abandoned downtown area or in a national park, will let more people enjoy them without necessarily "ruining" them.

Unfortunately, in the case of the High Line, we (the public) have surrendered our responsibilities of stewardship to profit-motivated architects and developers.

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