Envisioning the High Line
By “Hunt’s Haunts,” I am referring to the writings of John Dixon Hunt and the many discussions I have had with him over the years that have lingered with me in ways deeply enriching and, at the same time, oddly disquieting. After all, good criticism and difficult conceptual frameworks inevitably pose a challenge—one that can often agitate and haunt one’s sense of direction if left unresolved. This same point regarding the reception
of fecund and challenging ideas could also be said of some of Hunt’s favorite physical haunts—some of the great gardens and places from which he has derived inspiration and about which his work is focused. Such places include Stowe, Stourhead, Bomarzo, the melancholic and hidden gardens of Venice, and the many others that have gifted him the feeling of a “greater perfection.”1
As he has written, such places are “haunted by undeniable spirits, [wherein] the environment can become landscape” (Hunt 2000: 223). By spirits, of course, he refers not to some mystical essence but rather to the human mind—to the imagination, to the fictions and designs that create a place of lasting presence, a presence that inevitably haunts precisely because of effects that tend to linger and escape any form of easy definition.
Good gardens haunt precisely because they inevitably exceed being thought. This phenomena of haunting excess—both as place and idea, and as developed through Hunt’s writing on the subject—is both inspiring and elusive. It is a fascinating and fundamental topic of all art. Outlined here are three recurrent haunts in Hunt’s work that I find particularly relevant
for my own. In this context, I will use some images of the High Line project to suggest a certain striving in real-world practice to try to approximate certain ideas.
First is Hunt’s work on site, the haunts themselves. Hunt has constructed an almost unassailable argument that the specificity of sites lies at the very core of any significant works of landscape architecture. In this vein, he has elaborated on key concepts such as the “genius of the place,” “reading and writing the site,” “place making as an art of milieu,” “site mediation,” and the nesting of “three natures” wherein the garden (third nature) is a focused concentration of its larger surroundings.2
A close reading of a particular site’s attributes—its history, its various representations, its context, and its potentials—conspires to inform a new project that is in some way an intensification and enrichment of place. Every site is an accumulation of local forces over time, and so, Hunt argues, any significant design response must in some way interpret, extend, and amplify this potential within its specific context. Averse to universal and stylistic approaches to design, Hunt demands inventive originality with regard to specific circumstance.
In the case of the High Line, a very close reading was made of the site’s history and urban context. Two readings were particularly formative—one was the singular, autonomous quality of the transportation engineering infrastructure (its linearity and repetition, indifferent to surrounding context, and its brash steel and concrete palette), and the other was the surprising and charming effect of self-sown vegetation taking over the postindustrial structure once the trains had stopped running—a kind of melancholia captured beautifully in earlier photographs made by the artist Joel Sternfeld. These photographs were later used to great effect by those who sought the preservation of the structure in the face of impending demolition. The new design of the site, from its material systems (the lineal paving, the reinstallation of the rail tracks, the plantings, the lighting, the furnishing, the railings, etc.) to the choreography of movement (the meandering of paths, the siting of overlooks and vistas, and the coordination of seating and social spaces) is intended to reinterpret, amplify, dramatize, and concentrate these readings of the site.
The design is highly site-specific; it is irreproducible anywhere else without significant loss of origin and locality, partly owing to the history of the High Line itself and partly to the unique characteristics of its urban context and adjacencies. The design aims to concentrate these found conditions; to dramatize and reveal past, present, and future contexts; and to
create a memorable place for all who visit. This brings me to a second theme of Hunt’s haunts, the concern for reception. Over the past few years, Hunt has brought into sharper focus the importance for how visitors receive a given work—how they experience, understand, value, and extend various interpretations of the work. He says that “landscape comes into being as the creative coupling of perceiving subject and an object perceived” (Hunt 2000: 9).
As a landscape architect, I find it very difficult to believe that a designed work can determine a particular behavioral response; a good designer can at best influence, steer, or guide a particular set of responses, but can never overdetermine or script reception. Hunt recognizes such a distinction, explaining—in statements, such as, after W. H. Auden—that “a poet, especially a dead one, cannot control how we read and understand his poetry, but that—especially if it is good—we will constantly reread it in new ways; so even when later generations repeat the very same words that W. B. Yeats originally published, they will probably give them new meanings and new resonance.” He continues the analogy: “When we are dealing with materials in a garden that have neither denotative basis (as words do in the first instance) nor precise declarations of idea or emotion, there is considerably more scope for reinvesting them with meanings, for seeing them in different ways than were originally intended or anticipated” (Hunt 2004: 12). Thus, he suggests that a good design must harbor sufficient room for a wide range of receptions and interpretations, if not actually instigate, prompt, and support open and indeterminate readings. As he quite rightly points out, “Here is the palpable, haptic place, smelling, sounding, catching the eye; then there is the sense of an invented or special place, this invention resulting from the creation of richer and fuller experiences than would be possible, at least in such completeness or intensity, if they were not designed. Like cyberspace, a designed landscape is always at bottom a fiction, a contrivance—yet its hold on our imagination will derive, paradoxically, from the actual materiality of its invented sceneries” (Hunt 2004: 37).
From such ideas, Hunt develops the concept of the longue durée
, the long duration, the slow accrual of experience and meaning over time. Possibly one of the most fundamental, important, and difficult criteria for landscape architecture is the fact that the medium is bound into time. There can be no immediacy of appreciation, no fast way to consume landscape in any meaningful or lasting way. Landscapes can never be properly captured in a single moment; they are always in a process of becoming, as in a temporal quarry
of accrual and memory—collecting experiences, representations, uses, the effects of weather, and changes in management, cultivation, and care, and other traces of layered presence.
In the case of the High Line, the experience of strolling is intentionally slowed down in the otherwise bustling context of Manhattan. Paths meandering in between tall perennial and grass plantings create an experience that cannot really be properly captured in a photograph, or even video. Like so many other gardens, the place must be walked, with scenes unfolding in sequence and in juxtaposition. The dynamic plantings are different from week to week, with varied blooms, colors, textures, effects, and moods, combined with the changing light at different times of day, varied weathers and seasons, and with the different microclimatic effects of the surrounding cityscape. The visitor is almost always experiencing the High Line in newly nuanced ways.
Importantly, the design does not employ signs or symbols of narrative intent; it does not try to tell a story or to embed meaning—rather, its very materiality, its detailing, its artifactuality elicits or prompts different associations and readings. Hunt has spoken in various essays of triggers and prompts in design, describing a number of theatrical devices such as entry thresholds and liminality, the passage from outside to inside, dramatic frames and scenes, displacement and collage, inscription and marking (Hunt 2004: 77–112). These precisely designed triggers and prompts are all concentrations of effect that draw the visitor into another world, heightening the allure and distinctiveness of a special place. The visitor becomes as much a performer as a viewer, more deeply engaged in participating in the theatricality of urban life—the promenade as elevated catwalk, urban stage, and social condenser.
And here words bring us to the third haunt of Hunt, the critical. When he declares that “to theorize about gardens is justifiable for its own sake; moreover it increases the pleasures of understanding,” he is establishing the basis not simply for passive contemplation but for actively energizing fresh developments in the ideas and practices of landscape architecture (Hunt 2004: 107). His insistence on historical perspective is well taken, but his commitment to concepts, to critical discourse, to informed argumentation, and—most important—to cultural enrichment through imaginative and inventive place making continues to challenge us all. Hunt’s haunts are quite simply those remarkable places and ideas where content concentrates, lingers, and accrues. The combination of physical, material places with cultural
ideas points to the unity of theory with practice, of design with reception, and of experience with intellect, all dialogues that we strive for in the best of our work. That such experiences might also haunt our imaginations is perhaps the highest calling of art, and in gardens, as Hunt has so eloquently taught us, we might find the greatest perfections.
See Hunt (2000) Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory
. The title comes from Francis Bacon’s “Of Gardens” (1625): “When Ages grow to Civility and Elegancie, Men come to Build Stately
, sooner than to Garden Finely
: As if Gardening
were the Greater Perfection.”
Most of these ideas come up in Greater Perfections
, with a whole essay devoted to “The Idea of a Garden and the Three Natures” (32–75). See also Hunt’s “Introduction: Reading and Writing the Site,” in Hunt (1992: 3–16).
Community Engagement, Equity, and the High Line
How can urban development projects build democratic capacity and address inequities? This was the key question I was engaged with during the seven years I spent working for Friends of the High Line (FHL), the nonprofit organization that saved and now runs the High Line on behalf of the City of New York. I was drawn to the organization in 2007 for two main reasons: because of its vision to create a high-quality public space on a forgotten industrial relic, but even more important, I was excited by the organization’s focus on involving citizens in the politics and design of urban development. Aseem Inam (2014) calls this characteristic of the High Line’s development “radical humanism”—“how human beings are capable of transforming cities through tremendous effort, creativity, and perseverance.” While in hindsight it is easy to see the High Line’s development as inevitable, as something that the city’s power brokers were always going to support, I see an additional and equally important narrative: a group of urban residents, building on the long line of civic activists who have given time, sweat, and tears to organize and build political power in an effort to improve their neighborhoods.
Robert Hammond and Joshua David were so successful in doing this, whereas so many other similar civic organizing initiatives struggle, for
several reasons. Hammond and David brought to the project skills as community organizers, strategists, and fund-raisers, and they were also able to leverage the significant privileges they had. Moreover, the High Line succeeded in large part thanks to timing: saving and designing the park in this specific way aligned with the political and economic agenda and conditions of New York City at that period.
As the founding director of Public Programs, Education, and Community Engagement for the organization from 2009 to 2013, I built on Robert and Josh’s orientation toward civic organizing and their vision of the park as a piece of healthy social infrastructure. Simultaneously, I struggled with some of the decisions the organization had to make to get the High Line built, which I worried would unintentionally undermine the ability of the space to be accessible to, and a positive impact on, all citizens. In aligning with the Bloomberg administration’s vision for the West Chelsea rezoning and adopting a pro-development stance, the High Line secured its success in creating a new public space (private development would have been the likely alternative). Yet in doing so, the High Line may also have undergirded the status quo of unequal power relations and impacts of urban development.
The park experienced a level of success that no one at FHL had anticipated when the organization began its initiative to develop a public space for the neighborhood. Recognizing that visitors to the High Line in the first few years did not reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, FHL began initiatives to better listen and partner with public housing residents in the neighborhood and other individuals and groups that are typically marginalized by urban development investments. It was through this discursive, relationship-building exercise that we began to consider what it might look like to intentionally develop equitable public spaces.
Building a Cultural Platform through Partnership-Based Programming
While FHL had good intentions and public accessibility in mind while organizing to save, design, and manage the park, when the first section opened in 2009, visitorship immediately demonstrated that the park was not drawing all populations equally. Park visitors seemed to skew wealthier and whiter than the population of the surrounding neighborhoods and
New York City as a whole. I saw programming as a way to help fulfill the democratic ideal behind the park and, with consultant Abby Ehrlich, began to actualize this goal by building programs that directed resources where there was the greatest need and by encouraging social bridging across racial and class lines through carefully curated experiences.
Building on the deep relationships with community groups in the neighborhood that FHL had built in the previous ten years, we began to program the park with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. Emily Pinkowitz joined the small program staff soon after the park opened, bringing with her an intelligent and strategic theory about educational programming. We both came with community organizing experience and perspectives. We spent time meeting and brainstorming with many individuals in the neighborhood, including staff at Hudson Guild (a lauded community center in the neighborhood), tenant leaders at the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses (which together represented five thousand residents of public housing), the Meatpacking District Initiative, and many more organizations.
Through building trust and friendship in open conversations, we developed several new cultural programs in conjunction with the Hudson Guild in the years following the park’s opening (Pinkowitz 2014). An innovative performing arts program called “Step to the High Line” (2011 and 2012) grew out of a conversation with Jim Furlong, director of the arts at Hudson Guild. The guild had released a report about the high number of what it termed “disconnected youth” living in Chelsea, which led me to wonder whether the park could become a better resource for teenagers, as few from the neighborhood were using it. Through a partnership with Youth Step USA’s founder and executive director, Brock Harris, the three of us developed a unique series of performances and workshops that debuted with the opening of Section 2 of the park in June 2011. Five of the city’s award-winning stepping teams came to the High Line and performed their routines. We repeated the program two years later and included a “Learn to Step” program. High school students from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx—most of whom had never been to the High Line and the majority of whom were people of color—performed this African American cultural tradition before an international, intergenerational audience. After presenting their work at the park, the students noted that they saw it in a new way—as an art form—and perceived themselves as ambassadors of American culture.
Chelsea also has a large population that is advancing in age, or “aging in place.” I observed and was told that they were not using the park much. Many of them (my own grandmother included) moved to the neighborhood long ago through developments in social housing, live in subsidized or rent-controlled units, and have limited incomes. Many residents utilize the services at the Hudson Guild Senior Center. Seeing an opportunity to address this discrepancy through the arts, we commissioned our first performing arts program specifically for the High Line with an organization called Dances for a Variable Population (DVP), led by the inventive and tireless Naomi Goldberg Haas. DVP’s mission is to create performances that bring together people of body types and ages not typically thought of as ideal performers, and to do so through an inclusive, exuberant, and community-building rehearsal process. The unique performance, called “Autumn Crossing,” was attended in 2011 by more than one thousand people and made an inclusive statement about whose faces should be seen as cultural creators in New York’s new iconic space.
Early on, FHL also established teen employment programs to better utilize the park’s resources to achieve diversity. A group of teens who graduated from the guild’s youth job development program, with interests that overlapped with what we could offer, worked with FHL for three days a week in the summer as paid interns, beginning the first summer that the High Line was open. Youth who live in the neighborhood were especially encouraged to apply, and the program became an annual one.
While developing performing arts and teen programs, we also focused on expanding our opportunities for families and school-aged children. Emily Pinkowitz developed and managed inquiry-based educational programs that continue to utilize the High Line as a site for the exploration of New York City history, landscape design, and science education. She also initiated and grew, along with the help of programming consultant Abby Ehrlich, a series of thoughtful family programs focused on connecting thematically to the High Line. The understanding underlying these initiatives is that children’s programs help to build ownership among entire families. Under Emily’s guidance, we commissioned and built the High Line Children’s Workyard Kit in 2011, a portable kit of parts designed by Abby and Cas Holman to allow children to build anything in their imagination, harking back to the High Line’s industrial heritage.
These programs stake a claim for using a new space that goes beyond its initial blueprint: as a platform for creativity for artists, performers, and
writers. They provide the opportunity for visitors to see not just the built environment, but also the sociocultural environment of New York, a diverse and vibrant place that is more complex than it might seem as one gazes down to the street. The intimate encounter that the High Line so beautifully enables creates a certain kind of openness in visitors, and doing cultural and educational programming in this environment is quite generative. As we had more and more success in our programs, we continued to expand our offerings. Consequently, more people found ways to help themselves grow as individuals as well as socially, and in the process developed stronger and deeper connections to the space. By the time I left in June 2013, the Public Programs, Education, and Community Engagement Dep...