The Back Story on the High Line

The Back Story on the High Line

November 09, 2011 at 4:00 am

Authors: Joshua David and Robert Hammond
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: Oct. 2011

The two New Yorkers behind the High Line park’s metamorphosis say the key to their success was a lack of expertise. “It’s true,” the duo claim, “When we started we knew very little about preservation, architecture, community organizing, horticulture, fundraising, working with City Hall, or running a park.”

In their new book, “High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky,” Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line, recount their 10-year adventure transforming an abandoned rail on Manhattan’s West Side into an urban park.

In alternating anecdotes, David and Hammond narrate their journey from a community board meeting in 1999, where they first exchanged business cards and began thinking about saving the High Line, all the way through the founding of their organization and the creation of the park. They discuss navigating the city’s land-use process, a crucial court ruling, a collaborative design process and an aggressive campaign to raise awareness and funds to take on one of the most innovative urban reclamation projects in recent New York City history.

Following is an excerpt from the book, in which David and Hammond describe introducing their project to the Bloomberg Administration in the early 2000s.

ROBERT HAMMOND: In late September [2002], we presented the economic study to Dan Doctoroff [New York City’s then-deputy mayor for economic development]. We showed the feasibility of building a park on the High Line, how much it would cost, and the value it would generate for the City. Our estimated construction costs were for a bare-bones version of a park on the High Line, using a traditional greenway design vernacular — a simple paved walkway, bordered by planters. We thought that in the end we were likely to pursue a plan with greater design sophistication, with higher costs, but for the purposes of this study, it was important to keep cost estimates as low as possible.

JOSHUA DAVID: Dan talked in that meeting about the mayor’s larger plans for the redevelopment of the West Side around the Olympics. This would involve a major rezoning in Hell’s Kitchen, the rezoning in Chelsea, and a stadium on the rail yards. He asked, “Do you think that the community likes the High Line enough to make them supportive of the rezoning in West Chelsea that includes it?” Robert turned to me and said, “Josh is on the community board — Josh, the community will like this, right?” At that point I didn’t know.

The community board hadn’t taken a position on the High Line, and many of the members individually were fairly negative about it. But I knew the answer that everybody needed to hear was “yes,” so that is the answer I gave. It was also clear that Dan wanted our support of his larger vision in its entirety, including the stadium. That was fairly burdensome, because the stadium faced intense community opposition. Our project needed both the community and Dan to be happy, but this was not going to be easy. But we felt pretty good about our study. It felt like we had a chance.


Google’s new Street View allows users to virtually explore hundreds of parks and open spaces. This video shows Google’s tour of the High Line park.

ROBERT HAMMOND: We started planning for a design competition. It wasn’t going to be the kind of competition where the design that wins gets built. It couldn’t be: we didn’t have any rights, we didn’t have any money, and the High Line was still in danger of being torn down. The competition would be just for ideas — and the ideas didn’t have to be realistic, or fundable, or buildable. The competition would free people up to think about the High Line in different ways. And it would get attention. Most people still didn’t know what the High Line was, even people in the neighborhood. You’d mention the High Line and they’d go, “What?” Then you’d say, “You know, that elevated rail line,” and they still wouldn’t know. And then you’d say, “That dark thing with the pigeon droppings under it,” and then they’d go, “Oh, yeah, that thing. I hate that thing.”

JOSHUA DAVID: There are aspects of the High Line’s progress that Robert had in his head from very early on and which he pursued with great determination. The design ideas competition was one of these. He, more than I, latched on to a high level of design as being integral to the future of the High Line. I loved architecture. I loved beautiful design. But I didn’t look at the project in as expansive terms as Robert did. I just loved the structure itself and wanted to save it.


On Dec. 1, 2008, more than 200 High Line supporters gathered at the Eastern Rail Yards Public Forum in favor or preserving the High Line at the West Side Rail Yards. Video courtesy of Friends of the High Line.