We are pleased to introduce you to Erycka Montoya Pérez, who recently joined our team as the Community Engagement Manager, a new position created to focus on community-based initiatives, with support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
The High Line passes through an economically diverse neighborhood, home to many new residential and commercial developments, but also home to the 5,000 residents of the Elliott-Chelsea and Fulton Houses, who make up the park’s largest group of immediate neighbors.
Last year, support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation enabled us to hire and train six local teens to survey more than 800 people from both of these public housing complexes to listen to what our neighbors had to say.
The survey results showed that while many of these residents were interested in the High Line, they did not make frequent visits or feel engaged with the new public park. The survey results also showed tremendous opportunities: Residents are interested in gardening programs, collaborating on cultural events on the High Line, and local recruitment and employment opportunities.
In her new role, Erycka will be working to continue to build the lines of communication between the High Line and its most immediate neighbors. With the support of AT&T, we are continuing our community engagement work, with the goal of expanding communications to the public housing complexes, increasing local participation in public programs, and continuing the tradition of open dialogue between our organization and the communities we serve.
Erycka is uniquely suited for this position. As a recent graduate with a master’s degree in environmental policy and a diverse professional background, which includes community outreach in New York City’s 21st Council District, workforce development in Bronx Workforce1 Career Center, and event planning in different capacities, she is looking forward to applying her skills at Friends of the High Line, and helping us strengthen the connection between neighborhood residents and the High Line.
We asked Erycka to answer a few questions about herself and her plans for the High Line.
How did you find out about the High Line?
I first came to the High Line with my cousin back in 2009, right after the park opened to the public. I was impressed by the creativity, and I am still impressed today. I still feel awe when I go up there. I remember being blown away. I was not sure what to make of it, but I wanted to take in every inch of it. It was beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was so bummed that I didn’t have my camera with me.
Describe your role at Friends of the High Line.
I’m focused on building and strengthening relationships between the communities that surround the High Line, and ultimately maintaining a vibrant community around the High Line, which is an integral part of the mission of Friends of the High Line.
My role is centered on getting to know the diverse communities that the High Line intersects. First and foremost, the High Line is a public space, and, as such, we want to ensure that people feel a sense of ownership and take pride in it. For that to be the case, the programming we offer needs to serve the needs of the public, especially our most immediate neighbors.
Describing my role is not nearly as interesting as how the need for this role was established. Last year, Friends of the High Line tabled at Hudson Guild , which is the community-based organization that once housed Friends of the High Line’s office. During the tabling exercises, it became apparent that many residents from the two public housing complexes next to the High Line were unfamiliar with the park. Thanks to support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Friends of the High Line began a community engagement initiative that involved creating a planning committee, interviewing stakeholders, and identifying core program areas which would help build the connection between residents and the High Line.
What did the survey results show?
As part of this initiative, Friends of the High Line hired and trained local teens to conduct surveys, and the teens interviewed more than 800 residents from the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses. Most of the responses were positive; only 77 of the respondents did not know about the High Line. However, many residents expressed a sense of not belonging; feeling like the population of visitors on the High Line was not representative of the diverse demographics that make up the neighboring communities or New York City as a whole.
Another challenge identified in the survey was that the High Line did not fit into many people’s ideas of a “park.” The High Line has space constraints that make it impossible to allow traditional park activities like biking, barbequing, and dog-walking. But even so, those who were surveyed still showed an interest in visiting the High Line and participating in activities of interest to them, such as live performances, fashion shows, and gardening.
What are some ways that Friends of the High Line can address some of the challenges?
One of the principal ways is with regular communication. Survey results made it clear that some of the channels that the organization was relying upon to get the message out were not the most effective ones to reach our closest neighbors. The results also found that the best way to get the word out about the High Line’s programming was word of mouth and distributing flyers. This is a great opportunity to get to talk to people, to get to know the neighborhood. Identifying the best avenues for promoting our initiatives to our communities is something that we’re now working as a team to address.
I am also looking at what other organizations are doing to serve particular communities. Friends of the High Line wants to serve as a resource for community members, but we don’t want to replicate what is already being done. Instead we want to leverage what is unique about our space, our organization, our history, and our mission, and work in partnership as much as possible. I feel that old saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” certainly applies in the case of the High Line.
Many organizations around the city have staff dedicated to community engagement. Are there any organizations that stand out in your mind? Who do you look up to in the field?
I’ve recently started reading a book by Donna Walker-Kuhne that discusses audience development and building bridges between the arts and community. She has worked with several arts organizations such as The Public Theater, the Apollo Theater and Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. It has been a helpful resource in framing community engagement for me.
Tom Finkelpearl and his team from the Queens Museum of Art  have also done an amazing job. As a lifetime resident of Queens, I’ve seen the changes and how the institution has evolved as it has taken on community engagement in myriad ways. This is an institution that is highly responsive to the needs of its local community, and that is certainly something that I want to bring to the table as well.
Strong relationships develop over time and with a lot of dedication. Looking ahead, what are your plans for building and strengthening relationships with local neighbors?
That’s a great point. There is only one way to develop relationships and build trust and that is to make yourself available and listen closely. My short term plans are pretty standard for an organizer – talking to people, individuals, community groups, leaders, and organizations to find out what services are currently being offered. I attend community board meetings, tenants association meetings. These are tried and true approaches that require a lot of leg work, but are also incredibly rewarding. I love learning about people’s experience with the High Line and even more exciting is discussing new ways that the park can better serve them. My goals center around finding the best ways for the High Line to serve as a community resource.
The High Line welcomed more than 3.7 million visitors in 2011. Recent visitor surveys showed that about half of the park’s visitors are New Yorkers, while the remaining half is split between visitors from abroad or other parts of the United States. If the High Line continues to be a destination for visitors, can it also be a backyard park for locals?
Of course! Sometimes in New York City, it can feel like we’re always trying to pit one thing against the other. Lin vs. Carmelo. Mets vs. Yankees. (Mets, by the way, despite all the Yankee Championships.) But the best part about living in this city is that natives, transplants, and tourists have always co-existed and fed off of each other’s energy. The High Line remains a testament to that resilience.
That the park is now among the many wonders that attract visitors to our city does not take away anything from the High Line. In fact, it serves to remind us why it’s so important to appreciate what’s in our own backyard. Every day I see people from nearby offices and businesses having their lunch at the High Line. Families that live nearby are coming to Arty Hours  and Wild Wednesdays  every week. Step to the High Line  featured steppers from our local schools. Our High Line Teen Picks film series directly responds to the requests from our neighbors for specific programming at the High Line. I think that as we continue to get feedback, we can continue to be a responsive public space and serve the communities around us.
Since the High Line opened in 2009, Friends of the High Line has organized fun events and free activities for all ages, and it will be interesting to see how the programs develop over time and with collaboration from the park’s immediate neighbors. This year marks the first time the High Line will host a movie series curated entirely by local teens. Can you tell us about that?
I came on board after much of the planning for this series had been done, but I was excited to be part of the outreach strategy and I am grateful for the teens letting me join them.
High Line Teen Picks was a free summer movie series presented by Friends of the High Line and AT&T , and the entire series was curated by local teens. Emily Pinkowitz, our Manager of Education, Teen & Family Programs, worked closely with the teens throughout the entire process. She helped them think through the different elements that go into planning any kind of programming, as well as specifics to curating a movie series.
The teens chose a theme and then picked movies that fit into it. The theme they decided to go with was “overcoming challenges” because they felt that this related to the story of the High Line itself. They were inspired by how this once abandoned railway that was seen as blight represented something of beauty and worth saving by Friends of the High Line’s founders. And this cause required a lot of perseverance from those who believed in it to re-invent this space, just as the characters within the movies strive to reinvent themselves.
Another element of a successful movie series is the communications outreach strategy. The teens met with our Communications staff to think about different ways to get the word out. Together they developed a marketing plan, and they were gracious enough to let me weigh in on the part that involved setting up a table at different sites throughout the neighborhood and inviting people to vote on the first film to be shown during the series. The teens also posted flyers within their housing complexes. I’m a little sad that it’s over because I had such a great time working with them.
What are some things you enjoy doing in your free time?
I really enjoy entertaining and playing hostess! I'm always up for a little dancing. Salsa is my favorite but I'm a little out of practice. Reading- I love going to Strand and La Casa Azul Bookstore and leaving with three or four new books then I have something to look forward to when I'm commuting. Rollerblading and photography are two things I’m hoping to tackle on a more regular basis.
Recently you’ve worked in the Bronx, Queens, and Bogota, Colombia. How are you enjoying West Chelsea? Have you found a good coffee shop and a stand-by place for lunch?
I’ve found several go-to places for lunch, coffee, and breakfast—very important as I love to eat!
When I need rice and beans, Casa Havana does the trick. For a great salad or sandwich, I hit up Bottino. It still tastes as good as it did over 12 years ago; I love their balsamic vinaigrette. It’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference. Cookshop’s morning coffee bar has quickly become a favorite for a quick and delicious breakfast. Their frittatas and focaccia are so good. And the service is always stellar. For those occasions when I don’t have coffee in the office, I usually go to Joe, Think Coffee, or Stone Street Coffee Company on Ninth Avenue.
Did I mention I like to eat before? For a cold treat on a hot day, I love the choices  on the High Line: gelato from L’Arte del Gelato, ice cream sandwiches from Melt Bakery, or a paleta from La Newyorkina. It’s hard to go wrong. Oh, and how could I forget about Hector’s Café? It’s a neighborhood institution.
What advice can you give someone who is thinking about visiting the High Line?
Whether you’re a local or from out of town, come ready to be wowed, and do yourself a favor and have an ice cream sandwich from Melt Bakery . You’ll feel so much better. It will melt all your troubles away. (Pun intended.)
If you are lucky enough to live in New York City, check out our program calendar  and take advantage of all the free and low-cost events and activities at the park. There’s something for everyone. Looking for a date night with some live Latin music and dancing? We got it. Or maybe something a little more low-key like watching a movie as the sun goes down? Looking for some activities for young kids? There are several choices. There really is a lot going on; talks that explore adaptive re-use projects being undertaken in other cities, stargazing, art installations to explore—the best way to stay informed is to sign up for our email newsletter  and to follow us on Facebook  and Twitter .
For the out of town visitor, make sure to charge the camera beforehand. If you want to shop at the end of your visit, enter the High Line at West 30th Street and work your way south. Below the southern end of the High Line, you’ll find all sorts of shops and boutiques. If you’re looking to unwind, enter the High Line at Gansevoort Street, and walk north toward West 16th Street. You can enjoy a snack or a meal from an array of food vendors on the High Line; I enjoy sitting on the Diller – von Furstenberg Sundeck or in the 10th Avenue Square. Then keep walking up to West 30th Street and enjoy the urban escape.
And everyone should take a moment before fall arrives to dip their feet in the water feature, which is located on the High Line between West 14th and West 15th Streets.
Who inspires you?
My mom and my sister. I know that is not very creative and incredibly corny. But it’s true. They work so incredibly hard and they have both sacrificed so much. I find their strength and resilience incredible.
In one word, how do you describe the High Line experience?
Único. Exhale. Respite. Urban-oasis.
That is three words and a phrase.
To pick just one is so limiting. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite food or choose between skinny jeans and bootcuts. They each have their purpose, and the spaces throughout the High Line are different and therefore evoke different sentiments.
Want more High Line?
Community Engagement at Friends of the High Line is supported in part by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and AT&T.