With the opening of The Spur, the latest and last section of the High Line, co- founder Robert Hammond has a lot to reflect on. His ability and creativity have re-imagined and transformed the disused elevated freight line into one of New York’s most significant public places.
At the intersection of 30th Street and 10th Avenue a 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a black woman, crowned in braids and cowrie shell, has been lowered firmly into place. Named Brick House this defining statue of strength, endurance and integrity will keep a watchful eye over the city for the next eighteen months. The symbolism and synergies of this piece are not lost on Robert. Like the goddess, he has persevered, provoked and persisted to push irreversible change.
Robert’s efforts and tenacity have been instrumental in creating a permanent mark on the cityscape, and his journey is far from over. Born out of a desire to re-purpose the freight line, slated for demolition by successive Administrations, the High Line has been a battle over the cost, value and use of a public asset.
Today the city-versus-citizen tension centres on the ongoing funding. The curation and care of the infrastructure, gardens, arts and programmed events burns an annual operational budget of some US$18 million. Below the line the City, as the ‘owner’, contributes in the form of a peppercorn low market lease and maintenance of the infrastructure of the once decrepit and rail foundations.
For Robert and Friends of the High Line, the management organisation, the operational budget means fuelling a demanding revenue mix of philanthropy, fundraising, event and hire fees and commercial arrangements. It means thinking creatively as to how to monetise opportunities without eroding the integrity of the public space as a vibrant, inclusive and accessible place.
The asset most certainly has a high economic value to the City, capturing more tourist visits than traditional landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. It has also enabled the City to capture more taxes from the development of designer apartments that now traverse major sections of the Line.
With hindsight Robert would have sought to capture some of the improved property values and increased tax income to alleviate his ongoing budgetary pressures. He would also have sought to mitigate the ensuing social dislocation and displacement as gentrification of the surrounding areas set in. Retaining a housing mix to cater and support the initial community diversity would have naturally complemented the drive to transform this asset as a place for all.
Irrespective of these lessons, the High Line stands tall, a beacon of change. In the shadow and spirit of the crowned bronze statue Robert continues the journey, providing advice and spurring others to join the global movement to re-
purpose and reclaim public assets for enduring public good.