Volume 79, Number 10 | August 12 - 18, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Villager photo by Tequila Minsky

At the opening of the first section of the High Line park in June, from left, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe; Council Speaker Christine Quinn; Diane von Furstenberg (with back to camera) hugging Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line; Barry Diller; and Lisa Maria Falcone. Diller and von Furstenberg gave millions of dollars to the project, and Falcone and her husband, hedge-fund manager Philip Falcone, made a matching grant..

Fighting to save the High Line, before it was chic

By Michele Herman

When you check out the season’s hot new place, you have an aesthetic experience as you drink it in and a critical one as you articulate your response. Sometimes you also have a psychological response so intense it colors your perspective but so personal that you never mention it. That’s how I felt in June on my maiden strolls on the High Line.

The mad success story of the new High Line park has several forgotten spurs. Here’s mine: Until 1991, the High Line was four blocks longer than it is now. It traveled south from Gansevoort St. through the West Coast apartment complex, past a series of parking lots and into Westbeth. It also passed in front of my apartment.

I had looked straight at the thing for years. To get pretty much anywhere, I had passed under it. To do my shopping I had walked alongside it. My husband and I were among the rare New Yorkers who saw fledgling pigeons learn to fly from it. In its last years, we were often startled by hiker types who snuck up there to see the meadow ecosystem that had sprouted.

In the late ’80s, when a consortium of developers led by Rockrose petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to “bifurcate,” or tear down, that segment, we were involved with various groups that tried to save it. I.C.C., bifurcate, right of way — how conversant we became with those odd terms. Call us sentimental or anti-development, we believed a transportation right of way protected in perpetuity — even a rusted, shadowy, deserted one that delineated a right and a wrong side of the tracks — was preferable to a row of speculative apartment buildings with maximum floor area ratios.

Those efforts failed, and the amazingly solid structure was sawed apart and hauled away. The iron dust killed our impatiens and no doubt seeped into our lungs. Meantime, my husband and I helped form a new nonprofit group called West Villagers for Responsible Development to limit the impact of the new buildings. We sold salvaged chunks of High Line iron in baggies to raise funds for our work.

I recently pulled out my files from those days. How simultaneously quaint and forward-thinking our Dinkins-era lives and dreams seem now! The yellowing meeting attendance sheets have only two columns: name and seven-digit phone number. Rockrose Development, which I now think of as a little family-run business, seemed to be the biggest, baddest wolf in town. When we talked of reclaiming the High Line, we were thinking along the lines of transportation corridor or rails-to-trails, not high-end passegiatta. In 1991, the attorney for Conrail, which had owned the High Line, was still talking about the actual moving of goods: “We’re trying to preserve valuable infrastructure at a time when the market looks very positive for rail traffic… . It could be used to bring meat into the meat market and there is an opportunity to work with the Post Office or United Parcel Service.”

No one else was giving the High Line much love back then. The far West Village’s industrial past was still palpable enough that this relic hadn’t yet accrued the poignancy it has now. A lot of people had seemingly never even noticed it, and those of us who knew it by name had no idea how to spell it; I remember being told that it was officially the “Hi-Line.” Our little band of activists had lots of energy, but no big bucks, no political will, no fashion industry, only a couple of accomplished but schleppy-looking celebs like Judd Hirsch and Albert Watson who could be counted on to headline the occasional rally. 

So when the buzz about the new High Line park started, I wasn’t feeling generous about it, and I confess that I didn’t really get it. I resented the rich new guys who had seemingly breezed in and enlisted Kevin Bacon and Edward Norton to back it like a Hollywood blockbuster, giving no credit to the previous generation’s efforts. I cringed at the self-congratulatory ground-breaking party with the artisanal hors d’oeuvres and the giveaway plastic hard hats (enviro-apple green, of course). And, to be honest, I was jealous. These rubes who met at a community board meeting seemed to be pulling off what we couldn’t, and quickly. At the same time, I didn’t have high hopes for it. I thought it would be a novelty, like that Soho gallery with the dirt that was such a hit in the ’80s. 

For all my intimacy with the High Line, there was one crucial experience I had missed: I had never stepped onto it. In June, when I first climbed the metal staircase on Gansevoort St. and found myself in a whole new place in the sky above the old familiar one, I was dumbfounded. It was a little like discovering a relative from the old country who was still alive, one who knew all the same family stories I knew, but told them from an entirely different perspective.

What’s more, I fell in love with the renovation. I was braced for the new Manhattan opulence, call it hotel/hipster. Instead, the High Line design felt more like an acoustic song I wanted to play over and over until I got to know its subtleties. How clever and rigorous to build the whole thing on a theme and variations of concrete planks. For all the money it took to dismantle the real meadow and create a facsimile, it’s not all that luxurious, unlike those apartments that don’t scream “good taste” as much as “money was spent here!” It’s not all that faddish either, except in the general sense that native horticulture is everywhere these days.

As the park wends from tunnel to vista, from the Village to Chelsea, from skinny boardwalk to broad plaza, you’re accompanied by what strikes me as just the right amount of color and texture — frothy leaves adorned with the occasional deep-magenta flower; blossoms big as corn dogs that burst into yellow in June from the bottom up, leaving a toasted tan behind; thin grass that grows straight up nearly to waist height; birch trees that shimmer in the hidden lights in the evening. And Ricardo Scofidio’s architectese notwithstanding (“… the team retools this industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure reflection about the very categories of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in our time.”), it’s not the kind of conceptual art project that requires a long explanation, and even then doesn’t become more compelling or rich as a result; it’s beautiful and fascinating at first glance. 

Manhattan is changing in ways I dreamed of but never imagined might actually occur. It’s becoming greener and more inviting. There are beach chairs in Times Square and bike paths everywhere. Here in the Village, though, many of us have a deeply ingrained distrust of improvements, because we know that a prettier city comes at a price.

What’s the price of the High Line? That will take years, and a new Whitney Museum, to determine. As much as I enjoy it, there is already a certain skybox quality to it, a sense of a rarefied life going on up there in the Standard Hotel and the Caledonia apartments. Sometimes it gives me the willies. I think of Manhattanites as tough and subversive and independent in their fashion. When did they become so decorative? Where did all this buffed flesh and injected skin and whitened teeth and straightened hair come from? This year you can almost watch the resort-wear fashions wash in and out in real time (floor-length halter dresses in June, strapless elasticized ones in July).

At the moment, economic signals are bizarrely mixed in the Village. There may be no recession in sight on the High Line and a gelato truck doing a booming business on Washington St., a place that until recently you wouldn’t stroll on a summer evening if someone paid you. But blocks away, Hudson St. is becoming a ghost town, with 15 empty storefronts at my last count. When you’re up on the High Line, it’s easy to be nostalgic for a vanished Manhattan while forgetting the trouble afoot in the current one.

But I guess I’m just as much a fashion victim as the next person. In the evening, when my husband suggests a stroll down Hudson River Park (circa 2002), a secret part of me thinks: That old thing? 

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