The lush green vines billow in the city breeze, muffled by the quiet roar of stamping feet and tourists’ conversations. The neat slices of sidewalk meld with the garden beds, tracing a line to the half-finished skyscrapers. The elevated walkway peers over the manicured streets, with glitzy shops and storefronts lighting up the avenue.
Twenty years ago, this place was sketchy during the day, and extremely dangerous at night. This is New York City’s Meatpacking District. This is the High Line.
In 1934, a railway was built on New York’s West Side to bring in meat to the Meatpacking District from out of town. To avoid human collision fatalities, it was built over the tops of buildings as a raised track instead of along the street, and thus called the High Line. In the next decades, the High Line was heavily used to supply this booming, industrial region of the city. Meanwhile, trucking became more popular than train transport, and meat became more processed and pre-packaged. Before long, the railway became obsolete. The last train ran on the High Line in 1980.
The question, then, was what to do with the railway. Court battles ensued over whether to demolish it or not, and it lay untouched for nearly twenty years. On the railway itself, nature took over. Grasses, weeds, and vines grew unfettered and blurred the railroad tracks. The neighborhood surrounding the High Line, the former Meatpacking District, took the transition hard and was a dirty, dangerous, and forgotten place as the meat industry started to move out. Gangs hung out on the old High Line and wrote graffiti on the sides of the buildings up there. Piles of trash littered the tracks. In 2001, Mayor Guiliani signed for the High Line’s demolition days before leaving office.
But the demolition was not to be – two years earlier, in 1999, two Chelsea residents had founded Friends of the High Line, a group that advocated for an alternative use and transformation of the old railway. They envisioned an urban park – a walkway in the sky – that would keep elements of the old railway while creating a space with a very different feel. In 2002, they raised enough money to start planning, and the first section opened in 2009. Now the entire park is open to the public, starting at the Whitney Museum and ending at 34th street.
Last weekend, I visited the High Line, and I was extremely impressed – they kept the structure of the elevated railway and many of the tracks in place, while adding a beautiful walkway and planting over 200 species of plants. The park is very innovative and modern, with areas to sit down, food carts selling snacks, and even a section where you can watch the cars pass on the road below. Skyscrapers of tomorrow’s design shoot up alongside the walkway, and you can see views of the Chelsea streets, the Empire State Building, and the Hudson River.
But at the same time, I couldn’t shake off an overwhelming feeling of unease.
The High Line is now a world-famous travel destination. On the day we were there, we could barely pick our way through the shuffling crowds. The High Line’s success has completely transformed the entire district, which is now filled with hip bars, trendy shops, and picturesque sidewalks, and is one of the most expensive places to live in New York. It is rapid gentrification at its finest, and the High Line is a huge factor in that transformation.
My question was, what about the people that used to live here? The meatpackers and their families? The ones that surely cannot afford to live any place close to the High Line, but whose grandparents helped build it?
Gentrification is a process that is rapidly taking over New York and cities around the globe. Low-income communities and communities of color are extraordinarily marginalized in their access to good neighborhoods, schools, public transportation, nutritious food, and natural spaces. It’s a product of our society’s desire to make cities safer, nicer, cleaner, “better”. But the nasty side effects are homogenization and forced migration. The places that were dirty and dangerous were also extremely diverse, rich in culture and different perspectives. Now, these same people are pushed further and further away as a new culture takes over these rapidly changing neighborhoods.
What if there was a way to make places safer without making them catalysts for injustice? What if there was a way to improve the lives of the people who live there, instead of forcing them out? What if there was a way to educate the tourists that visit these new and modern attractions about the important lives of the people who used to be there?
Instead of accepting these changes as an inevitable product of progress, it’s time we start asking ourselves these questions. And it’s time that we start thinking of a new way of building modern cities.
Because the High Line was beautiful – a glorious urban park, employing elements of sustainability, increasing access to and appreciation for nature, and showcasing works of art. The new buildings surrounding it were exciting, spacious, incredible. But the people that used to live in there when it was still the Meatpacking District didn’t go away. They had to go somewhere, and I’m guessing that most of them didn’t find apartments as nice as the ones that surround the High Line today.
As the world becomes more innovative, trendy, and modern, we cannot let it become safer, nicer, and better for some than it is for others. There is a way to move forward as a society without leaving certain groups behind, and to look towards the future without forgetting the past.