Wednesday, August 22, 2012

High Line - Disney World On The Hudson

(Illustration- Ana Benaroya)

By Jeremiah Moss

WHEN the first segment of the High Line, the now-famous park built atop an old elevated railway on the West Side of Manhattan, opened in 2009, I experienced a moment of excitement. I had often wondered what it would be like to climb that graffiti-marked trestle with its wild urban meadow. Of course, I’d seen the architectural renderings and knew not to expect a wilderness. Still, the idea was enticing: a public park above the hubbub, a contemplative space where nature softens the city’s abrasiveness.

Today it’s difficult to remember that initial feeling. The High Line has become a tourist-clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history.

My skepticism took root during my first visit. The designers had scrubbed the graffiti and tamed the wildflowers. Guards admonished me when my foot moved too close to a weed. Was this a park or a museum? I felt like I was in the home of a neatnik with expensive tastes, afraid I would soil the furnishings.

But the park was a hit. Fashion models strutted up and down. Shoppers from the meatpacking district boutiques commandeered the limited number of benches, surrounded by a phalanx of luxury clothing bags. I felt underdressed.

That rarefied state didn’t last, though. As the High Line’s hype grew, the tourists came clamoring. Originally meant for running freight trains, the High Line now runs people, except where those people jam together like spawning salmon crammed in a bottleneck. The park is narrow, and there are few escape routes. I’ve gotten close to a panic attack, stuck in a pool of stagnant tourists at the park’s most congested points.

Not yet four years old, the High Line has already become another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners, another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World. According to the park’s Web site, 3.7 million people visited the High Line in 2011, only half of them New Yorkers. It’s this overcrowding — not just of the High Line, but of the streets around it — that’s beginning to turn the tide of sentiment.

Recently, an anonymous local set off a small media storm by posting fliers around the park that read: “Attention High Line tourists. West Chelsea is not Times Square. It is not a tourist attraction.” A local newspaper talked to a 24-year-old who reported that young people who once met for dates at the park now say, “How about doing something that doesn’t involve the High Line?”

But the problem isn’t just the crowds. It’s that the park, which will eventually snake through more than 20 blocks, is destroying neighborhoods as it grows.

And it’s doing so by design. While the park began as a grass-roots endeavor — albeit a well-heeled one — it quickly became a tool for the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a new, upscale, corporatized stretch along the West Side. As socialites and celebrities championed the designer park during its early planning stages, whipping community support into a heady froth, the city rezoned West Chelsea for luxury development in 2005.

The neighborhood has since been completely remade. Old buildings fell and mountain ranges of glassy towers with names like High Line 519 and HL23 started to swell — along with prices.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation published a study last year stating that before the High Line was redeveloped, “surrounding residential properties were valued 8 percent below the overall median for Manhattan.” Between 2003 and 2011, property values near the park increased 103 percent.

This is good news for the elite economy but not for many who have lived and worked in the area for decades. It’s easy to forget that until very recently, even with the proliferation of art galleries near the West Side Highway, West Chelsea was a mix of working-class residents and light-industrial businesses.

But the High Line is washing all that away. D&R Auto Parts saw its profits fall by more than 35 percent. Once-thriving restaurants like La Lunchonette and Hector’s diner, a local anchor since 1949, have lost their customer base.

Hardest hit have been the multigenerational businesses of “gasoline alley.” Mostly auto-related establishments that don’t fit into Michael R. Bloomberg’s luxury city vision, several vanished in mere months, like species in a meteoric mass extinction. Bear Auto Shop was out after decades; the Olympia parking garage, after 35 years, closed when its rent reportedly quintupled.

Brownfeld Auto, on West 29th Street near 10th Avenue, lost its lease after nearly a century. Today it’s another hole in the ground. Its third-generation owner, Alan Brownfeld, blamed the High Line for taking away the thriving business he’d inherited from his grandfather. “It’s for the city’s glamorous people,” he said.

Mr. Brownfeld is right, for now. But just as the High Line’s early, trendy denizens gave way to touristic hordes, Chelsea’s haute couture moment may be fleeting. As big a brand as Stella McCartney is, she can’t compete with global chains like Sephora, which are muscling into the area’s commercial space.

Within a few years, the ecosystem disrupted by the High Line will find a new equilibrium. The aquarium-like high rises will be for the elite, along with a few exclusive locales like the Standard Hotel. But the new locals will rarely be found at street level, where chain stores and tourist-friendly restaurants will cater to the crowds of passers-by and passers-through. Gone entirely will be regular New Yorkers, the people who used to call the neighborhood home. But then the High Line was never really about them.

Jeremiah Moss is the pen name of the author of the blog Vanishing New York.

Read More:

New York Times - OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR - August 21, 2012 - By Jeremiah Moss

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