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High Line Magazine: Creating a More Equitable High Line

By Danya Sherman | March 1, 2017

In this issue of the High Line Magazine, we’re focusing on data. But data, at its heart, tells stories—and sometimes the stories of individuals can be just as rich and meaningful as a set of numbers.

When Friends of the High Line (FHL) asked me to contribute a piece for this magazine about the organization’s history of successes and failures with community engagement, I felt it would be more impactful to hear from a cross-section of individuals who were involved in the process throughout the years. The High Line came into being as a result of political and economic factors, but it wouldn’t have happened without an enormous amount of civic involvement and engagement from a wide array of people. Because of this history and our belief in how important equitable civic spaces are, FHL now works intensively to engage communities around the High Line.

So, I called eight people, each with a different perspective about FHL and its community engagement work, to gauge their thoughts. We chose these individuals—current and former staff members, neighborhood leaders, and community partners—to represent the wide variety of opinions about where FHL has been and where it could be headed. Here are their reflections, as shared with me.


When Joshua David and I started Friends of the High Line in 1999, we wanted New Yorkers to work with us to transform the High Line. That openness and legitimate need for help built a strong group of people without whom saving, designing, and now operating the park would have been impossible. I’m thrilled that we’ve gained so many new supporters since then, but I also love that so many of those early supporters are still with us—and that they continue to help us make the High Line an extraordinary public space.

But we know now that the early design process engaged some residents and New Yorkers much more than others, and that we didn’t engage enough with the 5,000 people living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) communities half a block from the park. Before the park opened, we made many efforts to engage residents in those communities to gauge what they wanted out of the High Line. However, we asked for specific input on the park’s design when we should have asked more questions that would have helped us understand what FHL could build that would be relevant to their lives.

I see other groups making the same mistakes. As people with resources are moving back to cities around the country, there’s a need for hybrid public spaces that benefit as many people as possible and that endeavor to improve rather than compound racial, economic, and other inequities. But to get there, we need to understand how spaces like this can be relevant for everyone.

Our listening process in 2011 was a good first step. As a result of our findings, we have been running teen programs for four years, among other initiatives. Teen staff now create programming themselves and feel a sense of ownership over the park, and we want more people in the community to feel a similar kind of ownership.


The most captivating thing about the High Line to me was its unique design process. I’m not talking so much about James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s architectural design and landscape design, although both are remarkable. The process of design actually began with two citizens, two strangers, striking up a conversation, who then proceeded to design—on the fly—an incredible process of raising awareness, building coalitions, fundraising, establishing a formal design process, and overseeing construction and ongoing maintenance. Far too often, we tend to view projects such as the High Line as a finished object and forget about this incredible and ongoing process.

Two aspects are crucial in reflecting on the High Line’s against-all-odds success: creativity and struggle. The takeaway for other projects is to be extremely creative in terms of generating political and financial support, and to remember that any kind of radical change in the city requires a great deal of struggle over time. One struggle I’ve seen FHL go through is how to engage communities that get pushed out when property values rise as a result of new investments. To me, the question is always, what is the alternative? How do you put neighbors who may not benefit from such investment front and center? FHL could now be at the forefront of this kind of targeted approach in a way that is truly empowering and inclusive, given how much change is also happening around it in the Chelsea neighborhood.


FHL’s first offices were in Hudson Guild, an important community center located within the Elliott-Chelsea NYCHA houses. We noticed a big discrepancy between the people who were volunteering and excited about the High Line, and the neighborhood residents we would casually interact with at Hudson Guild. We didn’t know how best to engage with the NYCHA residents, though we wanted to be sure all voices were included in the process.

It wasn’t until our listening initiative with Lisa Yancey that the community engagement work focused on relationship building with NYCHA residents became successful. Lisa is an expert in this work and knew to focus our efforts on relationship development. We spent time in the houses, brought our staff and volunteers there to knock on doors, and had open-ended conversations about life and habits.

It’s crucial to remember how many things “community” can mean, especially in a place as diverse as New York City. For example, we had a table at the LGBT-centric Folsom Street East fair long before the park opened. And that same year, we partnered with the storied arts center The Kitchen to create an arts-focused street fair. Later, we opened a roller rink and distributed free passes to neighborhood residents. We tried hard to engage with all the communities around the High Line, but some of this work came more easily because of who we were as individuals.

The biggest thing we learned through the process is that we shouldn’t have assumed we knew how to do outreach and engagement to residents in the NYCHA houses. We would have had more success in the early days if we’d brought in expertise and devoted an experienced staff person to the work.


I began working with FHL in 2011 to conduct a yearlong listening initiative to support the organization’s local relationship building, which involved authentically
seeing and listening to residents living at the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses. At the outset, we established that it was important to make clear that FHL was invested in ongoing communication and engagement with these community residents.

Thus, we took a human-centric approach to designing the initiative—giving thought and care to how relationships are actually built. I think residents began to trust us by opening their doors, welcoming us in their courtyards, and sharing their opinions. I believe they appreciated that youth from their community were also engaged, and that their recommendations were heard and implemented. We learned that people were hungry for work and for ways to get involved. We also learned that, for many of the residents, it wasn’t obvious that the High Line was an open, welcoming, free, safe space for them to come—which was eye-opening. FHL’s programming staff was extremely responsive to the community’s feedback and had a strong desire to build trust and deepen relationships, so they launched teen programs and events off the High Line, which spurred much of the successful community engagement work happening today.

I understand that one of the biggest takeaways for FHL was that engagement is a continuous commitment, not a one-time thing. Engagement is relationship building, which is about getting to know people and building trust and reciprocated empathy. It requires investments in ensuring that organizations have the staff, leadership, and competencies to steward it, and that they are held accountable to everyone.

FHL is now thinking about what it would mean to view all its work from a social justice and equity perspective, and it’s thrilling to think about how the organization’s approach to engagement internally and externally continues to evolve.


I used to live in Elliott-Chelsea and, after moving to the Bronx, went to school at the Lab School near the High Line. I first got involved with FHL during the 2008 Chalk Shoes event, an artists’ project where students created chalk shoes and marked the path to the future entrances to the High Line, and I later became part of its teen program. After that, I worked with the High Line until moving to North Carolina to finish college. I’m studying biology and biochemistry.

Before I started working for the High Line I didn’t really think it was a place to hang out. But then FHL started doing outreach to my community center, school, and where I lived, so it became something that we got involved with. It was gratifying to me as a community member to be able to say that FHL was putting its money where its mouth is.

Working at the High Line gave me a purpose. The jobs I had there offered me things I couldn’t get in school. For me, being able to work in a job in the outdoors that involved the arts, science, and education—it made me realize I didn’t have to compromise and do something less fulfilling with my life. It really taught me how to value myself because I have had these unique experiences—I know I am worth more. I won’t compromise for less. And it was crucial to be able to do that at 16, not at 40.


I appreciate what FHL has done to include me personally as a representative from Fulton Houses, and also to work with our community. FHL helps host Fulton Family Days, works in our schools, and even way back when held pizza parties at Fulton to get our input on the design of the park. I think a lot of the issues between FHL and residents of Fulton Houses have nothing to do with what FHL has done and the efforts they have made. When a lot of people in my community see a park that you can’t be active in, it doesn’t resonate. So it took a while for FHL to engage those residents, to find activities that people wanted. A lot of residents now attend the Salsa events (iArriba!), and that helps people feel like it’s a park for them—not only because it’s free, and it’s music from their cultural heritage, but because a resident of Fulton Houses suggested it.

But community engagement is challenging work. One main challenge is that for some people, like High Line staff, this is a job; for us, it’s where we live, it’s our community. Stakes are high. When staff move on, it’s a big blow. It’s no one’s fault, just the nature of the work. But it’s tough. Organizations really need to hire people that the community can feel comfortable with, can trust. Maybe one way could be for community residents to actually get involved in the hiring process, maybe even be considered for full-time jobs at FHL.


The biggest takeaway from the High Line project, when reflecting on community engagement, is that it’s crucial to do whatever you can to gather the resources to engage the community most fully. You must make certain that people feel they’re being heard. I think FHL did the best they could in this respect, and they got better as they learned.

The High Line has succeeded in economic terms, but long-term residents have paid a price for it. When the West Chelsea Rezoning was under consideration, we felt it was important to retain some of the M1-5 districts (zoning laws that limit uses of buildings to manufacturing). We believed that, without this zoning, the whole district would become high-end residential. We didn’t know what might replace the art galleries when their leases expired, but we wanted to ensure that it would be something other than residences. Our hard work to retain manufacturing uses wasn’t successful, with community mainstays like a brass musical instrument repair shop disappearing. Despite our best efforts, the West Chelsea community has become more homogeneous, but we’re proud that it hasn’t yet become exclusively residential.

I regret that the pre-High Line-era Community Board wasn’t more successful in ensuring affordable housing development. We worked hard to get a plan that promised 28% affordable housing but, for a variety of reasons, much of it hasn’t materialized. In addition to the housing issue, we continue to see the displacement of small neighborhood stores. Indeed, many stores patronized by people who live in the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, which I live across from, and the Fulton Houses are disappearing because they can’t afford the increased rents landlords are demanding.


When the first section of the High Line opened in June 2009, the park began experiencing a level of success no one had anticipated. Even during that first summer, it became clear that the visitors to the High Line didn’t reflect the diversity of the neighborhood or the city. In response, we launched Youth Corps programs with Hudson Guild and created free programming like Step to the High Line. But things really changed when we started working with Lisa Yancey on our community engagement efforts. It was through a long-term, relationship-building, expert-led exercise that FHL really began to consider what it might look like to be an equitable public space.

As an urban planner, I’ve seen the challenges that FHL is facing repeated all over the country. Designers and urban development decisionmakers tend to be a racially, socioeconomically, and gender-based homogenous group. This allows under-explored assumptions about what “good design” means to factor heavily into the design, development, and management of the space. And when investments come in, despite intentional and long-term work to counteract their effects, oftentimes the surrounding communities are negatively impacted by their result.

Nascent reuse projects like the 11th Street Bridge Project in Washington, D.C., and the Atlanta Beltline offer some exciting new models. These organizations are investing in affordable housing; have diverse, representative community members on oversight boards from the beginning; and regularly ask for feedback about impact. And, while focusing on its own community engagement efforts, FHL is in conversation with a number of these organizations to help them develop comprehensive social impact plans.


Three years ago, I came to FHL from El Museo del Barrio at an exciting time for the High Line, which was about to finish a major building phase with the completion of the third section at the Rail Yards. FHL was starting to really think about how it should evolve beyond the physical structure, and I wanted to take on the unique challenge of designing culturally relevant programming for the residents of one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in New York City. I wanted to stretch the definition of what a park could be in terms of engagement and community development, and I believed that the High Line was an interesting platform to show how a park could serve diverse audiences.

When I started the job, I was impressed that FHL was trying to be open to residents at NYCHA, and that it viewed community engagement as a two-way communication rather than a top-down one. Since those days, we have begun to use our clout and resources—space, staff, programming, visibility, and more—not just to make the High Line a beautiful, welcoming park for our neighborhood, but also to make it a vital resource for our neighbors. Among other initiatives, we have held community board meetings on the High Line, hosted the New York City Council District 3 Participatory Budgeting process, and become a space for distributing healthy food for seniors in the summer.

As we continue to evolve into what we might think of as a cultural organization, we’re looking at programming that honors the legacy of our neighborhood as an incubator. We hope that that kind of inspired programming, coupled with our continued efforts to have an open dialogue with the High Line’s diverse communities, will help us better connect with the city in the coming years.

Friends of the High Line is deeply grateful to the organizations and individuals who have supported our work to build an equitable public space since 2009. The original 2011 surveying project was made possible by a visionary grant from The Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Ford Foundation has provided Leadership Support since 2013. Additional funding for our community-based programming has come from: Altman Foundation, AT&T, Deutsche Bank, the Google Community Grants Fund of Tides Foundation, TD Bank, The Palette Fund, Merck Family Fund, and numerous others. These initiatives have also been supported by the New York City Council, with special thanks to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Corey Johnson.

This article originally appeared last fall in the bi-annual High Line Magazine, which is a benefit of High Line membership. Members keep the High Line vibrant! Your membership today will help us hire the gardeners and custodians who keep the entire High Line beautiful, clean, and welcoming. Plus, as a member, you will bring great programs and public art to the park to engage visitors of all ages and interests.

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