The High Line welcomed Alan van Capelle as the organization’s new executive director in January 2023. Below, we’ve shared an exclusive interview with Alan from the High Line Magazine:
Alan was most recently President & CEO at Educational Alliance, where he led a network of economically integrated community centers in Lower Manhattan. He has been a community organizer, a labor movement contract negotiator, New York City Deputy Comptroller, and he was a chief architect of New York’s historic marriage equality bill. His resume shows his commitment to our city and to strengthening society for all.
When did you first visit the High Line?
Soon after it opened [in 2009]. I remember my first reaction was: The High Line is so New York. This is exactly why I live in the city.
Have you had other meaningful visits?
The High Line is where I came after my sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. It was a place where I could take time to think about what the next several months would be like for our family. It’s also where I came after she died, to process the loss.
In the past I have taken countless friends and family to the High Line when they came to New York to visit us. I’m proud of the High Line and I am always eager to show it off.
What made you want this job?
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to get to lead one of the greatest treasures in New York. The High Line is the intersection of green spaces, arts and culture, and it’s a place where strangers can become neighbors. The opportunity to be part of that magic every single day is a dream come true.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m so looking forward to working with the staff and board. Every single person I’ve met brings so much to the table, and I’m eager to learn from them and collaborate with them.
You’re a husband and a dad. How does your family life influence your work?
Before having kids, I didn’t really take time to think about personal ergonomics or work/life balance. Now I do. Family time is sacred time. That said, we talk about our jobs all the time at home. My boys Ethan (age 11) and Patrick (age 8) grew up at Educational Alliance and I am convinced that we will become “super users” of the High Line in no time at all.
Is there something that’s not on your resume that you’d want people to know about?
I grew up with a severe stammer for the first part of my life. When I sang, the stammer disappeared. While I no longer have the stammer, my love of music has not gone away. In fact, I sang a song to my husband, Matt, during our first date at Don’t Tell Mama. I think that’s how I sealed the deal.
You waited tables early in your professional life. What did you learn from that?
I worked at a Friendly’s, in Commack, Long Island, where I grew up. I was awarded the “Friendliest Waiter of the Year.” They gave me a silver pin and an apron—which I still wear. I loved waiting tables. I learned to multi-task and problem-solve in real time while providing outstanding customer service. I also learned to hustle, because it’s the only way to make more tips.
Is there a book you’d say embodies your world outlook?
A Stranger Among Friends, by David Mixner. David is a real mentor to me. I call him the “Forrest Gump” of the gay community, because he seemed to be present at so many of the most important social justice moments of our nation. David organized the moratorium march and candlelight vigil during the Vietnam War, he was active with Odetta and Harry Belafonte during the Civil Rights movement, and he was a leader of the Nuclear Freeze movement. David has written extensively about how he buried 200 friends and delivered more than 100 eulogies during the AIDS crisis. He was on the cover of Time magazine during the 90s as one of the most powerful gay men in America, and he was arrested outside the White House when his friend President Clinton implemented the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In A Stranger Among Friends, David moves elegantly through several social justice movements in his lifetime. The takeaway for me is that there are many chapters to life and we are all the authors of our own story.
You’ve led many collective efforts. What’s your perspective on bringing people together to make and sustain positive change?
I don’t think that change happens without collective action. In the long term, movements are not successful if they are dominated by a single personality. At 47, I find myself highly collaborative. I’m also pragmatic and I like to move the ball up the field. I don’t have patience for grandstanding or for righteous fights that go nowhere. I also believe that joy is the secret sauce to successful social justice movements. I am relentlessly optimistic and relentlessly joyful.
What role does the High Line have to play in a city that has seen so many challenges?
The city is still learning how it’s changed since COVID. We’re in the middle of a transformative shift, but I don’t know what that looks like at the end. Everyone is rethinking everything. That can be scary but it is also an opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered. From reimagining public spaces, to how we relate to our neighbors, to how we get to work every day, to who gets to live in the city and how we think about affordability. Everything is on the table. One thing we’ve learned is just how on-the-margins some people are in this city. We saw just how fragile the social safety net is. We also saw how important places like the High Line are to everyday New Yorkers. Hopefully there will be a reinvestment in public spaces throughout New York City, and the High Line has a role to help lead that effort.
ALAN’S SHORT TAKES
It depends on who I’m with. Madonna’s songs are always a crowd pleaser. I love country music, but most people in NY don’t. So I need to find just the right country song to sing. If I’m being competitive, I’ll do Jennifer Holliday’s, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dream Girls, and just belt it out.
What he’s watching:
And Just Like That… because I like that they show that people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s can make new friends and form dynamic relationships.
Favorite NYC park (besides the High Line):
I don’t know if it’s a park, but I love The Cloisters.
Favorite board game:
We have been playing a lot of games in our house lately. Currently, Life, Monopoly, and Uno are in rotation.
Hydrangeas and hostas are favorites of mine.
…and favorite place to get it:
My parents’ kitchen or my uncle’s home in The Hague.
Favorite place to eat in NYC:
Russ and Daughters Cafe, on Orchard Street. I am a fixture there and Niki Russ feels like family. They even call me when the special Holland Herring arrives.
Perfect day in NYC:
Going to a museum in the morning, having a very proper lunch, walking the High Line, dinner at Joe Allen, seeing a Broadway show, and then ending up at a piano bar, like Marie’s Crisis.
Favorite Broadway show:
I don’t know if I could pick just one. I like everything by Stephen Sondheim. That man was brilliant. I loved August: Osage County, Ragtime, and almost anything by Tony Kushner.