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N.Y. / Region

Public Lives

Two Friends, and the Dream of a Lofty Park Realized

Published: July 11, 2008

FACEBOOK has not been a factor in its success: At age 80ish, 30 feet tall, 22 blocks long and making a first impression best described as rusty, the High Line is not a looker. Nor is it human. But so far, the $170 million High Line renaissance, the park-in-the-sky reclamation project that marries a defunct elevated freight railway to an on-trend vision for Manhattan’s underachieving West Side, has attracted roughly 15,000 human friends to its Web site.

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Oscar Hidalgo for The New York Times

“This is really like one of those great New York stories where two guys who didn’t even know each other decided to save this giant piece of the city’s history from oblivion, and nine years later, here we all still are.” JOSH DAVID, RIGHT, WITH ROBERT HAMMOND

The High Line can thank two friends, Robert Hammond and Josh David, co-founders and now co-executives of Friends of the High Line, for rescuing it from obsolescence on a shared, but definitely unplanned, personal whim.

“This is really like one of those great New York stories,” says Mr. David (naturally the word “writer” pops up on his résumé), “where two guys who didn’t even know each other decided to save this giant piece of the city’s history from oblivion, and nine years later, here we all still are.” And the High Line is doing the opposite of aging.

Now, the public is interacting in what happens to it next; the dynamic is not quite anthropomorphic, but close.

Almost 1,500 people have actually paid to be its official friend by becoming members of Friends of the High Line. The group formed in 1999 to rescue the weed-choked railway from demolition or, perhaps a fate worse than death, from being repurposed as a conveyor of the city’s garbage.

Because of its friends, and a financial intervention by the Bloomberg administration, it will instead become the second elevated railroad track to be transformed into a pedestrian boulevard; the first is the Promenade Plantée in Paris. The High Line will welcome pedestrians only: no bikes, no Segways, no Rollerblades.

Sorry, speed demons. The High Line may be steel-belted, but its mission is to provide a walkway and greenbelt, not a speedway. The first phase, between Gansevoort and 20th Streets, is scheduled to open, within budget, in December; more than $130 million in overall project financing is in place. And the checks, some solicited at benefit soirees, some simply unsolicited gifts from High Line boosters, are still rolling in.

Although strolling is free to everyone, membership starts at $35 — for those 65 and older, who seem to relate to the High Line’s antiquity, and students, who seem to see it as a cool alternative to just plain pavement. This could be the friendliest public/private venture ever attempted in New York City. For sure it is the hippest public park this city has concocted — Mr. Hammond and Mr. David take the news that copycat versions are flying off the drawing board everywhere, from Rotterdam to St. Louis, as a compliment, not competition.

The actor Edward Norton is a friend, and the married actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick have been on board from the start. The Tiffany & Company Foundation is a friend. So are the designer Diane von Furstenberg and her entertainment magnate spouse, Barry Diller. As the transformation of the meatpacking district (which is where the High Line begins) has proved, a little gentrification goes a long way.

But the very best friends of the High Line are undoubtedly Mr. Hammond and Mr. David, two relatively clueless (at least in regard to civic activism and railway policy) West Siders who separately wandered into a community board meeting in 1999 after reading about the High Line’s imminent demolition after a couple of decades of nasty litigation. Sure, Peter Obletz, the railroad aficionado, who died in 1996, had tried to preserve the High Line, but since his vision involved restoring it to its original — meaning noisy, smelly and mercantile — incarnation as a throughway for freight trains, his efforts fell short.

Mr. Hammond and Mr. David had something more genteel in mind, something that didn’t actually include trains.

“Josh and I had both taken Amtrak in the past; that was the extent of our railway experience,” says Mr. Hammond, 38, a thin guy wearing a thinner tie. “I walked into the meeting assuming there’d be somebody there with a preservationist take on the situation; there wasn’t. There was a bunch of West Side property owners verging on apoplectic about the need to tear the whole thing down.”

Mr. David, who interrupted a Fire Island vacation this week to return to the city to extol the virtues of the High Line, added, “And once Robert and I walked out of the meeting and came up with the concept of Friends of the High Line, all those people went full-fledged apoplectic.” At 45, he is the most senior member of the Friends of the High Line management team. “I try to take that as a positive,” he says.

ALTHOUGH neither had previously experienced a deep emotional or aesthetic connection to the structure — or, to be honest, any connection at all — the notion of it being eliminated from the cityscape in the interest of cookie-cutter development had struck them as heretical. Shortsighted, too.

“I fell in love with the very thing most people were complaining about, this rusty eyesore from the city’s industrial past,” says Mr. Hammond. “I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve a mile and a half of Manhattan as an uninterrupted walkway and vantage point for people to enjoy on their own terms.”

At the time, Mr. Hammond was an entrepreneur at Watch World International, acquired in 2000 by Sunglass Hut; Mr. David was a freelance magazine editor and writer.

Fate sat them next to each other at that overwrought meeting of Community Board 4.

This week, in a loftlike office just west of the High Line overpass at the intersection of 10th Avenue and 20th Street, they were still sitting beside each other, grinning the grins of guys who have not just had a vision, but have lived to see it translated into functionality by innovators from Field Operations, a landscape architecture company, and Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the architectural firm.

“Their design for the High Line had me at hello,” says Mr. Hammond. Fitting.