Ministry of Controversy, Real Gardens

The High Line backlash


For those of you who haven’t had a chance to visit the High Line yet, I’m sorry to have to tell you that it’s over. Already. At least according to a New York Times op-ed by Jeremiah Moss, in which the writer condemns the West Side elevated park succinctly:

The High Line has become a tourist-clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history.…

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. According to the park’s Web site, 3.7 million people visited the High Line in 2011, only half of them New Yorkers.

As an out-of-towner, therefore, my opinion shouldn’t count, but I do disagree with Moss’s negative conclusion while agreeing with many of his points. It’s true that hordes of tourists come to New York; they visit the Statue of Liberty, the museums, the theaters, the Empire State Building, and, eventually, some make their way to the High Line. It won’t be a news flash to anyone that Manhattan is a tourist town—in fact, despite all the money London spent to host the Olympics, the NYC tourism numbers were easily higher during the same two weeks.

The High Line is also blamed for the gentrification of the neighborhood through which it wends:

While the park began as a grass-roots endeavor — albeit a well-heeled one — it quickly became a tool for the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a new, upscale, corporatized stretch along the West Side.

The polishing of NYC’s gritty edges has been going on for some time. Areas of the Lower East Side that were grimy and somewhat dangerous when I lived there in the 80s are now lined with upscale restaurants, shops, and apartments. (In fact, a Low Line underground park has been proposed for an unused trolley terminal below Delancey and Essex.)

Blaming projects like High Line for gentrification is kind of like blaming the egg for the chicken. For Manhattan, that ship has been in full sail for decades—with a fresher gentrification battle going on in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Maintaining diversity in booming cities is a problem, and I suppose the High Line could be used as a symbol of that problem.


The park was not uncomfortably crowded when we walked it. The experience reminded me—somewhat—of visiting the Christo/Jeanne-Claude installation in Central Park eight years ago. All were there to view the same thing, which had to be walked through to be experienced. There was a feeling of fellowship, as corny as that may sound. The fact that many others were there was expected, and not unpleasant.

I found the High Line to be a perfect combination of my two abiding interests—art and gardening. As a curated wildflower experience in the middle of a city, it presents gardening through the lens of urban existence in an entirely novel design—and vice versa. That’s a triumphant accomplishment. And it’s enough for me.

Posted by on August 27, 2012 at 7:58 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Real Gardens.
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18 Responses to “The High Line backlash”

  1. Jason says:

    I agree that the High Line cannot be blamed for gentrification, though it may have accelerated it along that corridor. But I doubt the City or the people of New York would be better off if the tracks were still rusting away, or torn down. And I find the criticism of the High Line’s crowds a little baffling. New York is a crowded place, that’s one of the defining aspects of its character. If you want solitude, come on out to the prairie.

    I grew up in New York, but haven’t been back for at least ten years. I haven’t seen the High Line, but I hope to do so. Its hard for me to have strong opinions, therefore, but what I know so far makes it sound like something original and good.

  2. tara dillard says:

    Perhaps the writer loves the High Line and knew where to get attention.

    Renzo Piano’s quote, “Here, all at once, you have the water, the park, the powerful industrial structures and the exciting mix of people, brought together and focused by this new building and the experience of art.”, at the High Line is quite ‘disturbing’. Pure ego.

    As if his archtitecture will create what the High Line garden has already created.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Laurrie says:

    I’ve been to the High Line twice, and I am a tourist. I am the problem. I agree with Moss’s discomfort about seeing iconic living places turn into Disney versions of themselves — Venice was a disappointment to me because it was so touristy and fake. But how do you avoid making interesting places available to tourists without changing their essence?

    At least the High Line is supposed to be artificial, contrived and unreal — that’s the charm of a highly stylized garden built on a manmade structure in a city. I have to say I loved it because of that. Whereas Venice and other classics are so unsatisfying because they are no longer what they were. And I guess the surrounding NYC neighborhoods are now becoming that too. It’s a tough balance to strike.

  4. Beth says:

    It’s too bad that the insertion of greenery (living plants) into ANY place is perceived as ‘artificial’. To me the most fatal flaw of ‘cities’ is that they don’t have enough greenery. People need nature, and nature is good for both the environment and society (IMHO). It’s also too bad that this small bit of ‘nature’ (even though nature was scrubbed away and a fully new, planned landscape was installed… from my understanding) is perceived as a negative influence. I personally think it might have been better to clean up what had been there and not so artificially stylized the park. From the photos I’ve seen, I rather prefer the ‘before’ shots. I also think the area may have been better served had it been turned into community FOOD gardens.

    I believe that in a run-down urban area, perhaps the only way it will improve is for wealthier people to spend money making it more ‘liveable’… what we call gentrification. Poor people simply don’t have the funds to do this. This is sort of a necessary evil when we’ve let things fall into disrepair.

    Do we want our cities to be deplorable cesspools of squalor and discontent? Or do we want them to be pleasant, safe, liveable places? I’ve not been to High Line, and maybe it’s not perfect. But it’s inserting greenery in the city, and I just can’t find too much fault in that. IMHO.

  5. Hear hear. But as much as I’d like to see it, it’s still in NYC. I was there once. I prefer prairie and 10 people per square mile. That’s art.

  6. Deirdre says:

    Sorry Mr. Moss, but time waits for no man. Change is inevitable, and most people don’t think “slightly dangerous” is a good thing, even if it is colorful. Mr. Moss may preach New York for New Yorkers, but the city administration is unlikely to forgo tourist dollars. Rather than condemn the highline, Mr. Moss should be aggitating for affordable housing regulations.

  7. Ryan says:

    His complaint reminds me of the Yogi Berra line about a restaurant, ‘No one goes there anymore… it’s too crowded.’

  8. commonweeder says:

    I am in total agreement with you. I, a tourist these days, visited the High Line last year and was in awe. As far as greenery being ‘artificial’ in the city, obviously those people have never seen the ‘weeds’ growing in sidewalk cracks or taking over a vacant lot. My oft heard cry is ‘Life will not be denied!’

  9. Jan says:

    It was inevitable…

    I remember when SOHO was made up of factories and industrial suppliers. I worked as an intern at The Landmarks Preservation Commission and my job was to categorize all the buildings there….they were getting ready. Now Apple and DKNY and more make their home there, it is thronged with tourists and us native New Yorkers have flown the coop.

    such is life…Get over it.

  10. Susan says:

    Some people just have a constant need to carp, I guess.

  11. Pam/Digging says:

    I can’t wait to see it, snooty locals and all.

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  14. B.K. says:

    The High Line must be a lovely sight, like a river of green flowing through high rise neighborhoods. Exotic and/or high maintenance plants are surely more pleasing than concrete sidewalks and ugly architecture. It serves a valuable purpose–by giving city dwellers a glimpse of nature, just as a zoo allows viewers to safely observe wild animals. What plants are in it? Edibles like strawberries, onions, fruit trees? Out of reach from hungry passers-by, of course. Are any of the plants (grasses, wildflowers, shrubs) native to the state? Signs and check lists could instruct and inspire visitors to do similar projects in their own yards, community gardens, etc.

  15. James C. says:

    What a shame, it was such a good, almost revolutionary idea. I was really hoping to see it at some point, I’m actually going to visit New York around March as well (I’m one of those tourists I’m afraid haha). Blaming it for gentrification seems unreasonable to me.

    Thanks,
    James @ Capital Gardens

  16. Stef says:

    On the other hand, here is a comment posted on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, from a resident who’s either being displaced, or is about to be displaced, or just feels shut out from the new Guiliani/Bloomberg NY:

    “Try as we might, we can never get those who don’t experience the erosion of affordable housing, affordable communities with real community connections, and affordable ‘life styles’, to comprehend what those broken connections mean to us, much less, what they feel like. I know old folks who don’t go out anymore because the pace of things has gotten too fast, the people they encounter too self absorbed to notice them, much less care about them the way that ‘mom and pop’ at the vanished store used to. There are no neighborhood benches to gather for a chat, the lights at street crossings have speeded up the time allotted for that maneuver, the young-uns have too many places to be in too great a hurry to step, graciously, out of the way, or wait for a slow elder at the check out without exhibiting rancor, the stores are too expensive for limited incomes, and the parties too loud for peace of mind. Hospitals have converted to condominium penthouses, and churches into dance palaces. Everything is geared to commerce, and fashioned to suit the bottom line cash return. Sure, there’s still free culture if you can navigate the transportation challenges, and bear with the lines to get to it. It’s not just the elders who suffer. We of the lower income classes, of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, skin colors and preferences, suffer too. We know change is inevitable, sometimes even necessary, but we wanted to be included in the plans. We are less at home in a City we used to feel a more intimate connection to, and we know we are less welcome.”

    Yes, the High Line is lovely. No, it is not the only force for gentrification in NYC. But it is contributing to it, and there is real human suffering as a result. Even if the gentrification is unstoppable at this point, it’s just wrong to be blithe about it – it should be acknowledged. And I think much of Moss’ commentary was speaking to that. To throw out a plant-related reference, Mindy Fullilove’s “Root Shock,” is an excellent book on the topic. People may be ambulatory, but they, too, suffer when forcibly transplanted.

  17. Vanessa says:

    I have wondered for many years why the word “gentrification” has any negative connotation at all, except to people who love to complain. Houses, buildings, towns – they all need love too. It is important to clean the inside and the outside of a structure and I don’t know why that would separate the poor from the rich – everyone at every level should keep things tidy.

    To me the positive feedback is immediate. Clean means it’s comfortable for me to be there and welcoming to others. I can’t see complaining about that.

    Gentrification is a good thing.

    • Sandy in TX says:

      If “gentrification” meant picking up trash, cleaning off graffitti, replacing broken windows, upgrading wiring and plumbing, setting (and emptying) rat-traps, etc., yes, it would be a good thing. In practice, what I’ve seen it to mean is expensive renovation/remodeling that the original tenants can’t afford, which then drives up taxable “property value” of neighboring properties so their tenants can’t afford to live there . . . etc.
      One of the few places where [what I think is] your definition of gentrification has taken place *and worked,* was a couple cities in Minnesota, in the ’70′s. The old victorian houses, many of them falling apart, were sold for $1.00 to people who legally contracted to put in as much work as it took to bring them up to code and make them livable. These neighborhoods were rebuild, maybe you could even say rebirthed, by the people actually living there.

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