The Gentrification of West Chelsea A History of the High Line and How it Changed a City

A Brief History of Gentrification and New York City

First described by British sociologist Ruth Glass in the 1960s, gentrification was a term used to express the transition of working-class neighborhoods into a home for upper-middle-class residents.[1] It is a transition, that is rarely seamless, from “poor” to affluent which often coincides with a change from minority-based immigrant communities to affluent white communities. Gentrification is a word that often carries a negative connotation often blamed for a host of problems: homelessness, dislocation, and increasing poverty. It is a systemic process of rehabilitation of the city at the expense of minority communities and poor communities.

The tumultuous history of gentrification in New York City dates back to the 1970s and the election of Ed Koch as the mayoral head of the city. Ed Koch was responsible for what many deemed to be a new spatial order of New York City. He actively promoted gentrification and eased the transition into this city’s notorious privatization of wealth. Spurred on by a plethora of tax incentives proposed to the wealthy to encourage the building of office buildings and extravagant housing, gentrification rapidly spread. Many of Koch’s plans were implemented in an effort to revitalize a city that was deemed as dilapidated. This city was in disarray and littered with hubs of crime and indecency. West Chelsea at that time housed many middle-class working families and recent immigrants. It held the reputation of being dangerous and unpleasant, a stark contrast of the packed and affluent West Chelsea of today. This transition was, in large, brought about by the High Line. While the area was on its way to being gentrified, the High Line acted as a catalyst effectively speeding up the process.

What is the High Line?

The High Line Is the 1.5-mile-long elevated linear park built on an abandoned railroad. It drew aspects of architecture, urban design, colleges, and contemporary landscaping when it was first built in 2009. This park is home to naturalized plantings, cultural attractions, artwork, and even dance performances. It has been deemed New York’s up-and-coming tourist destination. Paintings have been hung there, dances have been performed, music has been played. As part of the West Side Improvement project, this elevated railway was originally build in West Chelsea as a way to efficiently transport goods to the meatpacking district in an effort to reduce traffic and railway accidents on the ground. This once historic structure that served as an architectural part of Manhattan, soon outlived its use and was destined for demolition. And so, the Friends of the High Line was created in at the turn of the millennia, and were supported by residents of the neighborhood who wanted preserve the piece of land and reuse it.

The once abandoned railway.

In the Beginning…

The High Line began as an idea between two friends and residents of West Chelsea. The nonprofit organization Friends of the High Line was formed in 1999 by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the Chelsea neighborhood in the center of the abandoned railway. David and Hammond vehemently advocated for the preserving of that specific section of West Chelsea and reusing it as a as an open public space. The pair drew inspiration from the Promenade Plantée of Paris, an elevated green park in France that is known for its renowned success and fame as a beloved landmark. David and Hammond were faced with both great support and unwavering opposition. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg commissioned millions of private dollars for green space, so much that many feared whether or not this new park can be sustained. An advocate supporter, Bloomberg helped to raise over $150 million to begin construction. Rudy Giuliani was not a fan, and in his second term the project was threatened with demolition.

The Funds and The Process

This expensive initiative was heavily influenced by Neoliberal views that have recently resurfaced. Neoliberalism is the resurgence of the 19th century ideals of laissez-faire, privatization of wealth, deregulation of corporations and a shift away from the Keynesian economics that were prevalent in the 20th century. Neoliberalism was a mantra of many a New York Mayor, including Koch and Bloomberg.

The construction of this massive structure was staggered, built in three consecutive parts. The first of the High Line’s three half-mile sections opened in 2009, the second section in 2011, and the third in 2012. According to Mayor Bloomberg’s press release, the first two sections of the park cost about $152 million, of which the city of New York contributed $112.2 million, the federal government $20 million and New York State $400,000. Construction of the third and final section began in 2012 and cost about $90 million, of which the city again provided funding of $10 million. The 2013 city analysis concluded that the cumulative economic benefit of the High Line was nearly a billion dollars, proving that despite expensive production costs, the project was profitable[2].

The Other Side of the Tracks

There is a dark side to building such a massive park. With the addition of the High Line, came a burst of real estate development in the neighborhoods that lay along the track, and a skyrocketing of real estate values and overall cost of living. This has not only gentrified the neighborhood, but has also has left many without affordable housing, and some without homes at all. Even well-established businesses, with deep cultural roots, have closed down due to rent increases, and loss of neighborhood customers in a sort of forced exodus. Small family owned businesses, such as grocery stores and laundromats, were quickly replaced by fashion boutiques and exotic restaurants that catered to the tastes of the new residents. This has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the minority communities living there. Some have even said that the High Line has “failed” the community because it has not fulfilled its purpose of serving the surrounding neighborhood, a major part of the project’s mission. But is the creation the upscale Chelsea that we know today, a hub of tourism, arts, and this monumental structure, justified by the detrimental effects of gentrification and do these ends justify the means?

How the High Line looks today.

[1] Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.  See esp. chap. 17 “A New Spatial Order: Gentrification, the Parks, & Times Square”

[2] Loughran, Kevin. “Parks for Profit: The High Line, Growth Machines, and the Uneven, Development of Urban Public Spaces.” City & Community, vol. 13, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp.55–56., doi:10.1111/cico.12050.