Published June 14th, 2011 by Wade Graham
When the second section of the High Line Park opened this month between 20th and 30th streets along the West Side, it marked roughly a century and a half since the opening of Central Park in 1857. There are obvious differences between the two: covering 700 acres, Central Park is a landscape-scale facsimile of an ideal countryside, built when there was still open land on the island of Manhattan, while the High Line is a mere ribbon–not even of land, but elevated railbed strung between buildings, the only vacant space left on which to make a landscape. Yet their underlying similarities reveal that the essential dynamics of property and money in New York City have changed very little in 150 years.
Like Central Park, the High Line proved an instant hit: when its first section opened in 2009, from Gansevoort to 20th streets, it was filled with people strolling, enjoying its plantings, carefully-curated to resemble the weeds once blown onto the abandoned freight tracks by the wind, without distracting from the views of the New Jersey skyline across the Hudson, of the buildings that jostle around and even over it, and mostly of one another.
And, like Central Park, the High Line is a testament and monument to the power of rising Manhattan real estate values. In 1853, when the New York State legislature paid more than $5 million for the land for the park, from which were forcibly evicted 1,600 or so poor homesteaders, mostly free blacks and Irish, from their shantytowns, it didn’t do it out of the goodness of its heart. Just as in the 20th and 21st centuries, New York City was forced to compete with outlying garden suburbs that beckoned well-to-do city dwellers with naturalistic landscaping, open space, and cheap commuter steamer and train service.
The legislature expected a return on its investment, and it got it: the park immediately became the fashionable place to be seen in one’s carriage, and adjacent property values skyrocketed, as the wealthy abandoned lower Park and Fifth avenues and moved uptown in droves. It was one of the most financially successful episodes of slum clearance in history.
This has long been the logic of urban parks: the blueprint was established in 1820 by Great Britain’s Prince Regent (later crowned George IV), who, with a keen eye for a good investment, hired the architect John Nash to subdivide one of his hunting parks near London into elegant terrace houses surrounding a picturesque park. Regent’s Park made the prince a mint, and it was followed by Holland Park, St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens, transforming London’s West End from marshy pastureland into the most sought-after address on the planet. Like a golf course at the center of a modern Sunbelt resort development, the parks were the amenities used to sell the bricks and mortar.
Ever since, a fine park has been the bellwether of residential fashion. Hitherto a byword for muggings and rapes, the renovation of Central Park in the late ’80s and ’90s by the private Central Park Conservancy signaled the restoration of New York City as a place the upper middle class and the truly rich could again be proud to call home, after the city’s nadir of near-bankruptcy and blackout in the 1970s. Replanting the grass and flowerbeds was a horticultural case of applying the “broken windows” theory of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who argued for cleaning up the subways and fighting graffiti as a means of civic revival (and, after Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, of arresting “squeegee men”).
It is tempting to dismiss such costly park-making as gentrification. But the renewed flower beds are best understood as a marketing investment in the battle between central cities and suburbs for customers–tax-paying residents as well as tourists–a battle in which only recently have the cities begun posting a few victories.
The High Line is the jewel in the crown of a spectacular transformation of a section of Manhattan that was as recently as the mid-’90s known for transvestite hookers in stilettos traversing sidewalks coated in blood dripping from the meatpacking houses. Now, through the alchemy that turns industrial lead into postindustrial real estate gold, it is one of chicest urban scenes anywhere, packed with trendy galleries, restaurants, hotels, and supremely self-conscious condominium buildings by the world’s biggest name-brand architects. The High Line didn’t cause the changes–Chelsea and the West Village had been rapidly gentrifying for decades–but it ratifies them, and announces their ascendancy to the world, like the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Meeting its cost–$152 million, or an impressive $30,000 per lineal foot–required $44 million from corporate and private sources, many owning property nearby, including $10 million from Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. Maintaining its intricate plantings and high-design fixtures will require more money, likely to be raised with a tax on area property owners. They will more than recoup their investment: a further rise in values is all-but inevitable, with big-time developers moving in, like the Whitney Museum and Related Companies with its gargantuan Hudson Yards development at the park’s northern end. The real estate gravy train has left the station.
And, like Central Park, which was intended by its designers to be “a specimen of God’s handiwork” in nature brought into the city to relieve the anxieties and stresses of urban life, the High Line is also about recalling the nature that the city has obliterated. Instead of bucolic scenes of lawns and lakes, the High Line’s studiously weedy plantings help 21st century New Yorkers, many of them new colonists to the central city, see themselves as akin to the scrappy flora that once recolonized the rusting rails, thriving in an optimistically romantic and yet still satisfyingly, if superficially, gritty setting. No less than Central Park before it, the High Line is a triumph of America’s urban culture, and proof of the old saw of real estate: it’s about location, location, location.