Tag Archives: Robert Hammond

completion of the High Line September 21, 2014

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Before it was constructed, the New York Central Railroad had operated a rail freight line at grade, or street level, along Tenth Avenue, and men on horseback (“West Side cowboys”) had ridden ahead of the train with red flags or lanterns to warn pedestrians of its coming; yet even with this picturesque alarm system, so many careless, inebriated or simply unlucky citizens had gotten run over that the street acquired the notorious name “Death Avenue.” For over 70 years, since the mid-19th century, public outcry had agitated against this danger to life and limb, demanding a safer solution: thus, the High Line.” (Here.)

Completed September 21, 2014, the High Line park has now become many things to many people, its Rashomon effect hashed out in the comments section of the many articles written about its success. It’s been five years since the first phase opened, with the third and final phase finished this fall. Over that span of time, my unadulterated delight at the railway’s rebirth into a park with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf has become complicated by learning of many other divergent reactions, and quite a few outright hostile ones, including accusing the park of being a Trojan Horse hiding rapacious developers. Because of the unimagined success of its new life as a beloved city park and tourist destination, drawing 5 million a year, it’s easy to forget its humble origins in community activism. I’ve seen neighborhood activism up close, and it isn’t always pretty. Contentious, divisive, disillusioning, these are what come to mind. Semi-contemporaneous with the grass-roots conversion of the disused railway line into a public park in NYC, my neighborhood association in Los Angeles was also involved in a grass roots effort concerning a property suffering from extreme landlord neglect, a property that slipped in and out of drug dealing. After years of frustrating engagement with the city at all levels, code, police, planning, the property seemed to magically accelerate on a fast track to a “pocket park,’ a cherished pipe dream of neighborhood activists. All of a sudden, the long-sought grant money was there, the city’s will was no longer wobbly but strong, and after years of dead-end efforts, the pocket park was a go. Plans were approved, the troubled property was sacrificed on the altar of eminent domain, and the park is now a year old. (I had nothing to do with the process, only attending a couple meetings and ceremonies.) The differences in scale between the two projects couldn’t be more stark, but I have to admit I had my doubts that either project would ever get off the ground. Another difference is that, unlike the High Line project, everyone in our neighborhood is wildly enthusiastic about our result. But then our neighborhood is in no danger of developers rushing in to build luxury penthouses to take advantage of views of our pocket park. (Some might say more’s the pity!)


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The High Line experienced a similar acceleration when Giuliani and his pro-demolition sympathies left office, replaced by Michael Bloomberg, whose new agenda included finding innovative ways to include more parks despite the seemingly maxed-out density of NYC. The dream of a park in the sky found a powerful champion. With the completion of the final phase, and housebound with a sore throat, I dug a little deeper into the formation of the High Line, and what I found was a mulligan stew of community activism, timely rezoning, and a strange concept called “air rights,” mixed with insatiable appetites for high-end real estate development. The gentrifcation of this former manufacturing neighborhood was going to happen with or without the High Line. As with so many American cities, manufacturing had long decamped. Art galleries and designer ateliers had already moved in. Businesses directly under the disused structure were agitating for its removal to develop their valuable properties skyward. Ultimately, what came to the rescue of these disgruntled businesses as well as park proponents was ingenious manipulation of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). And built into plans for the High Line’s redesign were considerations for unopposed views and open space that arguably wouldn’t have been a vision for this neighborhood’s growth had the High Line been demolished.

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High Line Adjacency Controls: Required Open Space
A minimum of 20% of the lot area would be required to be reserved as landscaped open space. To provide a visual extension of the High Line, the required open space would be located adjacent to and at a height not to exceed the level of the High Line. The required open space could not front on Tenth Avenue and could be used as a public or private space
.” (Here.)


But back to the inception. The owners of the railway, CSX, who acquired it from Conrail in 1998, resisted the swelling outcry for demolition and opted instead to commission a study of potential uses. (Bless CSX for that.) Rail banking was a proposal that intrigued neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, both in attendance at that meeting unveiling the results of the study. (My community garden lies in a disused railway easement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also a beneficiary of rail banking.) After that momentous meeting, David and Hammond formed the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, fully in support of a park use for the railway.

Along with requisitioning the potential use study, CSX fortuitously hired photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose evocative photos were just the boost the proposed park needed.


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photo by Joel Sternfeld 2000

One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David.
“They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
” (Here.)

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.” (Interview with Robert Hammond Here.)

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Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good.
It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line
.” — Robert Hammond Here.

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What was striking is that in all my reading, not once was the amazingly complex plantsmanship of Piet Oudolf cited as part of the appeal that lures so many to the High Line.
Through his plantings, Oudolf matched the spirit of Sternfeld’s photos of the abandoned railway recolonized by plants.

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Where once there was a clang and clamor of industry, the noisy, physical manifestation of America’s 20th Century manufacturing might, the old railway has been repurposed for another kind of movement that seems to strike some as aimless, idle, purposeless: people making multivaried use of a park.

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The fact that this new amenity sprang from older industrial infrastructure says a lot about the current moment in New York’s evolution. A city that had once pioneered so many technological and urban planning solutions, that had dazzled the world with its public works, its skyscrapers, bridges, subways, water-delivery system, its Central Park, palatial train stations, libraries and museums, appears unable to undertake any innovative construction on a grand scale, and is now consigned to cannibalizing its past and retrofitting it to function as an image, a consumable spectacle. Productivity has given way to narcissism; or, to put it more charitably, work has yielded to leisure.” (Here.)

I would argue that instead of cannibalizing the past, the past has been honored and included in the present moment, which is a continuum that the wisest cities respect.
I would argue that the High Line gives all of us, not just the 1 percent, million-dollar views of New York.
And the fact that funding was found for a park (a park!) and not another sports arena still strikes me as extraordinary and reason enough to celebrate.

I’ve included photos of one of my visits to the High Line in June 2013.

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Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars.
But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose
.” (Here.)


Reading for this post can found at these links:

http://www.thehighline.org/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-nyc-mayor-bloombergs-urban-planning-legacy.html

http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/portfolio/subramanian/HighLine_Resident.html

http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=34419

http://www.hraadvisors.com/featured/the-high-line/#&panel1-4

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/under-the-high-line-a-gay-past/

http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2005/july-august/taking-the-high-line.html

Developers Want Easier Access to High Line Air Rights; But Should City Fix Something That Doesn’t Look Broken?

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/sponsorvideo/improbable-journey-the-story-of-new-yorks-high-line

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/westchelsea/westchelsea3b.shtml

Foreword to Piet Oudolf Landscapes in Landscapes

I didn’t dare take this beautiful book on the recent camping trip, so it sat waiting in a quiet house. A couple pages behind the cover’s brisk Helvetica type is this arresting foreword by Robert Hammond, co-founder of the High Line in New York City, which is as far as I got into the book. I think the entire foreword is worth posting here:

The High Line should be preserved, untouched, as a wilderness area. No doubt you will ruin it. So it goes.’

“This comment was handed in on a public input card after our 2003 High Line Ideas Competition and I’ve kept it pinned above my desk ever since. It scared me because I believed it could come true.

“The High Line was a serendipitous wildscape when Joshua David and I first walked on it in the summer 1999. Grasses, wildflowers, and small trees had taken over the surface of the abandoned elevated rail line. It was unplanned and untended, and that’s what made it so special. My biggest fear was that turning it into a park would spur the loss of a magical, accidental landscape thriving in relative secret above the West Side of Manhattan. At first we hoped to keep it as it was, to preserve that wild state and to simply run a path down the middle of the railway. We soon learned that would be impossible. In order to open it to the public we needed to make repairs, and that meant removing what remained of the ties, the rails, and the ballast — and everything growing on top of them. I knew we could not replicate what had taken nature decades to unfold. Even after I saw the plans that Piet Oudolf developed with our design team, led by James Corner Field Operations, schemes that drew inspiration from the palette of volunteer plants found growing there, I was anxious that the new plantings would fall short of that romantic original landscape. It was not until after the park opened in the summer of 2010 and I could see how the High Line’s blooms, grasses, and foliage changed every few weeks that I realized that Piet had not only recaptured that original magic, but that he had also created a new landscape that had the ability to alter the way people feel and how they act.

“People do not walk slowly in New York. They rarely stroll. But they do on the High Line. Couples hold hands. Parents remark upon the various plants as they use the High Line to walk their children leisurely to and from school. Piet’s landscape allows people to breathe easier — not for its manicured beauty, but for its ability to change as nature does.

“The range and complexity of Piet’s plantings give visitors reasons to come back again and again. Week after week, month after month, they are lessons in discovery. Where many garden designers think of landscapes in terms of the four main seasons, Piet’s seasons are broken into seasons. His aspirations may be ecological in nature, but he works like a painter. He dials color up, and then back, sometimes massing bold swatches of color that lead your eye through the landscape, at other times subtly dotting little spectral islands into larger seas of grasses. The complexity of these combinations is heightened as he employs various and distinct aspects of a single plant’s annual cycle for various purposes through a single year. His plants are actors playing multiple roles — the blue stars that entertain with small, pale blue flowers in May return with a bold statement when their foliage turns a brilliant gold in the fall.

“With Oudolf, it’s not just about flowers. His landscapes, while certainly floral, are meant to confound the “what’s-in-bloom?” mentality that drives much of the garden world. Plants are prized for their flowers, yes, but also for their height — and the gradual pace pursued to achieve their eventual statures — for their foliage’s texture and color in spring and summer as well as fall and winter, for their fruit or seedheads, and even for the color of their stems. Whether the plants are ascendant or in decline, all of their features have roles to play, through the year. And it all appears so disarmingly simple.

“Or course, you do not need to think about any of this when you walk through one of his landscapes. But I suspect that you will be moved, or inspired, or maybe you will just feel better — even if you don’t know why. There is something at work that will, I think, connect you to the kind of feelings I experienced when I walked on the High Line that first time — a belief in the ability of such spaces to change the way we see the world, and perhaps each other, season after season, all year long.

Robert Hammond
Co-founder
Friends of the High Line.”

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