Jeremiah Moss and the Misplaced Gerund

by Annik on August 25, 2012

For years I’ve followed Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, the blog that takes “a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct,” with admiration and interest. I’ve linked to it from this blog (and still do) along with various other sites that cover New York from a unique perspective. As a lifelong New Yorker I share Moss’s grief and anger at the lost neighborhoods I grew up and have lived in. I too have experienced the sense of entitlement that drives his writing, a feeling that so long as I am here, in this patch of Manhattan, it ought to stay as I know and love it.

Moss’ jeremiad in the Times on Wednesday, “Disney World on the Hudson,” brought back memories of the long-lost mom & pops of my youth: the French bakery around the corner, the children’s clothing shop where I worked as delivery girl through high school, the wonderful bookstore across the street. All are gone today, replaced with high-end fashion boutiques and chain stores. Instinctively I found myself agreeing with Moss’ sentiment, lurching into nostalgia. But his article, published under the pseudonym he regularly writes behind, missed several important points, and the more I thought about it the more troubled I became. And throughout the day, every five minutes or so, the article kept re-arriving in my inbox, sent by some friend or colleague with a subject line like “Harsh” or “Wow.”  One person wrote: “Where does this come from?”

In answer to the last question: I think Moss writes from a distinctly American perspective. Caught up in his own moment and place – this particular postage stamp in time, a few decades worth of history – he bemoans the loss and financial suffering of auto repair shops and other businesses that have long been his neighbors.  What’s troubling about this point of view is that it assumes that one period of time – the one that Jeremiah Moss is here to document – ought to be preserved in amber over every other.

One hundred years ago West Chelsea was home to lumberyards, iron & bronze foundries, breweries, railroad terminals, even a factory that made elevators. It was filled with shipbuilders, traders, blacksmiths, carpenters, riggers, haulers, oyster merchants, and more.  Such men once lived in the former tenement building on 25th Street, where floors that once held kitchens and bedrooms are now filled with Mercedes’ and Lexus’ being serviced by Marty’s Auto Repair. The architect and writer Kevin Bone describes the area during the 19th century as “a tidewater frontier town,” a world unto itself, which for many “was the only New York they knew.”

I wonder: when the auto repair shops were being built on this land in the 20th century, did anyone lament their passing? Even longer ago, much of the area Moss writes about in his op-ed and I write about regularly – the neighborhoods that the High Line park traverses – was part of the Hudson River. Today, I type in a former warehouse (once home to cigarette packers, later furniture makers) that sits on landfill. Who rues the day when the River’s tide washed against the walls of the General Theological Seminary and this place really and truly did feel like a small village where everyone knew (and perhaps even trusted) his neighbor?

It was ever thus. Since the beginning of time New Yorkers have lamented the change that defines our city. In 1856 a writer for Harper’s Monthly complained: “New York is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.”

This is the city we live in: a place of constant change, and the only thing that’s different today is the pace of that change. In 1856 they measured it in decades – as many as four. It hasn’t even been four years since the High Line opened. The city changes; it always has, it always will. I think Jeremiah Moss ought to drop the gerund in the title of his blog. New York isn’t vanishing; it’s already gone – gone for every previous generation, replaced again by — and for — a new one. That is the city we love, like it or not.

The second important thing Moss fails to consider is the intention of the people who built the High Line, the park he considers such a scourge. From the very beginning, the founders of Friends of the High Line, the group that saved the viaduct and oversaw its transformation, dedicated itself to creating a place that would pay homage to the neighborhood and its history. In an interview with a young Graduate Fellow in the Master’s degree program at Longwood Gardens, co-founder Robert Hammond recounted his first visit to the Promenade Plantée in Paris, the park that became a model and inspiration for the High Line.  “I felt that it seemed more like a typical French park, and less like the historic railway beneath it,” he said.  “I thought it would be a missed opportunity if we saved the High Line and then put a standard park up there.”  In her thesis, “Wild Abandon and a New Frontier: Converting Vacant Railways into Urban Greenways,” Ashby Leavell then observes how “Innovative design became a founding principle of Friends of the High Line.”

At every stage of the process the team that created the park attempted to preserve and present the history of this place. The tracks that the old New York Central freight trains ran on for 45 years were removed, tagged, and replaced in the park so visitors would better understand the story of the railroad. Signal lights, once used to guide engineers in their gigantic locomotives, were preserved. The original railings, designed in an Art Deco style by the railroad’s architect so they could be appreciated by pedestrians in the streets below, were preserved at great expense. The vision of meadow, grassland, wildflower field, and woodland that Joel Sternfeld captured in his early photographs of the abandoned railway became the driving force behind Piet Oudolf’s plant design. It may not be quite as wild or unscripted as we may have liked, but as a piece of adaptive reuse of 80-year old transportation infrastructure – asbestos and lead paint included – it’s surely as good as we could ever have hoped to get.

And then, once the High Line opened, the Friends created a diverse calendar of events aimed at people of all ages. They devised hundreds of programs geared to local history, architecture, gay culture, dance, film, art, horticulture, star-gazing, science and more. At every step this group has worked to engage with its neighbors and community. In every conceivable way – down to the type of machine the gardening staff uses to mow the lawn beneath my window (it’s electric, and therefore very quiet) – they have attempted to be a good neighbor and a responsible steward of the viaduct/park they now maintain.

No one could have predicted the runaway success the High Line would become, and while it’s now fashionable to blame it for the hellacious pace of new development and the hoards of tourists who flock to our neighborhood every day, the truth is that this area was turning well before the High Line opened. Waves of gallery owners and artists began to flee here in the 1990s from SoHo, another classic, once-wonderful New York neighborhood that has been re-written and utterly reshaped by commercialism and tourism.  We will never know what sort of construction might have sprouted on the land that sits underneath the High Line if the trestle had been torn down, or what this neighborhood would have become if commercial air rights hadn’t been transferred to developers in exchange for the right to create a public greenway in its place. But this much is indisputably true: the entire area was in the process of transforming before Joshua David and Robert Hammond met by chance at a community board meeting and decided to try to save the High Line.

So in reply to Jeremiah Moss I would say this. In a constantly changing city, with soul-destroying development running rampant, we might look at this project another way: how lucky we are that the team that restored the High Line did so with such sensitivity, innovation, and authenticity. Other neighborhoods will not be so lucky.

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