The High Line: New York’s Monument to Gentrification

June 29, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 29 7 min read

It is summer in New York, which, for those New Yorkers occupying that ever-growing demographic where hipster and child-friendly meet, means that it’s time to hit the High Line. For the uninitiated, the High Line is a city park built atop an abandoned elevated railway that winds through the southwestern side of Manhattan 30 feet above street level. A little more than a decade ago, in the waning days of the Giuliani Administration, the crumbling railway line was slated for demolition; today, just three years after the first section of the park opened to the public, it is one of the city’s most popular parks, drawing millions of visitors and spawning acres of new upscale retail outlets and residential high-rises in the former post-industrial badlands of Far West Chelsea.

My wife and I would almost certainly land in the bottom decile on the hipster scale, but we have a five year old who is very, very into trains, and the High Line has become the default family outing on summer weekends when the weather is nice and we don’t have anywhere else to be. Our journey always starts with lunch at Amy’s Bread at Chelsea Market, a high-end food mall located in a former Nabisco cookie factory that fills two city blocks between Ninth and 11th Avenues near the bottom end of the High Line. If we’re still hungry, we get a gelato at L’Arte del Gelato, and then after our son, Luke, tosses a few pennies into the Chelsea Market Wishing Well, we head out onto the street to ride the glass-encased elevator up to the High Line.

On a recent gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, we passed a crowd of overweight gray-hairs off a bus tour gawking at an anorectic blonde model doing a photo shoot in a skimpy black dress, oversized silver sunglasses, and not much else. We passed young couples, gay and straight, of every ethnic and socio-economic description, nuzzling on the ubiquitous benches. We passed rows of well-dressed young New Yorkers sitting, rapt, on wooden risers in the so-called 10th Avenue Square, a sort of amphitheater cantilevered out over 10th Avenue, with an enormous glass window at the bottom that allows you to watch the traffic below as if it were on a movie screen. As Luke ran ahead pointing out the old railroad tracks hidden in the gardens artfully sculpted to look like patches of common weeds, we passed the bricked-over delivery entrances of half a dozen former factories converted to hotels, galleries, and high-end residences.

To a certain degree, the success or failure of any public space depends on its ability to project the dreamscape of its users. New York’s Central Park, built in the latter part of the 19th century when Lower Manhattan was teeming with immigrant ghettos and soot-belching factories offered New Yorkers a pastoral fantasy of rolling hills and grassy meadows. The World Trade Center Memorial, with its sunken pools occupying the footprint of the twin towers, transforms a scene of carnage into a site for peaceful contemplation. What is fascinating about the High Line, what makes its design concept at once breathtaking and a little wince-inducing, is the particular dreamscape it evokes. Unlike earlier reclaimed urban industrial areas like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or New York’s own South Street Seaport, which airbrushed away the dirt and grime to transform the abandoned districts into theme-park versions of themselves, the High Line embraces its blight. Everywhere you look you see lovingly restored cracked plaster and million-dollar gardens made to look like neglected weed beds.

The High Line is the distressed skinny jeans of public parks, the gourmet taco truck of urban tourist attractions, and as such, it represents the high-water mark of the hipster aesthetic, which venerates poverty and decay as signifiers of authenticity. Thirty feet in the air, winding through the remains of one of the last blue-collar work sites Manhattan, the High Line is a monument to gentrification, a showcase of what can happen when hip young college graduates invade an impoverished area and repopulate it with art galleries and fancy restaurants. But here’s the truly amazing part: it all works. The underlying aesthetic of the park’s design may be a tad fatuous, girded as it is by unexamined assumptions about working-class authenticity, but the park itself is a gorgeously executed gem.

coverA visitor taking in the snazzy new glass-box condo towers and whimsically shaped office buildings that now line both sides of the park can be forgiven for assuming the High Line was dreamed up by some shadowy cabal of realtors, developers, and A-list architects. In fact, according to the 2011 book, High Line: The Inside Story of New York’s Park in the Sky, the park was the brainchild of two local guys, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who literally took on City Hall and won.

As the two men explain in High Line, the first train tracks were laid out at street-level on Manhattan’s West Side in the 1840s to connect the factories and warehouses along Tenth and 11th Avenues with the West Side Rail Yards, where goods could be transferred onto freight trains headed for destinations across the U.S. By the early 20th century, these tracks had turned West Chelsea into such a congested, dangerous area that the railroad employed men on horses dubbed “The West Side Cowboys” to ride in front of the rail engines waving red flags to warn passersby of oncoming trains. In 1934, the railroad built an elevated rail line from the West Village to 34th Street, but as trucks replaced railroads and globalization drained industry away from New York City, traffic on the elevated tracks slackened until the last train, reputedly carrying three boxcars of frozen turkeys, rode the High Line in 1980.

For the next 20 years the rail line essentially rotted while the city tried to figure out what to do with it. By the time Hammond and David got involved in 1999, the city, prodded by property owners hoping make a killing by redeveloping the neighborhood once the unsightly old railway was gone, was preparing to demolish what was almost universally seen as a dangerous eyesore. “To me it sounded romantic: a train running through your neighborhood,” writes Hammond, who then worked at various small tech start-ups. “But to the people who had lived there when the High Line was running, it wasn’t romantic. They didn’t just live on the wrong side of the tracks. They lived under the tracks. It was loud. It was dirty.”

But it was just this sense of grittiness, the structure’s link to a bygone era, that attracted the two young would-be park designers. Hammond writes:

There was a powerful sense of the passing of time. You could see what the High Line was built for, and feel that its moment had slipped away. All the buildings alongside it were brick warehouses and factories with smokestacks and casement windows, like buildings from a Hopper painting.

Their insight was to incorporate the decades of neglect into the design of the park, to make it in essence a walk-through garden celebrating New York’s forgotten industrial past. First, of course, they had to keep the city from tearing it down, which took nearly a decade and required, among other things, an innovative bit of zoning sleight-of-hand that allowed landlords to sell their right to build tall buildings over the site of the railway to owners of nearby parcels of land, whose zoning would have otherwise prohibited tall buildings.

But, really, what got the High Line built was a shift in how Americans, particularly younger Americans, view city life. Forty years ago, when men like Hammond and David were children, America’s big cities, abandoned by the manufacturing and shipping industries that had built them, were seen as crime-ridden cauldrons of poverty and ethnic conflict, and the middle class was doing everything it could to escape to the suburbs. Today, that migration has reversed, and the children of the suburbs are returning in droves to the inner cities, drawn not only to the night life and good restaurants, but to high-wage jobs in finance, media, and technology.

coverJust as the escape to the suburbs was abetted by a mythology of the inner city, exemplified by movies like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as a savage land of violence and moral rot, the return to the city has spawned its own mythology of the suburbs as plastic and unreal, with cities standing for authenticity and grassroots truth. White kids in the suburbs grow up listening to hip-hop with its roots in New York’s South Bronx projects, and twentysomething hipsters affect urban slang and spend thousands on clothes skillfully designed to look like they were found in a dumpster.

When today’s urban sophicates aren’t harkening back to a bygone industrial age, they’re dreaming of an agricultural Eden full of strapping yeoman farmers in overalls and small town folk gossiping around the wood-burning stove at the general store. Check out the names of the shops in Chelsea Market: Ronnybrook Dairy (ice cream), Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (butcher shop), Friedman’s Lunch (restaurant), Lucy’s Whey (cheeses), and The Filling Station (olive oil, vinegar, and craft beer — don’t ask). Everything is everywhere declared “artisanal,” “farm-grown,” or “handcrafted,” all of it no doubt marketed by college-educated children of the American suburbs who wouldn’t know how to milk a cow if the directions were printed on the udder.

This is the governing aesthetic that, as much as the zoning tricks that dampened developers’ objections, brought the High Line from a quixotic idea proposed by a couple local guys without design experience or political contacts to a $150 million cutting-edge city park. As with Central Park and Fisherman’s Wharf and Disneyland, and dozens of other once-iconic leisure-time design conceptions, the High Line will be copied endlessly, each time with a little less sincerity and a little less skill, until 30 or 40 years from now when today’s hipsters are nearing retirement age, the concept will seem as cheesy and dated as South Street Seaport — an obvious Fisherman’s Wharf knockoff — seems today.

But the High Line, whatever else you can say about it, is a sincere and original response to a genuine social phenomenon. It does what any great work of visual art does, which is to take an inchoate emotional sense shared by a large group of people and make it concrete, visible in three dimensions. What you make of it is largely determined by what you think of its underlying subject, which in this case is gentrification. If you are part of the community pushed out by the new wealth gentrification inevitably brings, then no doubt the High Line’s precious attention to symbols of decay and ruin — all those meticulously landscaped weeds — will seem calculated to piss you off. If, on the other hand, you are part of a gentrifying wave, as so much of young New York now is, then the High Line will seem to be singing from your hymnal, and you will revel in the distressed steel girders and exposed brick walls.

Or, if you are like me, fortysomething and relentlessly unhip, a child of the suburbs who has been at the business end of the gentrifying spear more or less your whole adult life, then you may be made a touch uncomfortable by the air of self-congratulation that seems to hang so very thick 30 feet over 10th Avenue. You may be put off by the way the project seems to insist on its own good taste in recognizing the beauty in the things other people wanted to throw away, as if the people who lived and worked there for generations were blind to the value of things they themselves had made. But for all that you may well still think, as I do, that it’s a hell of a nice place to spend a sunny summer afternoon in New York.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Nicely written piece. I agree, the Highline is basically a place of worship for urban hipsters, but its genius will survive them. I’m actually looking forward to the day, many years in the future, when it is taken for granted, no longer cool and is, itself, a weathered remnant. THAT will be interesting to see.

  2. Well crafted essay. I would have enjoyed a reference to site-specific public art.
    America has plenty of places that will need similar interventions to spur growth. Obviously for more successful future projects, the displaced will need some way to reconnect or return to abandoned “melting pots”.

  3. I found this essay quite intriguing. I think you correctly identified that the suburbs have spawned a “counter-myth” to the blighted (especially Eastern Seaboard) city: soulless, “fake,” etc.

    I’ll be interested to see if/when the counter-myth to the present situation arises. The way I see it, the modern city is basically “American Psycho” masquerading as “On the Road.” Ultra-expensive restaurants, but they’re organic/local/artisinal/free-range meat, as you pointed out. Prohibitively expensive housing on graffiti tagged streets. An arm decorated in $2000 worth of tattoos.

    Maybe the show “Girls” is the beginning of the counter-myth.

  4. You might have mentioned that the high line park idea was originally Parisian (, and the establishment of the one in NYC therefore also inevitably carries overtones of “look how European we are!”.

    But the common denial of the Paris origins of this park seems to me also to be partly a denial of the United States’ increasing marginalization as a source of original ideas in architecture and city planning.

  5. Really, you both thought this was well-crafted? It’s so full of cynical and ignorant assumptions that I want to punch my computer.

    Mr. Bourne, firstly, hipster-bashing is so tired and such lazy, low-hanging fruit. Did you interview any of the vendors/owners in Chelsea Market to know that they have never milked a cow? Did you ever stop to think that young, intelligent people leave the suburbs because there are no jobs there, that there is no community amid the sprawl, that it is an ecologically forward-thinking action to take? Do you know what kind of “weeds” are growing up there?

    For someone who claims to like the place you sure have a shitty attitude about it.

  6. You are a writer, living in Brooklyn, contributing to the Millions, &c. You are not in the “bottom decile” on the hipster scale, not by a long shot. Being a New Yorker who frequents the High Line and name checks the food stores in Chelsea Market (to thumb your nose at the ridiculousness of these ‘hipsters’ who might be taking a sometimes misguided interest in eating more thoughtfully than Americans have been doing in recent generations) automatically disqualifies you from claiming to be “relentlessly unhip.” Your outsider status will need to be found on other grounds, and I feel comfortable saying that without having seen what kind of jeans you’re wearing right now. Your vision is a bit too fogged by that “air of self-congratulation that seems to hang so thick” over the High Line to see how much self-congratulation wafts off your own essay.

    But my actual comment is this: one would think that a writer—participating in an artistic field that is being continuously devalued by the philistinism of the outside world—would be slower to exercise his own philistinism about another creative field. “Million dollar gardens made to look like neglected weed beds” is not clever rhetoric; it’s classic anti-art bullying in the Tea Party vein (“can you believe they spent your tax dollars on these WEEDS?!?”—not that it was publicly funded). Your “lovingly restored cracked plaster” is another red herring—the High Line is not a project in post-industrial trompe l’oeil and rustication. The neighborhood is what the neighborhood is, and as you note, it still displays the whole range from the ‘old’ Chelsea of parking lots and run-down brick to the new (if we can call anything old and new in a city that has always been predicated on its own remaking, because the Chelsea of the High Line’s origin is far different than the ’80s-90’s iteration… the gentrifiers are the ones getting gentrified now!). The High Line is not an immersive total environment wrought by “A-list architects,” as you call them (although the unmentioned designers are certainly top-notch thinkers who are far from uncritical about their role in the project). It’s a datum against which those sixteen or so blocks continue to evolve.

    Does it participate in the neighborhood’s remaking? Of course it does, and it’s certainly open to critique, but hyperbole and refusal to confront the project on its own aesthetic terms don’t help.

    A more interesting essay, in my opinion, would be to use the High Line as a way of unpacking the false consciousness of gentrifier/non-gentrifier that you (as well as these ‘hipsters’ you keep referencing, although I sometimes think you’re talking about investment bankers?) seem to have bought into. We cause New York to change by being drawn to it, that’s it’s traumatizing beauty, even if we claim to prefer it how it was before “everybody else” got here. I can rail as much as I want about how I preferred the High Line when it was a derelict and transgressive space to break into than the current glossed-up version… but to say that the new version speaks for somebody else is disingenuous at best.

  7. james in brooklyn, I was really enjoying your rant, until I got to the phrase “unpacking the false consciousness…” — which made my comic cigar blow up in my face. Thanks.

  8. Disappointed. You had the chance to investigate and explore idesa, but you come over as cynical. Historian by preference, I love what Josh and Robert have done to preserve an important part of NY’s history. Ok, I grew up on tales of NYC during the early 40’s and Greenich Village. the High Line was an important part of the tales. When I visited, it was so delightful to see how well it’s blended into the current enviornment and development, but there are so many history ‘DYK’ on the walk, it’s a pleasure. It would be so great to see other parts of the ‘EL’ still surviving to have the same treatment…ran across a portion in Brooklyn that would be a wonderful park in a desolate area. NYC has so many wonderful fantastic places from history that need to be honored..and preserved Preservation may be historical, or it may honor history and adapt to current needs. Adaptation still honors the history of the site.

  9. I’m with AlexC on “low-hanging fruit” and with Shelley on “overweight grayhairs.”

  10. “Weeds?” – Would you have preferred clipped boxwood hedges and a lawn so tight that you could bounce a dime off of it?

    The offhand weeds comment is the most lazy of your comments, doubtless because actually understanding the horticulture that is going on is way above your pay-grade. What was chosen to plant on the Highline was chosen because it had to be tough. Drought tolerant and cold hardy, and able to withstand the winds that can rip down the avenues.

    If nature so designed such plants to look like grasses and grassland plants, then so be it. Shake your fist at Darwin or God, or whomever you choose.

    Incidentally, a perusal of Piet Oudolf’s client list will not likely turn up many hipsters.

  11. Didn’t the gentrification predate the Highline? Much of what you complain about has to do with what’s happened to the neighborhood in general.

    As for the highline itself – there were really two options: rip it out of the ground or turn it into something nice. They chose the latter and I’m glad they did. I can’t figure out where all the resentment is coming from in this article – it seems misplaced.

  12. The writer appears to know nothing about plants. He should read about the plants chosen for the High Line before offhandedly and ignorantly categorizing them as “weeds”. I would expect a college teacher to have more intellectual curiosity. I understand Brooklyn to have a fine Botanical Garden, and suggest the writer visit it regularly to try to reduce his glaring and most unbecoming ignorance.

  13. This is one of the saddest and laziest things I’ve read in quite some time. Hipster angle really?! Come on. Use your talent for circular reasoning on something that matters.

    I have no idea what a hipster is anymore except as some derogatory comment one person makes against another person(or group of people) for being “more” of the what the accuser already is themselves. You write for an NYC culture blog for Pete’s sake. I’m sure every single person reading this listens to music other than top forty and I’m sure all of us don’t shop exclusively at Wal-Mart. Anyone that has ever listened to the Beatles, seen a work of art in real life or even smelled tofu is a hipster by somebody’s definition. Who cares. Can we please move on to something that matters? Please? It’s starting to look sad.

  14. Sad and lazy is right. The space and the plants (not weeds) are smart and beautiful. “Air of self-congratulation”? Oh, please. Is it too much to simply enjoy one of our best urban spaces?

  15. Okay, on the weed issue: In their book, Hammond and David explain that while they were building the park, they “brought a group of volunteers up to the northern part of the High Line, above the construction site, to harvest seeds from native plants so that we could replant them in the park after construction.” This makes a great deal of sense, both practically and aesthetically, but still the native plants they were preserving were the weeds that had grown on the stucture after it was abandoned.

  16. I wish all journalists would stop using the word “hipster.” It’s just so lazy. What exactly is a hipster? If you approached someone who you thought was a hipster, you’d be surprised to learn they don’t consider themselves one and that they don’t fit the stereotype you’ve drummed up. Certain people like to use this work to describe an other that they don’t like without even knowing the person. The penchant for New Yorkers to classify other people is mystifying.

    I think the High Line is one of the best public projects in New York City in a very long time. As a former resident of London, I was saddened upon a return visit to realize that that city is doing so much more in the public arena for the public good. The fact that the High Line respects history and artfully incorporates it into the design is a triumph in a city that historically prefers bulldozing it.

    The aesthetic is less about realizing some mythical hipster ideal of the city and more about preservation and a conceptual design that harkens to place one would imagine a railroad running through.

    I think you really got the wrong end of the stick on this one.

  17. Good article, great feedback (much of which I agree with).
    Following on the “Weed Issue”… Michael makes a valid point, when talking about “the gardens artfully sculpted to look like patches of common weeds”, insofar as weeds are defined as “A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted”.
    The planting style used on the High Line, being a fusion of Piet Oudolf’s “New Wave Perennial Movement” with Oehme & van Sweden’s “New American Garden Movement” and utilising “seeds from native plants” found on site, is a radical departure from old fashioned planting styles, where the distinction between “desirable cultivated plant” and “undesirable wild weed” was far clearer.
    However, the conclusion that this style was chosen to bring “precious attention to symbols of decay and ruin — all those meticulously landscaped weeds” is a little presumptuous. Although the planting does fit in very well with Industrial-Decay-Chic, it is also the most popular planting style in the world at the moment, and represents far more than a romanticised interpretation on yesteryear, for those willing to look into it.
    If we can stop discussing “weeds” and start discussing “plants”, we might manage to bring this debate into the 21st Century.

  18. Another vanity piece by a pseudo-intellectual which uses a place as an excuse to show his/her disdain for the “common world”. As an avowed tourist, an urban-suburban-rural resident in life, I found the High Line to be a wonderfully fun place to walk along. Regardless of critics, debates of intent, arguments of authenticity, these facts remain: a urban derelict, an eye-sore, useless space has been redeveloped into a fun place to walk, mingle or just be. We appreciated kitschy art, the humorous little gestures along the way. In plebeian terms, this was a fun space. We walked along from Chelsea Piers to 30th street and appreciated the fact that we weren’t walking on a plain old sidewalk.

    I don’t care what the motives for redevelopment may have been, and quite honestly I think the author’s attribution of motives to be suspect and presumptive at best, the High Line represents a noteworthy repurposing of urban space. It gives anyone, regardless of income, pretention, or background a place to walk along and to enjoy.

  19. my god this is an awful, ignorant piece of writing. many other commenters have already made several salient points. i’ll add/echo a few:

    – calling the plantings “weeds” – and furthermore, the assumption that because they are “weeds” there is something terrible about them. would you prefer imported exotic plantings requiring tons of fertilizer and pesticides? i’m guessing you’d have something critical to say about that as well.
    – you display an incredible lack of knowledge and presumptuousness about design/landscape architecture/urbanism and its/their history. for example, south street seaport is not a “copy” of fisherman’s wharf, but actually of the festival marketplace idea which took hold in urban redevelopment in the 1970s. it was started by architect ben thompson and the rouse development group, and first realized at fanueil hall (1976) in boston. rouse also developed south street. pier 39 opened in 1978, was done by a different developer, and was likely a “copy” of thompson’s festival marketplace idea. but then that’s nothing new. popular and successful design ideas in the public realm do tend to be “copied”. is there something wrong with that? does every single thing need to be completely new and original? shaped by its location and circumstances – yes. but the cry of “copy” is a facile way of criticizing something (and i am in NO way suggesting that festival marketplaces as a concept don’t deserve thoughtful, considered critique!)

    – what exactly is a hipster anyway? it’s like a straw man for your argument. at this point, i’d love to see an article that PRAISES the hipster. now that would be some new and refreshing thinking.

    – to someone’s comment about how the high line is not the first reclaimed/planted elevated rail line, again, as if that’s somehow bad (oh my god, it’s unoriginal! scrap that plan!) – i’ll bet that the designers involved in the high line knew all about and were inspired by the promenade plantee. it’s widely studied and much admired by environmental design students; furthermore, it’s a form that DESERVES to be replicated as much as possible.

  20. Does critique not ‘add’ to the conversation? Why do I have a feeling that it doesn’t?

    Too bad. You can either take it or you can’t and if you can’t, maybe writing isn’t really your ‘thing’.

    I”ll use someone else’s words above as a sort of template ( which means I’ll include my own adjectivies )::

    I found your essay very, very dull..

  21. Pingback: HIGH LINE « WATCH
  22. what about the families with children that are being displaced? The majority cannot afford new housing and end up in shelters or on the streets, i guess you think homeless children are ok as long as you have overpriced tofu. Why do you ignore the New York natives? Is it because they are poor? I hope someday you know what this feels like. Our people have been fighting unjust rent increases for generations and you suburban bastards ruined it all in a few years. Please leave our home.

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