New York’s High Line: A public art space done right

There are two exhibitions by Carol Bove, a fantastically talented young sculptor, on view in New York City at the moment. One, a small show, is at the Museum of Modern Art. The other exhibition, larger and better, isoutdoors. Her understated sculptures – a pair of white power-coated steel squiggles, a trio of rusting I-beam grids, a little assemblage of concrete and brass – are tucked into a segment of the High Line, the outrageously popular elevated park on the west side of Manhattan.

Four years since it opened the High Line, a 2.3km (1.4 mile) reclaimed railroad track, has become a massive tourist attraction and a boon to real estate developers who hardly need the help. But it is quietly something else as well: a highly ambitious and uncommonly successful outdoor space for contemporary art. Public art, so often schlocky or crowd-pleasing, is a much more serious affair on the High Line. And as cities from Chicago to Rotterdam try to replicate the success of New York’s elevated park, they would do well to remember how integral contemporary art has been to its vitality.

The High Line was constructed, at massive expense, in the 1920s to keep trains out of the way of pedestrians. Back in the 19th Century, the railway traffic along 10th Avenue was so dangerous that the street was better known as Death Avenue. (Flag-waving wardens, known as the West Side Cowboys, rode on horseback in front of the trains to get New Yorkers out of the way.) It was an essential artery for Big Apple commerce for decades. But with the decline of freight shipping the High Line fell into disuse; the last train ran in 1980, and the structure was slated for demolition. Squabbling over who would pay to tear the thing down, though, meant that the High Line’s last rites kept getting postponed. By the late 1990s, New Yorkers began to envision its transformation along the lines of Paris’s Promenade plantée, a shipping route reopened as a park in 1993.

Art lines

From the beginning, art was part of the park’s DNA. Robert Hammond, one of the two men who started the foundation to redevelop the line, is a self-taught painter. The High Line runs through the western edge of Chelsea, the greatest concentration of art galleries anywhere in the world. And it is hard to say whether the High Line would have been saved at all if it were not for Joel Sternfeld, a pioneer in colour photography (and subject of a recent retrospective in Berlin), who shot the crumbling railroad tracks over the course of a year. From 2000 to 2001 Sternfeld captured the High Line overgrown with weeds and wildflowers – and while the photos testified to the site’s neglect, they also helped New Yorkers understand that the High Line was already a green space, right over their heads. Ailanthus trees grew more than a dozen feet high at 25th Street. Grape hyacinth blossomed where the line turned toward 11th Avenue. Queen Anne’s lace pushed up beside the railroad tracks.

It is hard to overestimate how influential Sternfeld’s photographs, shot with an old-fashioned eight-by-ten camera, became in converting doubters that the High Line could be saved. In 2001 The New Yorker rana major feature, illustrated with Sternfeld’s images that made the park seem like a real possibility. The city, after years of hesitation, gave its consent – in part due to a possible integration with a site for the Olympic Games that, thank heavens, London got saddled with instead.

The park opened its first segment, stretching from the Meatpacking District to West 20th Street, in June 2009; it expanded to 30th Street in 2011, and plans are now afoot to renovate the final stretch, which wraps around a railway yard and is still overgrown. (Bove’s exhibition is on this part of the line, and visitors have to book an appointment online; make sure you wear sensible shoes.) By then it will be a fully fledged arts corridor; in 2015 the Whitney Museum of American Art will vacate its uptown premises and relocate to a new building at the foot of the park, designed by Renzo Piano and lying between the High Line and the Hudson River.           

As the park has grown, its arts programming has become more concentrated and more impressive. Sarah Sze, who represented the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale, installed an intricate abstract sculpture that functioned as a birdhouse. Tourists loved it. Photographers such as Darren Almond, Ryan McGinley and Thomas Demand have commandeered a billboard alongside the line, while El Anatsui, the renowned Ghanaian artist, hung a waving tapestry of tin and mirrors on a building facing the park. Video art screens frequently after sundown. At the moment there is not only the stunning Bove exhibition but also Busted, organised by the High Line’s impressive in-house curator Cecilia Alemani, which brings together ten artists who create modern versions of old-style statuary.

High life on the High Line

Alemani and her team offer a refreshing change from the pseudo-art that too often clogs our public spaces, and that underestimates visitors’ sophistication and daring. (Think of London’s Saint Pancras station, with its giant, Stalin-approved kissing couple; think of the 17-ton Marilyn Monroe statue that defiled Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.) Yet the High Line is becoming a victim of its own success, in ways that have cultural consequences. It gets 4.4m visitors a year, far more than the planners counted on – “Disney World on the Hudson,” one New York Times headline bitingly called it. More distressingly, it has led to a wave of construction for which gentrification is too modest a name. All along 10th Avenue restaurants and shops have sprouted in the High Line’s shadow; a yoga studio has inevitably arrived too. Multiple hotels have opened to join the Standard, which straddles the High Line and whose rooms, fully visible from the park, are a favourite with exhibitionists. And new buildings keep coming, including an appalling, plutocrat-seducing condo by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, now rising beside the park on 28th Street.

In fact, the High Line has been so successful at transforming west Chelsea that art galleries are seeing their rents rise, and some have been priced out of the neighbourhood. (In fairness, the other major culprit in the rent hikes has been Google, whose New York office is right there.) Art world types with long memories will remember that this is not the first commercial/industrial neighborhood to welcome first art, then retail and super-expensive housing. SoHo, a district of magnificent cast-iron buildings, was colonised by artists in the late 1970s, and galleries followed soon after. Quickly, though, the artists were pushed out by boutiques and restaurants, lofts once rented by artists now go for many millions, and SoHo has become a glorified outdoor mall. West Chelsea will probably avoid SoHo’s fate in some part – a fair number of dealers own rather than rent their galleries – but change is clearly underway.

It is a tricky thing, the High Line. I still love it, and its arts programming specifically. But the High Line is also, undeniably, a symbol of a city whose improving quality of life has been accompanied by massive gains for its wealthiest residents. As New York welcomes a new populist mayorafter 12 years under the governance of the world’s thirteenth-richest man, it remains to be seen whether the city can reverse its slide into a gilded playground for the richest of the rich. I want to see more great art on the High Line – but I want artists to live and work here too.

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