Robert Hammond is an opinionated, passionate New Yorker, and one clearly interested in making his city a better place to live. He’s a resident of Manhattan’s West Village – the same neighbourhood Jane Jacobs fought to save from private development in the 1950s. Hammond has an obvious admiration for Jacobs (he co-produced the 2016 documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City), and he shares many of her greatest qualities. His thinking is radical but grounded, and as a result his actions are grassroots and direct.
Where the West Village gives way to Chelsea is where Hammond’s mark on the city begins. In 1999, he partnered with Joshua David to work on an idea they never really thought would get off the ground: turning the elevated, abandoned train tracks running down Manhattan’s west side into a park.
Their idea would become the High Line, one of contemporary New York’s greatest attractions and a benchmark for adaptive reuse projects around the world. In 2017, it drew some eight million visitors to the West Side and provided local residents with a much-loved green space in the neighbourhood – when they could make their way through the tourists.
For the city, the High Line has been a major success, serving as a precursor to a period of prolonged but rapid development along the Hudson River. On a mild Spring day, we met with Hammond at Friends of the High Line HQ, the non-profit he co-founded back in 1999 and where he remains executive director. We walked the High Line together, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, past blocks of scaffolding in the direction of its northern terminus, where Hudson Yards – the most expensive real estate development in US history, the largest private real estate development in the US by square footage and a divisive and symbolic act of urban renewal for Manhattan – is being built.
People love abandoned spaces. What’s the romance of a space like the High Line?
There’s one part that’s like ‘ruin porn’, and I think that’s the surface level, and that’s what you see on Instagram. There is a lot of ruin porn out there – just books with ruin porn. But I think there’s something deeper: there’s nostalgia for the past, and it’s becoming more relevant because cities are changing so much. There’s a desire for something authentic and there’s a desire for something that is shaped by something other than just man – ruins are shaped by time and nature generally, or the lack of man’s efforts.
There’s also just so much more demand on cities now that people are returning to urban areas. The challenge is that so many people want to be in cities. So there’s even more of a need for this link to the past, a link to history, a link to something authentic, a link to something that is out of our control. It’s really hard to turn abandoned spaces into public spaces, because how do you keep the magic? If you remove everything, how do you create a new magic? That’s what our design team did. There are definitely complaints – valid complaints – about The High Line, but there’s definitely a magic. If seven million people come, seven million people aren’t coming because it’s an awful space.
There’s a lot of copycat-ism in the world now. Developers have jumped on the idea that you can easily just engage in placemaking. The High Line has become a benchmark for that. Do you think you can just copy the High Line and put it anywhere?
The High Line is unique to its neighbourhood and its structure. I see a lot of people trying (to build another one like this) and those aren’t the ones that actually get off the ground or get traction, because I think people recognise them for what they are.
The things that tend to get traction are things that have a real connection to their own neighbourhood, their own city and the history of the space itself. Just because the High Line is successful it doesn’t mean elevated walkways are successful.
In general, if you have a development and you build an elevated structure, it doesn’t make it a public space that’s going to be well used. Part of the reason the High Line works is that it is a park – its primary purpose is not as an elevated structure to get you from here to there over the city streets. The primary purpose is this connection to nature within the city.
“Part of the reason the High Line works is that it is a park – its primary purpose is not as an elevated structure to get you from here to there over the city streets. The primary purpose is this connection to nature within the city.”
In 2017, Friends of the High Line founded the High Line Network, a peer-to-peer group of adaptive reuse projects in North America. It’s not just elevated park projects, is it?
In some ways it would be better to have a different name. We use ‘High Line Network’ because that was the most descriptive in some ways. The goal is not to learn how we did it, it’s ‘how do we learn from each other?’ I think some of the other projects are doing things better or in more interesting ways than we did.
Some of them are using completely different typologies. The Atlanta Beltline is built under a highway. Another project is built over a highway. Some of them are on creekfronts. Even the ones doing rail networks have a completely different focus. The Beltline is a multibillion-dollar project, and it’s one of the economic drivers of Atlanta. They’re trying to figure out how to use it to create more affordable housing. They’ve had some successes and failures in doing so, but that’s one of their main goals.
You’ve been praised and criticised for the development that’s happened adjacent the High Line since it opened. Are you responsible for all of this?
I think a lot of this would have happened without the High Line. This is a trend that’s happening all over the city and not unique to Chelsea. I think it’s probably made it more expensive, but most of the displacement has not been low-income residents – there weren’t that many low-income residents living in Chelsea that weren’t in the two public housing projects.
So, it’s increased the number of upper middle-class apartments by a percentage, but I don’t think (the area) was ever going to be affordable to the vast majority of people. That doesn’t change it for the people that do leave, but the displacement is not as big. There’s a net increase in apartments, and I think our current study says there’s 700 new affordable units as a result of the rezoning. There is even a building that’s devoted to affordable artist housing.
Now again, it doesn’t address the overall problem that’s happening in New York and cities all over. In some ways, this neighbourhood has all of the issues facing successful urban cities but on steroids, partly because of the success of the High Line, and partly that’s just the nature of the neighbourhood. For instance, Google was already here when we opened. They didn’t come because of The High Line.
Do you think that the public/private partnership that has allowed the High Line to exist is unique?
This is very unique. Former mayor Bloomberg’s administration was willing to take a huge risk. Again, now it’s easy to look and say, ‘Oh, this is very successful’. Of course it was going to be successful, but at the time most of the property owners were against it.
Why were property owners against it?
They thought no one would come. They thought it would be an impediment to development. Now we’ve proven to be successful in managing and operating the High Line, but we had no experience in that. Fortunately the city trusted us and trusted the design team that was chosen, that we chose with them. They could have vetoed it easily.
What do you think gave you the courage to think this was possible?
We weren’t architects or designers or city planners, so we had no background or expertise in any of this. I was a history major and I was working for start-ups in marketing, and Josh, my project partner, was a travel writer. From the beginning we never had an actual vision of what it should become other than a public space. We always said, ‘the city should ultimately decide what it becomes’.
We did dozens of community input sessions, and I think there were a lot of people in New York that felt like they had a lot of say in what it became. The general consensus – again, we liked it, but it wasn’t ours – was, ‘Let’s try to preserve that feeling of a lost landscape’, and try to bring back some of the wild nature that was up there. So that really came out of community input sessions.
“From the beginning we never had an actual vision of what it should become other than a public space. We always said, ‘the city should ultimately decide what it becomes.’”
As you stand here on the High Line and look around you see all the new buildings, the new piers going in on the river and all the new development going on at the north end of the High Line at Hudson Yards, how do you feel about what’s happening to Manhattan’s west side?
I think Manhattan is tipping to the West Side. This is where so much is happening from a cultural standpoint, from a real estate standpoint, from a work standpoint – even taking aside Hudson Yards. I have mixed feelings. I loved the neighbourhood when it was more rundown, when there were a lot of abandoned buildings. But that’s part of what happens in New York. New York is constantly changing; it’s constantly evolving. I think we tend to love the city of our youth. What was the city like when we were in our 20s? We think that was its highlight.
A prominent candidate for New York mayor, Corey Johnson, talks a lot about changing how the city moves and placing more of an emphasis on pedestrians and bikes. Do you think political will like this is the new trend?
I’m a big fan of Corey because of precisely that. It doesn’t have to be the same model as the current one – it’s obviously not working. We need a completely different model and we’re going to need major changes, not just picking around the edges.
One of the reasons the High Line has been successful is that it has played off of those trends, rather than those trends playing off of the High Line. I think we were fortunate in that we started as people that needed different ways of organising and moving around the city. I think that’s one of the reasons people take it for granted – of course we need this, of course we need to figure out how we can get out.
I was just visiting the Underline in Miami. The main thing they’re trying to figure out is how to get people out of cars. New Yorkers are used to being out of cars. But for those in Miami, the idea that you could exercise outside, that you could move around connecting neighbourhoods on foot is sort of revolutionary.
Tristan McAllister is a New York-based journalist and brand strategist. He is a contributing editor of Monocle magazine where he was formerly transport editor.