HIGH LINE STORIES – Putting it together…
Robert Hammond and Joshua David with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (then New York Senator) on the High Line in 2006
Sundancechannel.com recently caught up with the very busy co-founders of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, whose vision is captured in the Sundance Channel Original Series HIGH LINE STORIES.
In Part 2 of our conversation (click here to read Part 1 if you missed it!) Robert and Josh recount their crash course in preservation, legal action and grass roots organization during their efforts to follow through on re-purposing the High Line.
Sundancechannel.com: So you’d met with CSX, who owned the High Line, and named your organization “Friends of the High Line.” At that point, had your goals changed from simply not wanting the High Line to be torn down to actually re-purposing it as a park?
Joshua David: I think, even already at that point, we’d had a couple of meetings before then and thought about some of the different ways that you could re-use it. We always knew that it wasn’t enough just to save it – just to put it under glass like an artifact was something that wasn’t going to work – it needed a lot of maintenance, it needed a lot of investment, it was a very functional structure – it was always designed to DO something and we just didn’t see that New York City or the community was going to rally big behind just keeping it the way it was. Always, we thought, we have to find a NEW LIFE for this and it didn’t take us long to arrive at the idea that it was as park land. I think that was everybody’s gut all along – there wasn’t a strong movement in our organization to really consider rail use for the structure again.
Sundancechannel.com: And were you already aware of La Promenade Plantée in Paris?
Joshua David: We were not. We weren’t aware of that. And we also had never been up on top of [the High Line]. We formed the organization having only seen it from the street. So we didn’t know the wonderful landscape that was so beautifully photographed later by Joel Sternfeld – those pictures didn’t exist then. We’d never been up there – we just sort of imagined it could be a great park up there and formed the organization. We didn’t know about the Promenade Plantée – but shortly after we began to talk to people – about what we were doing – somebody told us about it and we both, separately, went to Paris to look at it.
Sundancechannel.com: What kind of shape, structurally, strengthwise, was the High Line in at that point?
Joshua David: It was in excellent shape. I mean, the property owners underneath it who were lobbying to have it torn down – did everything they could to make a case for it “…falling apart… dangerous… pieces dropping off of it” but it was actually in really amazing condition (see New York Times article). It was built to hold fully-loaded freight trains going back and forth up and down it multiple times a day for hundreds of years. It was built in the 1930’s when they built things to a standard that we consider “over built” today. There’s just an incredible amount of steel in it. And it had only had about 30 years of active use – it was designed for a much longer life, so it was in very good shape. The most expensive thing that we had to do to it was actually to re-paint it because it had been originally painted with lead paint – and all of that had to be removed in containment units following strict environmental protocol – so that was the biggest thing we had to do with it.
Sundancechannel.com: Once the Friends of the High Line organization was in order and the City bought the High Line, what kind of role did you play in the actual design, development and technicalities of the creation of the High Line park?
Joshua David: That’s a very interesting question – we started out as your typical grass roots community group led by a few people who have some kind of vision that gradually builds and grows. It was just extraordinary that when we started it, how many people did rally around us. Robert and I get a lot of credit for doing this – but one of the things that has made this possible is the number of people who responded to the call to save the High Line and offered their services and offered to help. We weren’t architects; we weren’t preservationists; we didn’t know any of the things that you need to know to do this. Luckily, a lot of people joined us and helped us figure it out. But we were really just a grass roots community group working to save a piece of our neighborhood.
First, we sued the City and stopped them from tearing the High Line down (see article in New York Times). Following the courts is one of the avenues that small, community-based preservation groups sometimes use. Then we gradually began to build our relationship within the new mayoral administration – Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg’s administration – and, eventually, working with them changed the City’s policy to one in favor of saving the High Line and re-using it as a park.
At that point, our organization had a shift of a kind – in that we became partners with the City… not in any official sense, but we worked together with the City of New York to advance this project from 2002 forward. It was a very unusual arrangement – I think the Bloomberg administration, because we were the High Line’s original force, paid us a great deal of attention. They were very generous in allowing us to be part of the design and planning process. So, whereas I think another administration might have said “OK, we’re saving it – go away.” [The Bloomberg] administration really invited us to participate actively in the planning process and in all the public communications. So we’ve really been doing this jointly.
Sundancechannel.com: Obviously New York City has very high-profile people and easy access to media to make things happen. From your experience, do you think that smaller communities without big city benefits can save or re-purpose existing structures with organized community involvement?
Robert Hammond: Absolutely! It really just takes “doing” – getting out there, talking about things and finding a group of people who are willing to learn as they go along. We are living examples that you don’t have to have a ton of money, or a history of preservation or construction knowledge. And it doesn’t even have to be a project as big as the High Line… it’s the community involvement that made this happen and people just have to jump in and follow their instincts and DO.