Mark Lamster | Essays

High (Line) Anxiety

A couple of weeks ago I began work on a post about the High Line, but other matters intruded and I set it aside. The impetus then was a tendentious Times Op-Ed by Jeremiah Moss, the pseudonymous author of the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. His argument: the High Line has turned Chelsea, previously a heterogenous blue-collar neighborhood, into a district overun by tourists and starchitect towers for the banker class, and that this represented "another chapter in the story of New York City's transformation into Disney World."

You'd have thought, from the tenor of the response, that he'd desecrated the grave of Jane Jacobs. On Twitter, the architectural cognoscenti shot him down right quick. Joshua David and Robert Hammond, the High Line's founding friends, answered in the Times. In the blogosphere, Matthew Gallaway authored the most convincing of many rejoinders. No, the High Line didn't catalyze Chelsea's transformation; it was inevitable. What businesses it displaced have been replaced by new ones that better serve the community. New York's economy depends on tourists. Change is both inevitable and necessary for a city to survive. People love the thing. Get over it.

I was somewhat surprised by the swiftness and bitterness of this response, given the cavils one does hear about this project behind closed doors. In his latest column for Metropolis, Philip Nobel (disclosure: a friend), spells out the contrarian argument, or at least some of it, in no uncertain terms:
I’ve never seen a bad review; was it reviewed as architecture at all? Certainly no one spanked the firm for its complicity in creating that aggressively not-quite-public space. Or commented on the obvious gimmickry of the design itself. The reintroduction of decorative railroad tracks (sometimes, bending to the design at the wrong gauge) was as much a sign of confusion as Peter Eisenman’s counterfeit armory facade at the Wexner Center. An intellectual hiccup. A gaffe. Ditto the look-at-me fussiness of the whole.
I will say that I enjoy a stroll on the High Line — who doesn't? There really can be no question that it is a spectacular amenity for New York, and that its very existence as a (quasi) public space is basically miraculous. But I must also admit that I find it's very self-conscious design irritating (and already dating), and that its once raw industrial force has become unfortunately toy-like.

I also have some sympathy for Moss's arguments, even if he's wrong on the facts. It doesn't really matter if the High Line is the cause of Chelsea's transformation. It isn't, but it is a representation of that change, and perhaps the defining icon of the new Manhattan, for better and worse.

Robert Moses understood that parks are treated like motherhood — above and beyond criticism — and in his hands that knowledge became a blinding weapon. Nothing is above criticism. When something begins to develop that kind of reputation, think twice.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [5]

the pedestrian superhighway is a great concept.
separating pedestrian and vehicle. why is there not more of them?
broadway, fifth. as many as you like.

design is almost secondary to the convenience.
how can you be derogatory about a popular hero. how could you be negative in robust critical debate, akin to be negative about the Empire State Building's aesthetics.

crowds beget crowds.

as the image shows, there a multitude of potential litigations. trip hazards. holes to lose you foot in. abrupt changes in slope. maybe not on the beaten path, on a path less travelled.

starch itects stand tall.

A point I've made before, but apparently not convincingly, is that the real "crime" of the High Line, is that it has taken an open space and converted it into a closed space. As such it is another activity that prepares people to accept spatial limits as natural and even desirable.

The paradox here is in how we define open and closed spaces. The High Line might as well be enclosed in some kind of special grade Polyvinyl Chloride wrapping. It is a closed space because access is limited and can be denied; activities can be delimited. It is closed because visitors are under continuous surveillance.

Yes, it is lovely to walk along the High Line, but we ought to be conscious that it is a stroll attached to a very strong, inelastic, leash.

While nothing is above criticism, there seems to be confusion as to what exactly we are talking about. Is it the influence of DS+R (as Nobel says). Or is it the gentrification of chelsea as represented by the high line (as Moss seems to say)? Is it the quality of the high line or what the high line represents?

On Moss: The crowds tell me how much the public craves design. We want design in our lives. Not just design we look at from afar, but design we walk across, sit on, something that makes life better. While the surrounding condos are only for the 1%, there is nobody that wouldn't want to live there, as they are also well designed. But the high line is accessible to anyone, like Times Square, Central Park, the subway system and the street. Social places to see and be seen. The death of chelsea auto-shops isn't even on the same cause/effect as the high line.

On Nobel: While the friends of the high line are the originators of the idea (which Nobel doesn't mention), Corner and DS+R added little touches that bring smiles--the window to the street, the water you can dip your feet into, benches for a nap. Not formal nonsense, but thinks you can touch. The train tracks are a small ode to the past--in vogue in the current cultural era that recycles more than it creates. All of this for the public, who travel from other boroughs, even other cities. You could call it Times Square South, as it is being met with a similar hipster derision. But if you don't like design that is over-thought, you are free to visit 99% of the rest of the world that is unthoughtful crap.

I'm not defending starchitecture--I think that most of those firms abuse their workers, and many contribute to unethical projects. Many of their buildings are shoddy 3D computer models. You can criticize anything, but if a critic wastes ammunition on the high line, which is well built and people love, who will believe them later? They lose their authority, I think. I was surprised that Nobel was so easy on Bjarke and OMA... if you really believe in criticizing the untouchables, then there is plenty more material here: swooping forms that are both shoddy constructions and less ethical: condos for the 1%, centers for communist propaganda.

Patrick W.L.

I also don't think there is some kind of sinister trick behind the High Line. It wasn't propagated by Robert Moses, but by the community who wanted to save it. The city wanted to tear it down. In that it represents not the gentrification of chelsea, but an attempt by the community to create more humane and walkable cities--which in part was influenced by the new Copenhagenism that spread first to New York and now to other cities in America.
Patrick W.L.

Gee, Mark, I agree with everything you said.
john massengale

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