Above Manhattan’s bustle, a reshaped public space

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People enjoy mild temperatures along the The High Line park, an elevated section of converted New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line on Manhattan's West Side in New York City, December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX1YUIY

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GWEN IFILL: It’s now a must for visitors to New York City, taking a walk above far above the madding crowd in a new kind of urban park.

Jeffrey Brown took that walk with the man who helped create it.

JAMES CORNER, Founder, James Corner Field Operations: This is one of my favorite moments. This is where these tracks crisscross. It’s called a frog.

JEFFREY BROWN: Railroad tracks of old in a park that has helped changed contemporary thinking about cities and public spaces.

JAMES CORNER: We amplify found conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Recently, I visited New York’s phenomenally successful High Line Park with its designer, landscape architect James Corner.

JAMES CORNER: I think this is what a lot of people like. They see this. They have discovered a found object. There’s a sense of surprise, a sense of delight. It’s real and authentic. It’s not Disney.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it really is real.

JAMES CORNER: And people get a kick out of it, especially in the context of modern-day Manhattan.

JEFFREY BROWN: The original railway tracks, 30 feet above street level, were built in the 1930s. Trains carried meat, milk and other cargo, sometimes making deliveries direct to Manhattan companies.

After trains stopped running here — the last was in 1980 — the site wasted away, an eyesore that no one could figure out what to do with, until they did: Create a new kind of public park.

Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has attracted millions of visitors and plenty of attention from other cities eager to recreate its magic.

James Corner’s firm, James Corner Field Operations, worked on the High Line with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro and famed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf.

JAMES CORNER: It was a huge effort and a big leap of faith, because the High Line was really perceived by a lot of people to be a liability, derelict, abandoned, dangerous, dark, drugs, crime.

JEFFREY BROWN: So inviting.

JAMES CORNER: Nothing good, nothing good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

What do you think has been the key to its success?

JAMES CORNER: When you came onto the High Line, because the trains had stopped running and natural seeds had taken root, it was a beautifully surprising and delightful one-and-a-half-mile ribbon of green.

So you had this green carpet in silence, a sort of strange, haunting quality to it. We believed that if we were to simply leverage that, make it more of a garden than it was then, allow for the kind of voyeurism and the exhibitionism that occurs on an elevated structure when you can peek into openings and streets and buildings, that there would be something very charming about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: More of a garden. So, the High Line features an astonishing assortment of plantings that give a sense of nature thriving, even taking over in the midst of the city, and the voyeurism or exhibitionism of walking on a raised platform.

It’s all about the views across the city, and into buildings, and about watching and seeing your fellow human beings up close.

JAMES CORNER: It affects people’s psyche. It affects their imagination. It affects how they relate to other people. And it just charges up the positive energy about what it means to live in a city.

In a sense, they’re theatricalizing everyday life. You can promote a new kind of civic, public value that I think is very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Theatricalizing? Dramatizing?

JAMES CORNER: Dramatizing?

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it’s not just a beautiful space; it’s almost like a theater?

JAMES CORNER: Exactly.

And this is a bit of a balcony or a catwalk, if you will, where they can show off too. So, the interaction of people who want to be quiet and recessive and look from a hidden spot, vs. people who want to be sitting out front and center and be part of the show, there’s a theatricality to that.

MAN: It’s kind of cool.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of the theater on this day included a sculpture called The Sleepwalker by Tony Matelli.

JAMES CORNER: This is public art, and

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, irresistible.

JAMES CORNER: Irresistible. It’s kind of — he’s sleepwalking.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is he going to wink at us?

JAMES CORNER: He might do, if you stare at him long enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Corner grew up in Manchester, England. He’s lived and worked in the U.S. since the 1980s.

He and his firm are now in great demand, designing public spaces for cities around the country, Seattle’s Waterfront, San Francisco’s Presidio, a huge park in Memphis, and much more, including Cleveland’s brand-new Public Square, which served as a protest site during the recent Republican Convention.

JAMES CORNER: In the ’70s and ’80s, we spoke about a flight to the suburbs. People were leaving the city to live in more or less detached homes with gardens and greenery.

Those same people are now coming back to the city, and there’s now, in a sense, a flight to the city. People want the cosmopolitanism, the diversity, the exposure, the amenities that a city provides. They want restaurants and cafes and theaters and museums, and parks and public spaces.

JEFFREY BROWN: If anything, the High Line may be a victim of its own success. It can be clogged with people, and property values around it have skyrocketed, pushing all but the rich, individuals and companies, further away.

Still, James Corner sees a huge benefit in creating spaces for people of all walks of life to gather.

JAMES CORNER: We’re social animals, and we want to have a place to live, and we want to have a place to work, but we also want to have a place to participate with other people.

And I believe it is now, perhaps more than ever, more fundamental to what it means to be a democracy to be able to foster greater understanding, greater tolerance, understand what it means to live in diverse communities, and to embrace that as something enriching and positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: The High Line itself continues to expand, with construction of a so-called spur, a block-long offshoot, starting in 2017.

Thirty feet above the streets of Manhattan, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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