Although it's been only a few weeks since Jenny Gersten joined Friends of the High Line as our new Executive Director, we feel like this dynamic New York City native is already part of the family.
Jenny grew up in Greenwich Village, just minutes from the structure we now know as the High Line. But the High Line of her childhood was not yet a park in the sky with kids programs, blooming flowers, and mouthwatering ice-cream sandwiches. We sat down with the former Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre to learn more about her vision for our growing organization.
Friends of the High Line: You're a native New Yorker, and grew up just a few blocks from the High Line. Is
joining Friends of the High Line a kind of homecoming for you?
Jenny Gersten: It is. I’ve been living in NYC all my life, even though I worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival for the past few years, they have a New York office and I was just spending my summers there. To be affiliated with an organization that not only epitomizes this great city but is rooted in my childhood neighborhood feels very special.
How do you see the High Line playing a more active role in its surrounding communities?
Lately, perhaps out of nostalgia, I've been thinking about how kids interact with the High Line. I associate this neighborhood with my childhood and with play and with parks. There wasn’t a lot of neighborhood stuff to do for kids. Especially as we get ready to open the High Line at the Rail Yards, which has a play feature, I've been thinking a lot about how we’re going to expand some of our programming for all of our neighbors, but in particular our younger ones.
Many areas of the High Line are natural theaters, and High Line Art has commissioned a number of incredible performances over the years. You've worked in the theater for many years. How do you see your theater background inspiring your work here?
The High Line is definitely theatrical. I think the High Line is about everyone’s individual and collective experience, specifically a live experience, which is what theatre is too. There are dramatic moments, romantic moments... We’re going to look at ways to program more live events. Those that are either performance-based or musical or have some sense of contemplative heightened experience that occasionally adds to what the High Line already does naturally.
You've joined the High Line at a very exciting time. 2014 marks the 15th year since the founding of Friends of the High Line, and we'll be adding an additional half-mile of park with the opening of the High Line at the Rail Yards later this year. What are you most looking forward to as you lead us through these milestones?
The prospect of building on everything that[High Line Co-Founders] Josh and Robert have already created—preserving everything that we already love and adore and about the High Line and seeing what opportunities exist to take that extraordinary vision and see how it can be expanded upon. And we’ve been talking a lot about how that might happen programmatically, but I think it’s also how we can help neighborhood parks around the city with technical guidance and moral support, and how we can inspire other people to do creative innovation with public space and inspired partnerships. There are lots of ways to see how the High Line’s reach can continue to have an impact on our neighborhood, our city, and beyond. And, to be completely honest, I wake up every morning genuinely excited about that.
Although you’ve only been with us for a brief time so far, what has been the most surprising thing you’ve noticed about Friends of the High Line?
There is so much passion and affection for the High Line among the staff and among our Board of Trustees. I‘m not surprised by it, but it’s so present every day and in every gesture and meeting and discussion – and even in the daily interactions on the High Line – that it’s disarmingly inspiring. And the most wonderful surprise.
One example I love is how in staff meetings every week the first thing everyone looks at are the top ten images from the past week. To me, starting a meeting off with reminders about what a wonderful place we steward is a fine example of why we all come here every day.
We live in a city that's teeming with a variety of outstanding cultural institutions. Which are some of your favorites?
The first that that popped into my mind was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the Cloisters, which are two places that I often will turn to for inspiration. All the museums in the city are marvelous, but the breadth in that museum – the various places for inspiration in that museum – are terrific.
I’m a bike rider, so even though they're not "places," I have to say I think Citi Bike and all the bike lanes are among the greatest innovations in the city. I'm a big fan.
I love food and cooking, so I also enjoy the green markets. And I just got a new dog a couple of weeks ago. I already had affection for the city’s green spaces, but I have a newfound affection after seeing the city through my dog’s eyes.
Describe the High Line in one word.