REVIEW // Dreamers and Realists Collaborate on the High Line

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky
by Josh David and Robert Hammond
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks - October 2011
Reviewed by Connie Fishman

The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky is part diary, part “how-to” guide, and part detective story – albeit one whose outcome we know as soon as we look at the cover. I found it fascinating to read, even though I already knew a fair bit about the process by which the High Line was created. The preface’s first sentence, a journalist’s quote describing Joshua David and Robert Hammond as “A pair of nobodies who undertook [an] impossible mission” (and I would add, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams) really captures this unlikely tale.

Josh and Robert’s success was due to an exceptional combination of intelligence, talent and determination, serendipity, naïveté, timing, and often, incredible luck. It was probably better that they were inexperienced in the areas of New York City land use and community politics; otherwise they would have understood more clearly the difficult road ahead. They weren’t burdened by the mythology of the past or by a history of defeat. Neither were they inherently political, or affiliated with a particular political group or official.

What the High Line story makes clear is the critical juncture that is reached when grassroots causes actually triumph, are embraced by the powers that be, and begin down the path of all complex public projects. Many activists falter in the transition from outsider to insider, and often the skills that lead to success in the ‘campaigning’ phase of a project are not the same as those needed to implement it. 

What’s interesting in the High Line’s case is that Josh and Robert felt that they had to continue in campaign-mode throughout nearly the whole project, even after it had been adopted by the city. There was always an additional battle to be fought: for the first phase, the funding, the Certificate of Interim Trail Use, the design competition, more funding, the lawsuit, the zoning, a second phase, even more funding, “the spur,” and yes, again more funding. Perhaps this seemingly endless series of battles, each of which required its own renewed campaign, is what kept them motivated and in a sense, perpetual activists, even while they were implementing the project with the City and turning Friends of the High Line into an institution.

What the High Line story makes clear is the critical juncture that is reached when grassroots causes actually triumph, are embraced by the powers that be, and begin down the path of all complex public projects.

Clearly one of the things at which they were masterful where others might have failed was walking the fine line between the community and the government; maintaining their romantic dreams against the burdensome and bureaucratic realities of local government, their ‘outsider’ credibility while wining and dining the highest levels of supporters in New York City politics and society. While much of the book is a sort of road map for how others might pursue their civic dreams, this particular characteristic is not one either taught or replicated easily.

One thing generally agreed upon is that despite the involvement of many different public agencies and community members in the design process, the High Line’s landscape and other notable design features are a huge part of its success. The multi-headed client, typical of most if not all major public projects and frequently criticized for creating ‘design by committee’, need not produce an inferior product. In the past decade, new and interesting park design has taken root all over the city, communities’ input notwithstanding.

Though the High Line’s story is unique, it can still be an example for other parks. Similar funding models with varying degrees of success are springing up throughout New York where public/private models abound. Friends groups are providing vital support to public parks to ensure their health and vitality during hard economic times. A vast portion of New York’s waterfront is now open to the public, often for the first time, for recreation and leisure precisely because of these innovative financial models. If these new parks succeed as the High Line has - at least in this first phase of its new life as a “park in the sky”- then more and more impossible missions are likely to flourish in the future.

Photo Courtesy of Iwan Baan for James Corner Field Operations

Connie Fishman is Vice President for Real Estate of YMCA of Greater New York. Ms. Fishman previously served as Executive Vice President and later President of the Hudson River Park Trust, the City-State agency responsible for developing and operating Hudson River Park, the largest public parks project in New York City in 150 years. She has also served as Planning and Development Director for two New York City Deputy Mayors and the Deputy Director for Housing, Economic and Infrastructure Planning at the NYC Department of City Planning.
  1. urbandesignreview posted this