No public official is perfect, and while New York's mayor, like the rest of us, can be infuriating at times, I believe that history will judge him to have been a superb mayor. Among his greatest accomplishments has to be the creation of one of New York's most novel parks -- the High Line. In June, phase 2 of the High Line will open and this weekend's New York Times included a wonderful slideshow highlighting the new sections of this park, stretching from West 20th to West 30th street. The design and thoughtfulness of the High Line makes it a source of delight and inspiration. Its blend of natural and human creativity mirrors the city it meanders through so seamlessly.
I am old enough to remember New York as an industrial city, and the West Side of Manhattan as an industrial corridor built for proximity to the once thriving shipping docks on the Hudson. The Hudson waterfront now features parks and bike paths, and the industrial city is a memory reflected in the renovated lofts and converted factories that can be seen from the High Line. New York, always about commerce and the beauty that money can buy, never stops reinventing itself. Neighborhoods circulate, rise-fall-and-rise again, and find new meaning for new people in every generation.
Until the construction of Central Park, that pursuit of money left little room for the development of parks on the island of Manhattan. The waterfront was for commerce, garbage and sewage, and with few exceptions there was very little green space left in lower Manhattan. The rapid growth of New York City as an industrial and commercial center was followed by the gradual transformation of the city to today's post-industrial capital of services, education, health care, finance, media, tourism and the arts. First, illegally and then with city approval, artists took over the industrial lofts, followed by realtors and rich folks. The artists then moved to Brooklyn and Queens, and families started to move into neighborhoods in Manhattan that hadn't housed families for generations. New York's families are far from traditional, but as these areas became residential neighborhoods, the pressure began to build for new parks. The Hudson River Park and the Highline are two of the positive products of that grassroots political pressure.
The High Line is of course the more unique of these two distinctive park spaces. In the spirit of the neighborhood's loft conversions, it manages to re-purpose an old industrial facility. The lofts required high ceilings to permit the operation of industrial equipment. The people who originally built these structures never thought of them as spectacular urban spaces that would make great places to create art, live and entertain. The engineers that built the High Line were not concerned with views and esthetics; they simply wanted to avoid street traffic while they moved freight in and out of factories and warehouses.
When you walk along the High Line you see New York City's transformation all around you. Old restored industrial facilities like Chelsea Market and brand new glass and steel luxury high rises. The Hudson River comes in and out of view and right in the middle of it, a beautifully designed public space occupied by New York's typical "gorgeous mosaic" (thanks Mayor Dinkins) of people from every corner of the planet.
The High Line is an example of a public-private partnership that demonstrates the growing sophistication of community groups and some local governments. The Friends of the High Line was founded in 1999 by local residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond with the goal of saving the High Line and transforming it into a park. One of the more interesting elements of their lobbying was a 2002 study indicating that the incremental tax revenues generated by higher real estate values near the park would easily exceed the costs of the park.
When New York City built Central Park some may have thought about the increased economic value of the land surrounding the park, but few could have imagined the premium for nearby apartments with "park vu". The fact that investment in public amenities can generate private and community economic benefit seems to have been lost in this anti-government, anti-tax era; but not in New York City, and not by our businessman mayor, Mike Bloomberg. When Bloomberg allowed the Gates exhibit in Central Park, his empathy for the arts generated both pleasure and millions of dollars of revenues. With the High Line, his support of cutting edge urban design seems to have achieved the same result.
The High Line, like most parks, generates economic wealth because people value its beauty, its relative freedom from commerce and its usefulness as a place to rest, socialize, contemplate and observe. These are critical amenities in a sustainable city, recognized by the goal in PlaNYC 2030, of ensuring that all New Yorkers live within 10 minutes of a park. Mayor Bloomberg is responsible for setting that goal and for working with the Friends of the High Line to build a novel and creative addition to the city's park system. When he cuts the ribbon opening for the second section of the High Line in June, he deserves credit and thanks.
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