"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No Sour Grapes, Please - The Case for New York’s High Line

I first walked on New York City’s High Line – the short park-cum-walkway built on an old railroad right-of-way shortly after it opened.  It not only was a pleasant place to walk, with landscaped gardens, flowers, and grasses, but it offered perspectives of New York that were unparalleled.  Walking high up on the bed of these old train tracks, you were at eye level with many of the high-rise buildings along side in one stretch, and had long vistas out to the Hudson River in another.  I remember being disappointed when it ended after only a few blocks.  It was so pleasant, and my view of New York so different, that I wanted it to go on through the rest of the city to Battery Park.

Paris has its own high-line, the Promenade Plantee which runs almost four miles from the Bastille out to the Peripherique.  It is less landscaped but more diverse as it goes through a greater variety of neighborhoods.  Some stretches are like New York where you are right up against the buildings, others are through more wooded areas and still others with long vistas.

New York has done some remarkable public works to make the city far more livable than when I lived there in the Seventies.  Then it was a far different city, more dirty and gritty than more universally manicured and upscale.  I like to watch the movie The French Connection because it was filmed in New York at that time, and the director, William Friedkin, shot the entire film on location and used many ‘stolen scenes’ – scenes which were shot in real time with no set preparation or extras.  The famous subway scene with Gene Hackman playing cat-and-mouse with Fernando Rey was ‘stolen’.  The passengers on the train waiting to depart while both actors ducked in and out of the doors had no idea that this was part of a movie.  The wild ride under the El was also done in real time with a stunt driver barreling down the avenue under the tracks.

Friedkin loved New York, and the movie was as much about the city as it was about Popeye Doyle and Frog One.  There were the laundries, delis, neighborhood grocery stores, beat-up cars, ragged all-night diners, wet, pot-holed streets, rusting bridges, and rough waterfront that I remember. 

On a recent trip to New York I asked an old friend who had lived in the city for over almost 40 years whether he noticed the same changes that I had.  That somehow New York was a more livable city – less graffiti, less litter and grime, and most importantly a far less threatening atmosphere.  In the Seventies riding the subway could be frightening – the windows were blackened with aggressive street tags, radios blared, and intimidating, blinged-up, pimp-walking teenagers sashayed down the aisles.  Now the A Train is far more like the Paris metro to Passy in the tony 16th arrondissement. Riders are quiet, thoughtful, and even respectful.  My friend said that my observations were indeed correct, and the city had changed significantly since we both had moved there many years ago.

One of the most impressive changes to the city which characterized the municipality’s conscious desire to make it welcome, accommodating, and more pleasant for resident and visitor alike was its renovation of the Hudson River waterfront.


In the Seventies the waterfront was nothing more than a series of rotted piers and a desolate, trash-strewn outlier piece of New York.  Now you can walk from 115th Street to Battery Park along paved walkways and piers restored and transformed into mini-parks and recreation areas, sit on undamaged benches (most public benches, telephones, neighborhood parks were broken, vandalized, and scuzzy in the Seventies), and watch river traffic or look at the dense urban landscape of Manhattan behind.  Battery Park itself had been transformed into a varied, multi-level, intriguing series of walkways through Japanese gardens, small mini-marinas, and past the old Ferry Terminal down to the Point. 

These changes were welcome.  Although I look back with nostalgia on my New York of decades ago, and as a young man reveled in the edge and grit of the city so far from my New England white picket fence enclave, I prefer the New York of today.  These public works and other city improvements were made possible by the increased tax revenues coming from more upscale buildings and wealthy residents, and while the city had lost some of its economic and ethnic mix, it had gained by becoming what great cities like Paris had always been – a livable, attractive, exciting, and energetic place.

Now for the sour grapes. Jeremiah Moss, writing in today’s (8.22.12) New York Times complains about the now touristy High Line and the gentrification of the neighborhoods around it. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/opinion/in-the-shadows-of-the-high-line.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

The High Line has become a tourist-clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history. The designers had scrubbed the graffiti and tamed the wildflowers. Guards admonished me when my foot moved too close to a weed. Was this a park or a museum? I felt like I was in the home of a neatnik with expensive tastes, afraid I would soil the furnishings.

But the park was a hit. Fashion models strutted up and down. Shoppers from the meatpacking district boutiques commandeered the limited number of benches, surrounded by a phalanx of luxury clothing bags. I felt underdressed.

That rarefied state didn’t last, though. As the High Line’s hype grew, the tourists came clamoring. Originally meant for running freight trains, the High Line now runs people, except where those people jam together like spawning salmon crammed in a bottleneck.

Not yet four years old, the High Line has already become another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners, another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World.

Moss somehow combines elitism (he hates the Midwestern tourists who now crowd his High Line) with ‘progressive’ lament (the inevitable gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods has forced older, more income-modest residents to move).  His manages to evoke old guy “You shoulda seen New York when it was really New York” sentiments, economic naïveté, and personal romantic notions of urban living.

He saves his most urgent anger for the redevelopment of the High Line residential areas. They have become elite havens for the rich, destroying diversity, creating a glass-tower homogeneity, and destroying the city.

The park has quickly become a tool for the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a new, upscale, corporatized stretch along the West Side. As socialites and celebrities championed the designer park during its early planning stages, whipping community support into a heady froth, the city rezoned West Chelsea for luxury development in 2005.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation published a study last year stating that before the High Line was redeveloped, “surrounding residential properties were valued 8 percent below the overall median for Manhattan.” Between 2003 and 2011, property values near the park increased 103 percent.

Of course property values increased along with the number of tourists.  Bloomberg and mayors before him understood the nature of urban development and how public spaces were an integral part of it.  Georges Pompidou as President of France understood this and was behind the redevelopment of the old Marais neighborhood, an area which had become run-down, seedy, tacky, and filled with touts and prostitutes.  He built the Pompidou Center – commonly called Beaubourg for the neighborhood around it.  The Center, which was opened in 1977 was remarkable.  It was a super-modern building surrounded by the oldest buildings in Paris.  Not only was it modern, it was unique in design with all the usually hidden ducts, pipes, and functional works on the outside.

As importantly Pompidou and his designers anticipated that the building would be a great draw for residents of Paris and tourists alike and created a large plaza in front of it.  Their vision was accurate, and the area is now filled with visitors, musicians, dancers, and mimes.  He made a once unlivable area of Paris very livable. As it became more desirable, areas around it were renovated and more upscale.  The neighborhood changed, people were economically displaced, but the urban environment became transformed from a grey, tacky place to a vibrant, populated, and energy-filled locale.

Ever since I lived in New York I have heard the same complaint over and over again – Manhattan is become a place only the rich can afford.  Or put more selfishly, “I would like to live here but can’t afford it”.  Of course they want to live in this new, vibrant, and enticing city.  Who wouldn’t?  I would like to live in St. Tropez, have a house on the water in Pacific Heights or Sausalito, an apartment overlooking a garden in the 7th of Paris, a penthouse in New York overlooking the East River…but I can’t afford it. The idea that a city must include residents of all income levels is false.  The city’s police, firemen, teachers live in Queens or Brooklyn, just as DC public servants live in Gaithersburg, Silver Spring, or Oxon Hill.  I live in a nice, but modest neighborhood of Washington.  While I would love to have a house in Spring Valley I can’t afford it.  Does DC have a responsibility to build some smaller houses on small lots in Spring Valley to accommodate me? Obviously not.

New York for years had rent control, a system whereby a longtime resident of an apartment in the city could stay there at a subsidized, below market rent in perpetuity.  The amount landlords could raise the rent was fixed by the City and it was very, very little.  As a result, landlords put very little into the maintenance of the buildings, and eventually these subsidized residents moved out; and when they did the rents could be raised back to market values, the building fixed up, and economic equilibrium re-established.  Rent control was an expression of a misplaced belief in engineered equality and diversity and it did not work.

The city is a dynamic organism and the process of change is expected and inevitable.  In the Seventies the Soho area of New York had just been rezoned from industrial to modified residential.  Artists could apply to the city for residency in one of the old 19th century iron buildings of the area and the old manufacturing lofts were turned into artists’ workplaces-cum-residences.  It wasn’t long before this mix of great old, historic buildings and the new hip life generated by the artists attracted new residents and tourists.  Eventually the demand for housing in that area became so great that it was rezoned, and now it is a high-rent area.  The artists have moved – perhaps to Providence where former mayor Cianci crated an artists’ zone with low-rent formerly industrial lofts just like Soho.  Providence is not New York, but Cianci changed the city in the same way.

Areas of Brooklyn that I would never have set foot in are now attractive and exciting urban spaces.  Williamsburg – nasty in my day – is now hipster heaven.  The dead no-go zone beneath the Manhattan Bridge is now called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and an up-and-coming hip neighborhood.  Residents who cannot afford New York City have moved to what are even more alluring and youthful neighborhoods.  They have been ‘displaced’ from Manhattan but are happy in Brooklyn.

Hardest hit have been the multigenerational businesses of “gasoline alley.” Mostly auto-related establishments that don’t fit into Michael R. Bloomberg’s luxury city vision, several vanished in mere months, like species in a meteoric mass extinction. Bear Auto Shop was out after decades; the Olympia parking garage, after 35 years, closed when its rent reportedly quintupled.

Brownfeld Auto, on West 29th Street near 10th Avenue, lost its lease after nearly a century. Today it’s another hole in the ground. Its third-generation owner, Alan Brownfeld, blamed the High Line for taking away the thriving business he’d inherited from his grandfather. “It’s for the city’s glamorous people,” he said.

I’m sorry, but what’s the issue here?  Would New York really be a better place to live with Brownfield Auto or Gasoline Alley?  I don’t think so.

But ‘Ah’ says Moss.  The High Line residents will have their come-uppance. They will suffer from the inevitable transformation of their neighborhood just as their predecessors did:

But just as the High Line’s early, trendy denizens gave way to touristic hordes, Chelsea’s haute couture moment may be fleeting. As big a brand as Stella McCartney is, she can’t compete with global chains like Sephora, which are muscling into the area’s commercial space.

Within a few years, the ecosystem disrupted by the High Line will find a new equilibrium. The aquarium-like high rises will be for the elite, along with a few exclusive locales like the Standard Hotel. But the new locals will rarely be found at street level, where chain stores and tourist-friendly restaurants will cater to the crowds of passers-by and passers-through. Gone entirely will be regular New Yorkers, the people who used to call the neighborhood home.

‘Regular New Yorkers’.  Hmmm….just who are they? They exist only in the imagination of Moss where economic realities do not exist and all people – black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab – can live side-by-side in urban harmony.  In fact this rarely occurs anywhere, and if it does it is without the ‘rich and poor’ element.  Many formerly sketchy, low-income areas of DC are being transformed.  Because of their edgy-cum-upscale feel, they attract young, adventurous and money-conscious professionals who also happen to be gay, black, Latino, or Asian.  Eventually when the corner markets, Mom and Pop stores, hip clubs, and funky restaurants are replaced with chain stores and eateries, the neighborhood will again change.  It is the nature of cities.  It is what makes them fascinating and satisfying places to live.

So, enough of the sour grapes.  New York is an even greater place to live and visit than it ever was.  What it has lost in grit and gasoline alley chop shops, it has gained in a more diverse and exciting urban environment.  Washington, DC will forever be a monochrome, uninteresting physical city.  Height limits have created a flat, ironing board truncation of downtown.  Reverence for the monuments and museums have ensured an ossification of public buildings.  There will be no Beaubourg here, nor the Louvre pyramid, designed by I.M. Pei and as daring an architectural statement as that made by Pompidou.  The ultra-modern glass pyramid is placed within the courtyard of the palace of kings begun in the 16th century.  The Louvre Museum was once the palace of Louis XVI who did his own grand reconstruction.  The pyramid, like the Centre Pompidou is stunning not only for its design, but for the audacity of its placement, aligning super-modern with old, traditional, and iconic.

I wish that Washington could be more like Paris or New York, but it never will be; which is why I visit New York every so often to recharge my cultural and aesthetic batteries.  And yes, I still visit the High Line, especially in the very early morning before the crowds when I can have an uninterrupted view and enjoy the near solitude of a beautiful place.

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