Editor's note: Last week in Culturas, we profiled two San Antonio natives who created and developed the nonprofit conservancy model for improving and managing important public parks in New York. This week, we introduce another San Antonian-turned-New Yorker, Robert Hammond, who is following the trail blazed by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park conservancy, and Warrie Price, founder of the Battery Conservancy.
NEW YORK The grit and grime and blackened steel of an old Rust Belt industrial district are about as far as you can get from Argyle Avenue, in the gracious San Antonio suburb of Alamo Heights.
Maybe that's part of the reason why Robert Hammond, who grew up in the house his grandparents built on Argyle Avenue, set out to protect an old elevated rail line from demolition in his adopted Manhattan neighborhood.
A 1988 graduate of Alamo Heights High School, Hammond earned his bachelor's degree in history from Princeton University and moved to New York's Greenwich Village.
He spent a year working for an accounting firm, got bored, and embarked on a series of business start-ups an in-flight catalog company that eventually was sold to a conglomerate, a still-successful health-related Web site, thebody.com, with a focus on AIDS and HIV.
Oh, and also, "A roommate of mine in college ran for (New York) City Council. I started helping fund-raise for him. I realized I liked fund-raising and asking people for money."
In 1999, Hammond read in the New York Times about plans to tear down the High Line, an elevated freight rail right-of-way that weaves through a mile and a half of Manhattan's West Side.
The line starts at the 34th Street Railyards, cuts through Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea, and ends abruptly at Gansevoort Street, in the meat-packing district of the West Village.
Along much of the route, high-end designer boutiques, hip art galleries and trendy restaurants are increasingly supplanting old industrial and warehousing uses in century-old brick buildings.
Hammond's awareness of the High Line had been limited to the old steel bridges he saw crossing the streets near his neighborhood.
"It was one of the things I liked about the Village and the meat market. I didn't even know what it was," he said.
"I assumed there was a group working to preserve it, so I thought I would volunteer, help with fund-raising. I went to a bunch of community meetings, but no one was doing anything. At one of those meetings I met another guy who was sort of doing the same thing. He wanted me to start a group, I wanted him to start a group."
They compromised: Hammond and Joshua David started Friends of the High Line together.
Hammond didn't think much would come of it.
"It was a project to work on and an excuse to get permission to go up on the line," he said. "Once I got up on top I realized there's a whole world up there. It's like a meadow right in the middle of the city. I've always loved the juxtaposition of a wildflower meadow on a steel structure in the middle of Manhattan with a view of the Empire State Building."
CSX, the railroad company that owned the High Line, was planning to demolish the unused structure, in part because it posed liability risks. People who owned land immediately below the structure liked that idea because their properties would immediately become more valuable.
Friends of the High Line proposed a different approach: Preserve and stabilize the structure, and transform it into a linear park under the federal Rails-to-Trails program.
The most likely scenario, Hammond says, is that the city would acquire the High Line from CSX, designate it as a park, help pay for improvements and lease it to Friends of the High Line, which would become a conservancy and manage the property. Hammond sees the Central Park Conservancy as a model for management and governance of the High Line.
The High Line cuts through Manhattan.
"When we first started, everyone was against us. Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani wanted to tear it down. Everyone thought (preserving) it was a stupid idea, crazy, a waste of time," he said.
Not quite everyone. Hammond had not known Elizabeth "Betsy" Barlow Rogers and Warrie Price back home in San Antonio, but their shared love of New York brought them together there.
"Warrie testified in our favor at one of the early meetings. Betsy didn't testify, but she was incredibly helpful," he said. "They took me out to lunch one time giving me advice. Betsy was in a video we did, which was great. She wrote the epilogue to our planning study. (Mayor Michael) Bloomberg wrote the introduction."
The group convinced Bloomberg, who succeeded Giuliani in 2001, that saving the High Line for public use would be a good investment for the city, even at the $100 million high end of the projected cost range.
It didn't hurt that Hammond's old college roommate, the one who ran for City Council, won his race and became City Council speaker, the second-highest elected official in New York City.
The concept drew plenty of private support and prominent endorsements, as well. Friends of the High Line has an annual budget of about $1 million, and Hammond works for the group full-time.
This year has brought considerable progress, though a few obstacles remain to be overcome before the High Line's future will be secure.
Hammond is patient, and intent on doing the job right.
"My vision is to turn it into one of the most interesting, innovative public spaces anywhere in the world. It's going to last for hundreds of year, so I'm in no hurry."