by Wade Graham on Jun 20, 2011
When the second section of the High Line Park opened this month in Manhattan, it marked roughly a century and a half since the opening of Central Park in 1857. There are obvious differences between the two: Covering 700 acres, Central Park is a landscape-scale facsimile of an ideal countryside, while the High Line is a mere ribbon — not even of land, but an abandoned stretch of elevated railroad bed. Yet their underlying similarities reveal the dynamics of property and money in New York City, which have changed little in 150 years. Simply put: Parks pay.
Like Central Park, the High Line has proved an instant hit. When the first section opened in 2009, it quickly filled with people happily strolling, enjoying its plantings, which were carefully curated to resemble the weeds that had blown onto the dilapidated freight tracks, and taking in the view of the New Jersey skyline across the Hudson.
Also like Central Park, the High Line is a testament to the power of rising Manhattan real estate values. In 1853, when the New York state legislature paid more than $5 million for land for the park (from which 1,600 or so poor homesteaders were forcibly evicted), it didn't do it out of pure civic spirit. Even in the mid-19th century, New York City was in competition with new garden suburbs that beckoned well-to-do city dwellers with natural landscaping, open space, and cheap commuter steamer and train service into the city.
Legislators expected a return on their investment — and they got it. Central Park immediately became the fashionable place to be seen in one's carriage. Adjacent property values skyrocketed, as the wealthy abandoned lower Park and Fifth avenues and moved uptown. It was one of the most financially successful episodes of slum clearance in history.
This has long been the logic of urban parks. The blueprint was established in 1820 by Great Britain's Prince Regent (later crowned George IV), who hired the architect John Nash to subdivide one of his hunting parks near London into elegant terrace houses surrounding a picturesque park. Regent's Park earned the prince a mint, and it was followed by Holland Park, St. James's Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens, transforming London's West End from marshy pastureland into the world's most elegant address.
Ever since, a fine park has been the bellwether of residential fashion. The renovation of Central Park in the 1980s and '90s by the private Central Park Conservancy signaled the revival of Manhattan as a place the upper middle class and the truly rich could again be proud to call home, after the city's nadir of near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. It is tempting to dismiss costly park-making as mere gentrification. But the rejuvenated lawns and flower beds of Central Park are better understood as a tactic in the struggle between the central city and the suburbs for customers: taxpayers as well as tourists.
The High Line is the jeweled necklace in the spectacular makeover of a section of Manhattan that was once known mainly for transvestite hookers in stilettos navigating bloody sidewalks in front of meatpacking houses. Now, through the alchemy that turns industrial lead into postindustrial real estate gold, it is one of chicest urban scenes anywhere, packed with trendy galleries, restaurants, hotels, and condominium buildings designed by world-renowned architects. The High Line didn't cause the changes — Chelsea and the West Village had been gentrifying for decades — but it ratified them and announced their ascendancy to the world.
Meeting its cost — $152 million, or an impressive $30,000 per lineal foot — required $44 million from corporate and private sources, many owning property nearby, including $10 million from Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. Maintaining its intricate plantings and high-design fixtures will require more money, likely to be raised with a tax on area property owners. They will more than recoup their investment. A further rise in values is all but inevitable, with big-time developers already moving in.
And like Central Park, which was intended by its designers to be "a specimen of God's handiwork" in nature brought into the city to relieve the anxieties of urban life, the High Line is about recalling the nature that the city has obliterated. Instead of bucolic scenes of lawns and lakes, the High Line's studiously weedy plantings help 21st-century New Yorkers, many of them new colonists to the central city, see themselves as akin to the scrappy flora that had recolonized the rusting rail line. Like Central Park before it, the High Line is a triumph of America's urban culture and proof of the old saw of real estate: location, location, location.
Wade Graham is the author of "American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are" (2011). A garden designer and historian, he teaches urban and environmental policy at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.