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Christopher Lee Nutter

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When Kansas Invaded Oz: A Self-Professed 'Enemy of the High Line' Speaks Out

Posted: 03/28/2012 5:32 pm

I'll never forget how excited I was when I first heard in 2005 that the High Line had been saved from demolition and was going to be turned into a park.

I had lived and worked on West 21st Street, an avenue and a half away from the High Line, since 1996 (way before it was West Chelsea) and walked under it regularly on the way from Roxy to Twilo on early Sunday mornings in the '90s, and on the way back and forth daily from my gym on the West Side Highway. Throw in rollerblading underneath it every summer for years on the way back and forth and from the Piers and daily walks with my dog, and I had walked, bladed, or floated under the High Line too many times to count.

And yet I didn't really know what it was. I didn't even know it had a name. It was just a dark, rusty, indefinable and totally fabulous part of the industrial landscape that helped give that part of the neighborhood the feeling that you were in gay Oz.

As Chelsea's architecture, culture, commercial life, night life, and street life were going with the wind right before my eyes and being replaced with a corporate, "luxury"-high-rise, chain-store, "family-friendly," Anywhere-U.S.A. doppleganger, something authentically Chelsea had been saved... and locals were going to be able to use it.

The message on the promotional "Friends of the High Line" wild postings in the West 20s depicting images of innumerable locals who supported the park was clear on that note: the High Line was a friend to Chelsea; it was going to be a friend to me.

And then it opened.

The day the new High Line opened on June 8, 2009 reminded me of the day the Gallery Mall opened up in the '80s in my hometown of Birmingham, Ala. It was the city's first mega-mall, and it was a mob scene, with all those suburbanites dying to get a look at the town's first Macy's. From my window and my stoop that's exactly how it looked: the neighborhood and the park were an instant mob scene. I must have been asked by neighbors a dozen times that weekend, "Have you been to the High Line?!"

The answer was no. There was nothing relaxing about the masses of people taking pictures and camera crews filming like it was the Berlin Wall on the night it went down. When I turned the question around and asked if they had been, the answer was usually no, as well. And if they had gone, they recounted a brief visit with a very quick turnaround -- nobody lingered; nobody gave a good review; nobody went back. Everybody just noted the crowds and went back to sun at their favorite spot on the Piers one avenue west.

The following weekend I had a meeting with a client I represent scheduled at the Standard, and I thought I would use the opportunity to give the High Line a chance.

It was crowded. There was picture taking and filming everywhere, which I find exceedingly annoying anywhere, but especially somewhere meant for alleged relaxation. All the seats were taken. Add to that all the usual city-park no-fun rules -- no drinking, no smoking, no dogs, no music, no rollerblading, no nothing -- and I thought, "What am I supposed to do, walk in single file quietly like they force the toddlers to do at recess at P.S. 11 across the street from me?"

What was disturbing was that I didn't see a single local or a single gay whom I recognized. For the first time I felt like a stranger in my own neighborhood.

I thought, well, it's a New York opening. The crowds and the hype will pass and I'll be able to use it.

Then came the tourists.

I don't remember how much longer it was before they showed up, but I'll tell you how it felt: it was like seeing a roach in your kitchen, when you never had roaches before. You freak out, you try to kill it, and pray this isn't the beginning of an infestation.

Prior to the High Line, the only obvious out-of-towners you saw in Chelsea were gay men from all over the world who came to the gay mecca to spend an evening at Twilo and walk the gay boulevard, or parents of local gays who came from the provinces to see their son's gay neighborhood. They were charming because they came to experience real Chelsea, not take pictures like visitors at a zoo.

But there they were. And not just in Chelsea, or on the High Line, but on my street. It was worse than roaches because you can call an exterminator... but there is no one to call to help you get rid of tourists.

And they absolutely trampled the High Line. On warm sunny days the traffic jams of tourists in the stair wells (not to mention the lines to get into the stair wells) looked like a scene from Soylent Green; endless single-file lines of dead-eyed tourists walked slowly up and down and up and down the boardwalk like zombie photographers; and country kids by the dozens peered out from the viewing deck that looks out over 10th Avenue and 17th Street like lower West Chelsea was children's theater and I was one of the actors.

There was absolutely nothing Chelsea about it.

I was so angry at the fact that it had gone straight-to-straight-tourist-trap that there were times, blading under the over-crowded boardwalk on my way to the Piers, that I felt like Carrie at the prom right when the blood hit her. And you know how that ended. That's because they didn't just ruin the High Line; they treated it like it was theirs.

That was just the park itself. Chelsea's streets were now infested with, in a word, hicks: the "waddlers" who looked like the jaws of life had to pry them out of their ex-ex-exurb bedroom to get here; the NASCAR dads who one can presume are the demographic that think Sarah Palin is "hot"; and what my friend Tom, who grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Hell's Kitchen, calls "meemaws" and "peepaws," which is Southern for country grandparents... in other words, everyone I and countless other New York gays left home to get away from.

It was official: Kansas had invaded Oz.

Interestingly, by the summer 2010 the High Line had mysteriously disappeared from conversation amongst (what was remaining of) Chelsea's local population altogether. In the year since the High Line's opening it had become an unspoken given that unless you went in the early morning or when it was freezing, you wouldn't want to use it because it was nothing but a tourist trap. By that time, gay Chelsea had also been sacked by so many forces -- corporate families making the streets by day feel like something from The Handmaid's Tale; weekend straight partiers making the streets by night look like a bad reality show audition; right-wing evangelical Pentecostals holding church at P.S. 11 on 21st Street on Sundays -- and there was nothing one could do, so what was the point in talking about it?

Then came the PR tsunami: the High Line is great for local businesses! A boon to West Chelsea! Great for locals! A model for the urban Zen experience!

Meanwhile local businesses, each one of which I had relationships with going back to when I was a bartender at Splash blowing all my cash at Camouflage, were being wiped out faster than the Amazon. As friends of mine who own a high-end boutique near the park said to me, "The tourists come in the store, scoff at what we have, and go off to look for hamburgers, cupcakes, 'I Love New York' T-shirts, and snow globes." The High Line was turning West Chelsea into Times Square. (For a thorough reporter piece on local businesses squeezed out by the High Line, see Jeremiah Moss' piece on Vanishing New York.)

As for the High Line PR machine's claims that the park is a favorite meeting spot for the neighborhood, consider this: the High Line had 2 million visitors in the first year alone. Up to 20,000 people a day visited the park. With the legal capacity at only 1,700 at that time, entrances sometimes had to be closed. Even though the park was often over capacity (and keep in mind that the High Line is a tiny, fenced-in, narrow, narrow, one-and-a-half-mile-long boardwalk, not Central Park), The New York Times reported, "There was still plenty of room."

There's something about that logic that makes me feel like I'm in a K-hole.

While the High Line's imagery on its website and architectural renditions given to the media always depict a sparsely populated park peopled by obvious New Yorkers (a businesswoman reading a newspaper, a student waiting for a friend, someone taking a nap), the ceremony in April 2010 to commemorate the 2-millionth and 2-million-and-first visitors -- little 12-year-old Zack and his 10-year-old sister Lexis from Raleigh, N.C. -- revealed not just who "visits" the High Line, but whom it is for. After all, they could have staged a local queen, a local anyone, or even just a New Yorker to be the 2 millionth "visitor," but that would have sent the wrong message to the High Line's real audience, which is middle America.

And yet the High Line website reported that "more than two million people have visited the High Line, making it a favorite neighborhood meeting place and a must-see destination for visitors from around the world."

This is what George Orwell called Doublethink, which is holding two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time: it's an overcrowed, trampled, to-capacity tourist trap, but a wonderful place for Chelsea residents to relax and hang out in.

The High Line PR machine could truly have taught Kim Jong Il a thing or two about propaganda. After all, I don't remember the last time I heard that New Yorkers -- especially gay New Yorkers -- hang out at tourist traps. My friends and I call this particular brand of PR aimed at the rest of the country the "High Line Kool-Aid." But for Chelsea, it's High Line Hemlock.

Every time I saw media about the High Line and what a fabulous urban Zen experience it is, the more upset I became.

That's when I and neighbors I commiserated with about the loss of our formerly fabulous neighborhood started to call ourselves Enemies of the High Line. We said it as a joke to blow off steam and just resigned ourselves to having been totally bamboozled.

But the straw that broke my gay political back was the recent claims by the founders that the High Line is gay.

In interviews for their new book, Behind the Bushes: The Secret Homo History of the High Line, the founders claim, "The High Line is totally gay. There are so many things about it that are gay that you don't necessarily see as being gay...." One of them goes on to recount the gay history of West Chelsea and the Village. In a nod to the dramatic demographic changes that have taken place in what used to be gay territory, he says, "The High Line gets too much credit and too much blame for the changes, which would have happened with or without it. I live in the West Village next to Christopher Street, and it's still super gay. If you walk on the High Line it's still gay."

I'll tell little Zack and Lexis.

This is really getting back to the fuzzy spin Bill Clinton put on "is." After all, anyone in the West Village and Chelsea who has seen 95 percent of the gay commercial life, gay night life, and gay street life vanish in the last few years would wonder what he's snorting... and if there's any left.

The claims that the High Line is currently gay is just more Doublethink: the High Line was gay, it isn't gay anymore, don't blame them, but it's super gay nonetheless... trust them.

So let me put some actual think on it: the High Line was gay. Now it isn't. Yes, this isn't the complete fault of the new tourist-trap High Line, but by flooding the neighborhood with red-state NASCAR tourists, the park gave what was left of gay territory to them.

The Homo History of the High Line Tour is simply a classic case of cashing in on gay cache, but without the inconvenient gays. Only this time, gays are doing it. Just ask the owners of the Eagle and the organizers of Folsom Street East, both of which are being pressured to quit the neighborhood in order to not offend the sensibilities of the new, totally straight, middle-American West Chelsea. (To see more detailed reporting, please also see this piece in Vanishing New York.)

The High Line Kool-Aid servers will say that "old Chelsea" residents like me are living in the past. "It shouldn't become Disneyland, stuck in one way of being," one of the founders says in the same interview. "There are new ways people are using the city."

But the new tourist Chelsea, with the High Line as its nexus, has stuck the neighborhood firmly in a past-based limbo. The reason tourists come to the neighborhood now is because of its history of decadence and gay hedonism and glamour, not because a peepaw took pictures of the High Line before he went back to M & M's World for seconds. But thanks in large part to the handing over of the High Line to straight Middle America, history in West Chelsea has come to a stop. Like Gertrude Stein said, there's no "there" there anymore. I can see it precisely because I'm living in the present and can see with my own eyes that Chelsea does not use the High Line; the High Line uses Chelsea.

Let me be clear: the game is over on the High Line. The park, and the powers that be behind it, and the tourists who trample over it, and the endless camera crews cordoning off swaths to give the world the illusion that it's a quiet urban space for promenading, come together like the Goldman Sachs "great vampire squid": the PR, the politics, and the money have Chelsea in a noose. Even those chumps who bought into the High-Line-adjacent "luxury" boxes that have since become live peep shows for the meemaws have it wrapped around their necks. "They" won. There's nothing to do about it. (And thankfully for the tourists, unlike Carrie, I don't have telekinesis.)

But the propaganda I can fight. When I read that not only is the High Line meant for locals and good for local businesses, but it's gay, too, it's like watching the psychologist played by John Waters in Hairspray use that psychedelic spinning wheel to try to hypnotize Penny into not liking black guys. They're going to have to try harder than that.

Now if only I could find a pair of blades to help me get back to Oz...