Chelsea Takes Stock of the High Line’s Legacy

From the Sept. 2014 opening of the third, and final, section of the High Line. Photo by Jenny Rubin.

From the Sept. 2014 opening of the third, and final, section of the High Line. Photo by Jenny Rubin.

BY SEAN EGAN | “First of all, I think the High Line is an incredible success,” Robert Hammond began his Wed., Feb. 22 phone call with Chelsea Now. This would seem an obvious opinion for the High Line co-founder and Friends of the High Line (FHL; executive director to hold — his “adaptive reuse” park draws approximately eight million annual visitors, and is projected to produce nearly $1 billion in city tax revenue over the next two decades.

Last week, however, Hammond made headlines after participating in a wide-ranging interview with the website, discussing the effects the “linear park” has had on Chelsea. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” Hammond was quoted as saying. “Ultimately, we failed.”

While these critical comments were just small part of a larger piece profiling FHL and taking stock of the High Line, they still struck a chord with the public and press — sparking a flurry of activity in online comment sections and op-eds in publications including the New York Post. Critics cited the rapid gentrification of the area and dwindling mom-and-pop businesses as effects of the High Line’s success, as well as the stat that about two-thirds of its patrons are tourists rather than New York natives. Chelsea Now took this opportunity to reach out to Hammond and a number of community stakeholders to reflect on the legacy of the High Line so far, the good and the bad.

For his part, Hammond emphasized to Chelsea Now his comments were “taken completely out of context,” and referred only to their initial outreach to NYCHA during its planning stages (beginning in 1999) — and still, his team had many community input sessions at the time. Indeed, the bulk of the CityLab piece catalogs efforts FHL have made post-opening to reach out to the public (including NYCHA’s nearby Fulton and Chelsea-Elliot Houses) to make the park more of a welcoming community space. It also highlighted Hammond’s efforts with the recently established High Line Network, through which he shares his knowledge with the developers of similar parks in different cities around the country.

“It’s about ‘What can we do, collectively, to keep getting better?’ ” Hammond elaborated. “The neighborhood has always been changing. It’s changed many times in the 17 years that I’ve been working here, and I think we have to respond to those challenges — and those challenges change. The challenges in 1999 were very different from the challenges we have now.” 

“When we realized less people from NYCHA were coming we did a survey to find out why and see what we could do,” he continued. “That’s when we started our teen program, and started changing our adult programs, and over the years I think we’ve done better and better [at] doing more outreach.” In conversation, he highlighted their continued NYCHA surveys, their teen employment program (which has facilitated various teen nights and employed over 100 area youths since its inception), and the launch of the Neighbor’s Council to “foster open dialogue,” with 17 community members including reps from the aforementioned NYCHA complexes, Hudson Guild, assorted residents, and Community Board 4 (CB4).

While these efforts are certainly notable, as CB4 Chair Delores Rubin told Chelsea Now, “A lot of it’s reactionary. In terms of the planning, you know, the damage is already done in terms of planning.”

“My feeling was always, why are we talking about a park; why not affordable housing?” Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Houses Tenants’ Association, articulated to Chelsea Now, succinctly articulating many locals’ thoughts on the area. He also noted that for a while, locals didn’t recognize the park as being for them, due to its lack of equipment or room for play.

Still, he’s seen firsthand FHL’s outreach, as they regularly attend his tenant meetings. “The Friends of the High Line made their very best effort, knowing the mistakes they made in not working directly with the community prior to the park being installed. Now they’ve been working closely, especially with an eye on trying to put [on] programming that makes sense.”

Particular successes Hammond and Acevedo cite include their Latin dance night series (an original Fulton idea) and their teen employment program. “They’ve been very receptive on that,” Acevedo said, noting a number of Fulton youths had participated in the program. Still, “It’s never been a permanent program; it’s been something where they go in, they learn, they get out, and they become seasonal,” he explained. “Seasonal’s okay, but once the season’s over then that’s it — the job is eliminated. You have a permanent park up there, so why not create real, permanent jobs for members of the community?” he asked. Hammond noted that to address this, FHL has recently started retaining seven teenaged staffers for year-long positions.

A teen working at the High Line as part of the employment program — which over 100 teens have participated in. Photo by Anita Ng, courtesy Friends of the High Line.

A teen working at the High Line as part of the employment program — which over 100 teens have participated in. Photo by Anita Ng, courtesy Friends of the High Line.

Another of Acevedo’s major concerns are the mom-and-pops being edged out due to rising area rents — a large-scale problem that Hammond admits he is unsure of how FHL could directly tackle.

“One of the things that they can do is maybe create a small business for one of the families that live in the development or live in Chelsea itself to be on the High Line,” Acevedo suggested, as a way of combating the prescient issue. “I appreciate the effort that Friends of the High Line does for the community,” he went on. “But you can always do more.” 

“We have great communication with the High Line,” said Rubin echoing Acevedo, noting that FHL keeps CB4 abreast of all of their projects and programming, and has tried to work to address community needs. “I could probably only imagine they were probably overwhelmed by their success, but they’re doing a great job now at continuing their outreach to the community.”

In contrast to Acevedo and Rubin, Andy Humm, president of the adjacent London Terrace Tenants Association (btw. W. 23rd & 24th Sts. and Ninth & 10th Aves.) has not been on the receiving end of FHL outreach — and he did not mince words when discussing the High Line.

“I call it ‘The Beast That Ate Chelsea,’ ” Humm quipped, positing that its presence accelerated gentrification, and the proliferation of chain stores that rob the neighborhood of its character. “It became cool, it became chic, and it just utterly transformed Chelsea. And I don’t know if that kind of overdevelopment we’ve been subjected to here in Chelsea would have happened on this scale without the High Line.”

Noting that Giuliani-era rezoning efforts contributed to gentrification as well, Rubin pointed to the importance of taking “a look in a more comprehensive way of all of these things together… The neighborhood can point to the High Line as one specific thing that’s making these changes, but,” she said, “If we look at a lot of the properties that have come up in the past decade around High Line, we have a higher price demographic that is moving in because we have luxury buildings that are coming up around that area. Then you add to that, to the west, the development that is beginning, and that will be coming online as Hudson Yards” — developments, both she and Hammond noted, are out of the High Line’s control.

Humm, however, decidedly points at the High Line for one issue: the excessive traffic, of both the foot and motor varieties, that cropped up near London Terrace. Previously, he said, “Nobody walked down this block because there was nothing beyond 10th Avenue.” Now, the congestion is a major issue for the area — sometimes exacerbated, he noted, by broken elevators.

Fall 2016, crowds on the High Line. Photo by Daniel Kwak.

Fall 2016, crowds on the High Line. Photo by Daniel Kwak.

Rubin has noticed this as well, and stated, “It does create conflict in an area that was already a little bit more neighborhood-y, that now is feeling what Midtown feels,” though she asserts that CB4 tries to work with Departmetn of Transportation when specific instances of this issue are brought up at meetings. Hammond, while emphasizing that they work to be good neighbors in terms of the upkeep of the areas around entrances commented, “I don’t know how we could address that, but we’re open to suggestions on that,” encouraging residents to email FHL.

“A lot of these things are happening in a cumulative way, and I wouldn’t point the finger only to the High Line,” said Rubin, who believes, despite being a “victim of its success,” that the High Line does contribute much to the area in terms of culture, educational resources and beauty.

“Sometimes we get too much credit and too much blame for the changes in the neighborhood,” Hammond agreed, while reiterating his pride in the park. “It’s far exceeded all our expectations — but we always want to do more.”

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