"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

The Flâneur and the City

Perhaps no open space project in recent memory has been as hyped as New York City’s brand new High Line Park. Phase One of the project opened in June to a unanimous response of Ooo’s and Ahh’s from an eagerly awaiting public. Haven’t heard of it? Here’s what you need to know: It’s a park…perched atop a hulking, thirty-foot high, eighty-year old, decommissioned railroad. And everybody loves it.

In the mid-eighties, a group of neighborhood residents, enamored by the High Line’s post-industrial beauty and second-act potential, formed the Friends of the High Line public advocacy group, countered efforts from local business owners intent on demolishing the rusting structure, and sponsored an international design competition, from which came the proposal for High Line Park. Now one-third realized, High Line Park is a one-two punch of wabi sabi urban design so potent every big city wants one of their own.

So what is it that’s drawing droves of New Yorkers and foreign tourists alike? How could it be that when I visited one sunny Saturday, I actually had to wait in line to be ushered in? There must be something special below the High Line’s thin surface profile of engineered soils and crafted concrete pavers.

Long before the High Line Park design proposal inspired the collective efforts of Chelsea locals, the money-granting pens of New York City officials, and the imaginative designs of an impressive roster of starchitects, there was the flâneur. In the mid-nineteenth century, civic planner Baron Haussmann was commissioned to modernize Paris. His idea: bisect the city’s dingy, medieval street network with wide boulevards, and displace one third of all Parisians in doing so. More than creating additional breathing room or speeding the city’s traffic, Haussmann’s interconnected, linear boulevards reshaped Paris’s public culture. For the first time, the city’s amenities and spectacles could be engaged in orderly, predictable fashion. The sidewalk became a stage for a new urban archetype, what poet and critic Charles Baudelaire coined “the flâneur.” Beneath the shade of newly planted street trees, and in the light of modern, gas-powered street lamps, these members of an elite, developing bourgeois class embraced a newfound sense of leisure and walked the city in order to experience it. What was once a gritty, working-class environment became for the flâneur something of an outdoor shopping mall, an environment to be consumed, if only through the senses.

Sound familiar? The upscale shopping district of Fifth Avenue, tourist-overrun St. Mark’s Place, and Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue all are relatives to Haussman’s boulevard model. These urban spaces go beyond their original intent as functioning streets to become hybrid environments for shopping, dining, socializing, and voyeurism. By some just-right recipe of commercial, residential, and transit conditions they became generators of a culture of leisure and delight.

High Line Park is a novel upgrade of this sort. More than a chic strolling promenade, it is a captivating, one-of-a-kind amalgamation incorporating some of the most articulated culture New York City has to offer. Along their stroll, High Line Park flâneurs take in the sights of Chelsea’s fashionable restaurants, contemporary galleries, and high-end boutique stores. Using the sidewalk to engage Chelsea’s street culture is so last year. Being elevated above the action, visitors are one more step removed from the city, effectively squaring the flâneur experience. Not just neighborhood amenities but now street culture itself is an object to be admired. In this way, High Line Park is an urban theme ride, a slow speed tram made from a masterfully fashioned landscape which quietly weaves its way through museum neighborhoods.

Chelsea has as rich and diverse a history as any neighborhood in New York. From High Line Park’s thirty-foot vantage, this history is uniquely on display. In fact, many of the park’s most rewarding views incorporate the neighborhood’s structures of yesteryear. To learn from its local history and make our High Line Park experience all the richer, I’d like to introduce my friend and field guide, Alan Kleinberg.

Alan is a true New Yorker, born and raised. He was a prolific photographer on the scene during New York’s legendary art boom. As we began our walk of the southernmost section of High Line Park’s Phase One, he recreated for me the old Chelsea he remembers. For him, it was a low-key neighborhood prized by adventurous creatives for its quiet streets, ethnic storefronts, and low rents. (Low rents. Seriously, believe it.). It was something of a playground. Just southeast, the city’s art galleries were being priced out of Soho because of rising rents, and word spread that the overlooked neighborhood north of Greenwich Village was fast becoming a new destination for cutting-edge artists. One by one, New York’s galleries fatefully packed their bags for westbound settlement. What greeted them was a canvas of urban proportions blank for culture-making. Through the charged creative energies of artistic visionaries, what was once a looming manufacturing corridor was transformed into an international visual arts hot spot.

Then, but increasingly less so, Chelsea’s architectural palette was primarily a mix of warehouses and production facilities. These warm brick facades reflect the bustling conditions of an old-world, developing urban economy. Today, they appear against the Hudson River as nostalgic stars setting the stage for some of High Line Park’s most rewarding views. We can thank generations past for bequeathing us this robust city fabric that develops richer character with age.

Seasoned New Yorkers like Alan recognize the city’s dynamic culture feeds off contrast. This is what gives the city its notorious grit. Bankers and musicians; students and homeless; cabbies and bicyclists, all sharing the same streets. Contrast is strongly at play in High Line Park, but it’s more than the city versus nature dialectic evoked in Central Park. It’s also deeper than the informed, culturally critical eye of the flâneur against the working city. Alan reminds me that the creative energy that once characterized the neighborhood has been replaced by an atmosphere of consumption. In the High Line structure, risk and curiosity has been replaced with safety and predictability. What once lured graffiti artists as a hidden gem has now had its subversiveness uprooted to allow for paths wide enough to fit passing strollers. I imagine it may feel somewhat similar to having your favorite under-the-radar, local café reviewed by Rachael Ray. The taming of the High Line signals the end of Chelsea’s golden era.

Such is the nature of the city. Alan is not disillusioned. He and New York natives understand that the city is a palimpsest, ever changing and ever rebuilding over itself in consecutive layers. They’ve seen it played out many times, most recently with the Bloomberg administration’s apparent mission to suburbanize Manhattan into what one urban designer/architect has called the world’s largest gated community. The qualities that once made Manhattan an incubator for progressive, creative culture are being increasingly buried beneath the foundations of the latest luxury condo.

However, visit High Line Park and you’ll find these preoccupations may melt away. The design teams of local New York firms Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro have done a superb job complimenting the Meatpacking District and Chelsea’s rugged character. High Line Park’s wispy palette of native trees and shrubs reflects the pioneering species that invaded the structure after its decommission. The textures, colors, and forms selected by horticulture superstar Piet Oudolf are spectacular, making this dimension of the project the most breathtaking. Its attractive concrete pavers capture the spirit of flux evident throughout Chelsea as it undergoes an architectural renaissance. And its robust site furnishings and surfaces hearken the strength of the rail cars that once traversed the High Line. All together, an atmosphere of era-signified transience has been created. It’s a design statement potent enough to stand on its own, yet transparent enough to fluidly snake through three distinct neighborhoods—the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen—without competing with their unique architectural tapestries or social climates.

Aside from its outstanding aesthetic accomplishments, High Line Park makes a strong case for the popularization of a new sort of urban development in which democratic green spaces are primary building blocks for dense communities. Because of their flexible nature, green spaces can knit together disparate urban fabrics and support a great variety of community-based activities. At their best, parks are spaces for communities to come together. New Yorkers witness this each summer when the city’s parks host concerts, theatre, and sporting events, both large and planned and small and ad hoc. High Line Park’s timing is appropriate then, since New York City’s culture is becoming increasingly leisure-based.

So, to all the post-industrial spaces in the five boroughs and abroad, you now have your champion. What’s that? How can you too become a destination for popular outdoor activity? For starters, as the High Line Park saga has shown, the backing of a dedicated group of community members is paramount. Celebrities help too. Also, you’ll need 86.2 million dollars, which was the final tab for High Line Park’s phase one, and you can count on another half million per year per acre in maintenance fees. Already, you can see that low-income neighborhoods hardly stand a chance. The High Line Park model for landscape-based urban development is driven by local wealth as much as robust community values.

New Yorkers and urban dwellers the world over love parks, and I do too.  Heck, I design them.  It’s very refreshing to have public officials increasingly interested in their development and value as currency for urban neighborhoods, for local economies, and for the health and wellbeing of local residents. However, cities must also be committed to smart urban development rather than the rampart, tasteless, private building which characterized so much urban growth this past development boom. Post-industrial cities are ripe with derelict, High Line Park wannabe’s.  Especially for low-income neighborhoods, green space development must be paired with considerate infrastructure planning, including human scale architecture, healthy local economies, community-based amenities, and thorough transportation networks.  The benefits include delightful anomalies like High Line Park.  Who eighty years ago would have ever dreamed the High Line railway would be recast as one of the world’s most inventive parks?  Indeed, a robust urban infrastructure is its own reward.  It’s against these fabrics which uplifting social movements and growth occur.  Phenomenon like Chelsea’s art boom could not have happened were it not for a palette of durable, period architecture, and nor could have the green, urban garnish that is High Line Park.

So, until more benevolent times, take advantage of some upcoming pleasant day, grab hold of your loved ones, and head out to High Line Park. Enjoy being a flâneur as you bask in the outward aesthetics of Chelsea’s rich heritage and contemporary culture.  Explore the landscape on a micro level.  Get close up to the colorful planting beds and investigate the upstart fauna communities of insects and birds.  Look and marvel at the marvelous assortment of floral colors and textures.  Breathe in their distinctly non-urban fragrances.  Give the movable wooden furniture resting on reclaimed train rails a playful push.  If you can’t make it to lower Manhattan, get out to your own local green space.  Parks are for delight, and in this respect, High Line Park is an all-star.  Be a kid again!


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