The High Line Park and Refining Public Space, Questions Raised

A perspective on the High Line appeared in Thursday’s New York Times (9/3) from Ashley Gilbertson who in 2005 explored the at-that-time abandoned elevated rail road tracks and the life that remained and sprung up around them. This was before the work began that resulted in what we have there now, the High Line Park, which opened in June, a mostly privatized endeavor.

Gilbertson writes in the The New York Times articleThe High Line – Up Over Chelsea, Something Saved, Something Lost” of his experience getting up there :

The tracks and sleepers were still in place. The grass and weeds grew higher than my head, and I saw that someone had cleared a plot among them and planted a little vegetable garden. Smashed beer bottles and the occasional crack pipe crunched underfoot. The old covered loading bays that cut into the buildings had become guerrilla art galleries, crammed with graffiti murals by some of New York’s legends, and in one case, an illegal iron installation welded to a steel beam.

I did not see anyone else up there that day. The noise and hustle below were mostly muted. If the city were ever abandoned, I imagined, this was how it might look.

Then, his return:

Four years later, almost to the day, I returned to the High Line, now a refined urban park. Appropriately, it was a perfect sunny day. I held my camera in the same spots, and saw a landscape transformed. It was very pleasant, but I felt as though something had been lost.

The graffiti murals have been cleaned off the walls. The iron sculpture was dismantled to give a better view of Spencer Finch’s public art project; his colored windows are pretty, but feel spineless and manufactured compared with the raw, unsanctioned work that used to be there. Walking the manicured paths, I could no longer bring myself to imagine the city in a different age. I found myself wishing that the High Line had never been touched.

Gilbertson concludes that, if the High Line Park hadn’t been built, it would have been destroyed entirely and lost to luxury housing development. But his article and reflections on The High Line Park raise questions:

* Is there a way to update and improve a public space, to make change, without irreparably altering the character and history of that space?

* Why does the current New York City government, under billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who hails from, uh, Boston), seem incapable of doing so?

* And:  Does everything in present day New York City have to be shiny and glossy and made for high end consumption?

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You can see photos of The High Line in 2005 and 2009 from the article at this link.

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