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Robert Hammond

Vincent Scully & The High Line

ALAFARGE_DSC01343Earlier this week Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line, received the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize. Awarded by the National Building Museum in Washington, it was created to recognize extraordinary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design. The namesake of the award and its first recipient was an art history professor at Yale University. New Yorkers may remember Scully best for his comment about the atrocity that replaced the majestic, Beaux-Arts Penn Station that was torn down fifty years ago this month: “One entered the city like a God. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Paul Goldberger, in introducing the co-founders, spoke about the impossibility of the High Line, and “all the reasons why it couldn’t work.” I recently re-read David and Hammond’s High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the tick-tock of the entire reclamation and preservation story, and “impossible” is just the right word. The book is an unlikely page-turner, and I recommend it as a tonic for these very particular days when our government is shut down and it’s hard to believe in anything good in the public realm. The existence of the High Line is a miracle, pure and simple, and it shows that innovative, creative, beautiful — and impossible — things can be done in our communities.

There are dozens of people who helped make the High Line the place that it is: early supporters, both in and out of government, who gave invaluable advice and support to the fledgling Friends of the High Line; landscape architect James Corner and his team; architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf; and a staff of incomparably talented and dedicated staff, both in the garden and the back office.  David and Hammond are like dual conductors of a symphony orchestra: not the men who make the music but the ones who enable it.  It’s worth watching their speech online — click here for the video on YouTube — because it not only recaps the whole story but it also conveys the energy and optimism that have driven the entire project from its earliest days. It’ll put you in a good mood, I promise.

David closes his comments by quoting the second winner of the Vincent Scully Prize, the great Jane Jacobs, whose love of neighborhood and city were inspirations to both men. But along this urban greenway that did so much to preserve a sense of wildness in the center of our thriving, growing, city, I hear Scully’s voice resonating. In the 1960s, he testified in hearings to protest Con Edison’s plan to build a massive power plant at Storm King on the Hudson River, some 60 miles north of Gansevoort Street, “at the very threshold of New York.” The victory to preserve Storm King marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement; it was the first miracle story in New York State, and every activist since has carried a bit of the mountain in his soul. Here’s what Scully said, some 50 years before the opening of the High Line:

“Storm King…is a mountain which should be left alone. It rises like a brown bear out of the river, a dome of living granite, swelling with animal power. It is not picturesque in the softer sense of the word, but awesome, a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth. It makes the character of wild nature physically visible in monumental form. As such it strongly reminds me of some of the natural formations which mark sacred sites in Greece and signal the presence of the Gods; it preserves and embodies the most savage and untrammeled characteristics of the wild at the very threshold of New York. It can still make the city dweller emotionally aware of what he most needs to know: that nature still exists, with its own laws, rhythms, and powers, separate from human desires.”

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Jeremiah Moss and the Misplaced Gerund

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?” [click to continue…]

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Nine Reasons to Read HIGH LINE

There are as many reasons to admire this book as there are entries to the High Line. So I’ll give you nine.

1. It’s inspirational: a true David and Goliath story, set in post 9/11 New York City, featuring two guys who admit quite charmingly in these pages that they had no idea what they were doing. And they won.

2. It’s spot-on, Zeitgeist-wise: if you’re even remotely interested in the movement of urban landscape design that is sweeping major cities around the world, David & Hammond have just given you the playbook. This book tells the full story of how these two young men, with lots of help from a wide variety of people and over a ten year period, navigated the neighborhood, city, state, corporate, and Federal politics to create this park.

3. It has that magical element that non-fiction readers love: voice. These two guys, in alternating paragraphs, each come across as distinct personalities and as they tell their story we come to know them as individuals. There are other key characters who come alive, including Gifford Miller and the extraordinary Amanda Burden, a woman who has done something I will always be grateful for: she has made New York a better city.

4.  If you love New York…: this a book that will help you understand how and why it works as well as it does under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg.

5. It’s unsparingly honest. Serious readers know when they’re being jollied along, and these guys give us everything, warts and all: their disagreements, crises of faith and plenty of unpretty moments, like a hangover that could have derailed an important meeting.

6. Marvelous, excruciating detail. Example: Hammond provides the color swatch for the Sherwin-Williams paint color of the High Line’s railings: SW6994. It’s called “Greenblack,” and you too can use it in your own kitchen, just as he did.

7. The photos are gorgeous.

8. It’s a cautionary tale: on every page you marvel that the thing actually got built, that these men didn’t get derailed.

9. The High Line, the glorious “park in the sky.” What’s not to love? Here’s a book that celebrates both the creation — in all its gritty, gnarly detail — and the end result: a park that always inspires, always leaves room for dreaming.

I’ve been writing about the High Line for three and a half years on this blog and I was surprised that I ended up learning something on just about every page of this book. It’s a great story.

Handy Purchasing Links:

Buy HIGH LINE from Posman’s

Buy HIGH LINE from Amazon

Buy HIGH LINE from Powell’s

Buy HIGH LINE from 192 Books

Buy HIGH LINE from BN.com

Buy HIGH LINE from your favorite Indie retailer

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