Saturday, September 3, 2011

Perspective from the High Line

To say that the High Line was made possible by Robert Hammond and Joshua David is not hyperbole. While the money -- lots of private and some public -- came from elsewhere, and while it can't be disputed that in some ways Robert and Josh were at the right place at the right time, still Robert and Josh provided the the vision, commitment, and rhetorical force that won over the funders, the regulatory agencies, the property owners, and the neighbors. The High Line was the right place, but Robert and Josh made the right time.

They had no relevant background or professional experience before they took on the creation of the High Line as their personal crusade. Not architects, or landscape designers, or urban developers, just two guys in the neighborhood with an idea and an extraordinary ambition and confidence -- and ability to tell the story of what the High Line could be. Telling that story over and over again, in person, at events, at presentations, at parties -- and telling the story to neighbors (some of which, admittedly, influential in the city and in New York City culture) and anyone else who would listen. They successfully sold their concept over and over again, and the powers that be trusted the administrative and creative process to Robert and David to make it happen. (You can't help but remember that Frederick Law Olmsted had never worked at or designed an urban park before he took on the concept and the creation of Central Park.)

The latest version of Robert's and Josh's story is their just-published history / memoir, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011). Earlier tonight, NPR's All Things Considered profiled Robert and Josh, the High Line, and book in a thoughtful and entertaining profile that won't hurt either the flow of High Line tourists or the book sales.

Like every other successful public space -- and all the great, historical ones including Central Park, the Tuileries Garden, Ueno Park -- the High Line brings together public and private assets and interests. The High Line makes the most cherished urban values physical, lived experience.

Easy as that is to observe, it is just as difficult to know what exactly to learn from the High Line case study. Though it shares common virtues with other successful urban spaces, it is hard to reduce the story to a template. We can identify the conceptual ingredients (the textscapes) within the physical space, but each of those spaces is a distinctive and irreplicable story.