The fight to save it puts into play slippery questions about the nature of authentic urbanism.




Photos: Joel Sternfeld
Near the height of New York City's bubble-era affluence, bar owners downtown got caught up in a curious game of chicken. As soon as one no-name, in-the-know establishment would open on some dark corner at the edge of the known universe, the competition would leapfrog into an area of even more impossibly remote and scenic dissolution. It seemed inevitable that Corlear's Hook--the loneliest extreme of the Lower East Side--would soon debut as the city's premier after-hours destination.

It was a case of push and pull. Gentrification, that storm fueled by differentials in rent, was drawing heat down from ritzier climes. But a cold wind was also blowing. The late-1990s second-generation gentrifiers of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though priced out of the East Village, were part of an aesthetic migration, fleeing a neighborhood that had welcomed a chilling constellation of Starbucks. It was the same story at all the frontiers of Giuliani's successful and successfully sanitized city: the edge of town had to be found again, farther out.

Offsite:
Friends of the High Line, (212) 606-3720, www.thehighline.org.
It is hard to argue, after last fall, that any part of Manhattan lacks frisson. And with Rudy no longer tearing around town in his municipal SUV, visions of Big Boxes dancing in his head, change may be coming. Michael Bloomberg is still an unknown urbanistic quantity. But there are some clues: he is making an ostentatious show of riding to work each morning with the electorate on the packed no. 6 train (an exercise that can't but help the chances for a Second Avenue subway), and he supports the idea, anathema to Giuliani, to put a park on top of the High Line, a disused rail-freight viaduct that snakes for a mile and a half above the galleries and gas stations of West Chelsea.

Mayor Mike's campaign-trail endorsement is repeated in his foreword to "Reclaiming The High Line," a planning report released earlier this year by the Design Trust for Public Space, a grant-making civic organization, and Friends of the High Line, that rusty trestle's very own fashionable 501 (c)(3). After decades of relatively low-profile preservation battles (the last train used the line in 1980), the High Line now has many friends in high places. AOL Time Warner is a major Friends sponsor; Martha has been spotted at events. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the woman who saved Central Park, wrote an elegant homage for the report, arguing that the High Line is an essential layer in "the palimpsest that is New York." Right on. But in addition to the local real-estate speculators, she seems to assume that the other enemies of reuse will be hard-core preservationists who claim that, without its original function, the High Line is already lost. I think there may be another, more centrist "anti" faction: all those New Yorkers who pine for a less deliberate cityscape.

Courtesey thehighline.org
On the surface, the Friends have taken this into account. The report asserts that the High Line "must not become a mall." But their plan has some of the characteristics of that type: limited access, public/private confusion, and overdetermined patterns of use. The High Line as imagined would be a place to stroll, with a couple of cafés, some wishful off-street retail (at nearly 30 feet above grade?), and plantings to replace the beloved wildflowers that have taken over since the trains stopped running. Underneath? A farmers market. If the project were rendered according to the festival marketplace graphic standards of the recent past, we'd get the old lady on the bench and the kid with a bunch of balloons. But not the guy on the unicycle; the Friends have come out against welcoming bikes on high, stating that the uninterrupted 22-block run is "too short to offer genuine utility."

No one who loves New York (not "more than ever" but as much as always) wants to see the mighty High Line razed, but its saviors should be wary of smothering it with good intentions. Too much design could make it just another new place to avoid--too sterile, too themed. Consider what will be lost when the High Line is made safe for flânerie, when the thing itself survives but lives on only between quotation marks: not its function, but something very close to its soul.

The city has been down this road before, and not without regret. At a public panel to celebrate the new Times Square a few years back, Rebecca Robertson, a central player in the cleanup, was asked what she missed about the place. Without hesitation she said, "I miss the sex!" Let's not neuter the High Line too.


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