Jenny Gersten will take over as executive director of the Friends of the High Line in January. Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line
BY SAM SPOKONY | When the High Line’s third section opens in 2014, it will have been 15 years since Joshua David and Robert Hammond — two neighborhood residents — founded the nonprofit group that helped save the old elevated railway and turn it into one of the city’s most popular parks.
The Friends of the High Line, which undertakes fundraising and oversees maintenance of the nearly 1.5-mile park, has by all accounts become a model for others across the world who want to successfully operate a modern, engaging and elevated public space.
“When we started in 1999, this was very much considered to be an underdog project,” said David, in a phone interview on Nov. 1. “We just had this dream of going all the way from Gansevoort to 34th St. And now that it’s actually going to come true — at first I was thinking that 15 years is a long time — but I realize that it’s actually not so long at all.”
And while the High Line’s emergence onto the city landscape has certainly been swift, both the park and the Friends are now transitioning into changes that will define the park’s future as a Downtown icon.
Hammond announced in February that he will step down as executive director of the Friends at this year’s end after which David will remain as the organization’s president.
In October, it was announced that Jenny Gersten would be the Friends’ new executive director, after her selection by the group’s board of directors. She begins in January.
While the High Line has hosted plenty of unique programming since the park’s official opening in 2009 — from public art exhibits to community engagement for teenage and adult residents of Chelsea’s public housing developments — Gersten’s hiring represent a shift toward further emphasis on new programming.
Currently, the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, Gersten brings a strong background in theater production, including past work on several Shakespeare in the Park productions in New York.
David acknowledged that more diverse programming that focuses on the arts, family activities and niche interests will be a “greater part” of the High Line in years to come.
“We knew that programming was something that we really wanted to expand for the future, and that made [Gersten] a great candidate,” said David. “She’s a really wonderful and talented person, and I think this entire community will see how valuable her skills are.”
In addition to new opportunities for events, tourists and residents alike will have more park to enjoy next year, when construction on the third section — nicknamed “High Line at the Rail Yards” — is completed.
The final piece will not only extend north from W. 30th St. to W. 34th St., linking the West Village to the entirety of West Chelsea, but it will also swing west from 10th Ave. to 12th Ave., bringing visitors right near the waterfront.
“It’s a whole new thing for the High Line, which is fantastic, and I think that the connection to the riverfront will make a big difference for people visiting the park,” said David.
And once that’s finished, the Friends will be on the cusp of yet another turning point as the Hudson Yards development — which will span the 26-acre space between W. 30th and W. 33rd Sts. and 10th and 12th Aves. — continues its own road to completion. Construction on the mixed-use Hudson Yards site began in 2012, and the first buildings are expected to open in 2015, with the rest of the site to be built on over the next several years.
With 13 million square feet of new commercial and residential development, Hudson Yards will undoubtedly have an effect on Manhattan’s entire West Side.
“It’s really great for us that the rail yards area — which is a place that people generally had very little awareness of — will become a very dense, multi-use neighborhood,” David said. “And the thing that’ particularly thrilling is the fact that people on the High Line will have a front-row seat to urban transformation.”
It was recently reported that Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross, chairperson of The Related Companies, plans to spend as much as $75 million on an artwork — not yet designed — that will become the centerpiece of the new development’s four-acre public plaza.
Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer, has been selected for the project. The Wall Street Journal reported the space will draw inspiration from Rockefeller Center and Rome’s famous Piazza del Campidoglio.
As for art on the High Line itself, park visitors can sign up for walking tours to view sculptures by Brooklyn artist Carol Bove that have been placed along the park’s unfinished third section. Reservations can be made at thehighline.org.
Earlier that morning, David had given a particularly emotional walking tour of the High Line to members of the Obletz family — a name that any lover of the park should hold in the highest esteem.
Peter Obletz, a former West Chelsea resident and Community Board 4 chairperson, was the passionate train enthusiast who spent more than a decade of his life attempting to save the elevated railroad tracks when they were in danger of being demolished in the 1980s. Obletz unexpectedly swooped in to buy the High Line for $10 in 1984, after its private owner was in the process of abandoning it. While that sale was eventually overturned by a federal judge, and Obletz’s dream was not realized during his life — which ended in 1996, after a battle with cancer — he remains something of a folk hero.
“He was the first saint of the High Line,” said David.
And on the morning of Nov. 1, the co-founder of the High Line’s current preservation group met with Peter Obletz’s brother, Doug Obletz, who was visiting New York with his family from Portland, Oregon.
It was the first time that an Obletz had ever seen the vibrant, pulsing green space that is the High Line of today. More than 15 years after Peter’s death, and three decades since he made that famed purchase, Doug Obletz was able to witness the fruits of his brother’s vision.
“It was so moving to show them something that’s basically a continuation of what Peter had done,” said David. “Robert [Hammond] and I have stayed in touch with his family ever since we started in 1999, but it was incredible to finally be able to share this experience with them.
“Plenty of people come to the High Line and think it’s beautiful, but very few of them really understand what it took to do this,” David said.
“There have been challenges for all of us along the way. It’s amazing that we’ve made it through them. And it’s a privilege to be one of the people who knows the story of what Peter did. So now we’re going to keep our own story going.”