Mixed Messages of Inclusion on New York City’s High Line

Walking along the High Line over the streets of Chelsea on a sunny day, it’s easy to see why the repurposed rail bridge has gained such fervent acclaim in design circles. The High Line is an innovative example of adaptive reuse, made possible by the organized efforts of Friends of the High Line. Despite its triumph as a design project and as a green space, how the park functions in its context points to flaws in its creation as well as flaws in the city itself.

Visitors gather on tiered benches at the High Line

Affordability

The creation of the High Line had an explosive effect on property values near the park. Real estate prices skyrocketed after the High Line’s construction, primarily within a couple of blocks of the park’s location. Josh Barbanel reported on this ‘halo effect’ in his 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal. This kind of boom is to be expected near an amenity like a new park, especially in such a dense city. Unfortunately, the majority of housing around the High Line is market-rate, leaving out anyone who can’t afford a luxury apartment. In one apartment building next to the park, a studio apartment starts renting at $3,215. An apartment in the Spears Building sold for $350,000 in 1997, $2.2 million in 2008, and $3.15 million in 2016.

Participation

The High Line’s design process did not effectively include the community because it did not take into consideration how the park could meet local residents’ needs. While there were participatory elements in the design process, the input residents were asked for was not oriented around their needs as a community. The executive director of Friends of the High Line, Richard Hammond, discussed the flawed process and the group’s new approach an interview with CityLab’s Laura Bliss for her 2017 piece on the High Line.

The flaws in the High Line and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood emerge from both a poor inclusionary process for the original community and the failure of New York City to protect and provide for low-income residents.

Inclusion

The High Line also operates on a contradictory logic of inclusion, at once advocating for an inclusive public space yet explicitly monitoring and restricting who should have access:

Informational signs encourage visitors that they are welcomed, but warn against giving money to panhandlers

The message of the first sign is essential to ensuring inclusive public space, and is admirably explicit during a time of increasing social and cultural division. All people should be able to freely access and benefit from public space as equal members of a community and a city. Why, then, should the needy be excluded? Why should poverty be criminalized even in spaces that tout philosophies of inclusion? The exclusion of the needy from the public realm can only lead to greater bias against and fear of those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, and prevents communities from the self-reflection necessary for positive change.

Andy Merrifield, quoting Marshall Berman, identifies public space as an environment in which “a whole society might begin to confront its collective repressions to call up the specters that haunt it and look them in the face.” One of the specters that residents may be called to face in unrestricted public space is the existence of those in need.

Merrifield asserts in his own words that “a democratic and ‘open-minded’ public space would ensure the shock of recognition” of the existence of poor people. Berman calls this confrontation a way to ‘grow up in public.’ Shared space calls on people to truly share their world and bear witness to its realities. Through this confrontation, communities can begin to critique and improve their social conditions. If the High Line is yet another tool in the city for policing the homeless and impoverished, attempting to erase them from the public eye and cementing their image as a threat, it can’t possibly serve its community and city as a truly public space.

Excluding impoverished people from public spaces denies those people the recognition they deserve as legitimate city residents, while also denying entire communities the responsibility and opportunity of self-reflection and improvement presented by confronting their own realities.

Work cited: Andrew Merrifield, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, 169–170. 2013.

This piece was originally written in Summer 2018.

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

A little over a year ago now, I was walking around the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon. It was my first time in Portugal, and I was overwhelmed with how gorgeous everything was. I admired the trams, sweet pastels against azulejo-tiled buildings, and the narrow medieval streets winding up and down hills with views of the Tagus River meeting the sea. I romanticized everything, like travelers often do, imagining that one day, maybe, I could move here.

Lisbon’s purported beauty was one of the main reasons we had decided to go at all, drawn in by the idea of a city not yet crowded with tourists, at least a small distance from the usual bucket list destinations like Paris and Rome. My first impression was of a city that was beautiful yet approachable, with a wealth of culture and history but still very much a people’s city. Turns out, I was mistaken, but Lisbon itself wasn’t to blame. During my walk that day in the Alfama, still soaking everything in, I came across a phrase spray painted on a wall: 

“Fuck AirBNB

We want to live here”

Despite how comfortable I had felt in Lisbon, local life was being affected directly by the thing I was benefitting from. The message was for people exactly like me. We had booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip, without having encountered critiques of the service before. Seeing that message, nestled among other graffiti, I thought again about the apartment we had rented. When we had checked in a few days earlier, it was clear that it was not the only apartment our host owned. I hadn’t encountered such a commercial AirBNB before, as my only other AirBNB experience had been staying in the other side of a young couple’s duplex in New Orleans. And, despite being an urban studies student, I hadn’t come across the many articles on the perils of AirBNB that I would read soon after.

So, I was staying in one of several investment properties in a desirable neighborhood in Lisbon. A place where, because of those kinds of investment properties, local people were no longer able to live. I found myself indisputably part of the problem. Is it the fault of people like me that apartments have gotten too expensive, that long-term rentals are disappearing from the market to instead be listed on AirBNB, rented week by week year-round? I was also staying in an AirBNB because it was a third, if not a quarter, of the cost of a hotel. It was a sweet apartment, convenient, and for a few days I got to pretend I really was living in this incredible new place.

I am certainly on the privileged side of the AirBNB debate, the one who gets to stay in a nice apartment while others confront limited housing options. I haven’t personally been priced out of a place I used to live. But, even if I stopped staying in AirBNBs altogether (I do avoid them, due to my own ethical dilemma), there are plenty more people like me, which is why AirBNB is so successful to begin with. 

A tram in the Alfama District of Lisbon

It’s my responsibility to understand the implications of my choice to stay, or not stay, in an AirBNB property, but as an individual I am not able to change the impact the company has had, as much as I try to improve my own actions. What does have the capacity to protect communities and housing markets from AirBNB is strong local policy committed to prioritizing affordable housing and livable neighborhoods. 

New Orleans, which is now at the forefront of the struggle with regulating AirBNB, has introduced several policies in the last couple of years with the aim of protecting the hospitality industry that is so central to the city’s economy while promoting and preserving affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.

Most recently, New Orleans City Council member Kristen Gisleson Palmer introduced a ban on ‘entire home’ short-term rentals, allowing hosts to rent extra space as long as they are also on the property. This prevents homes from serving exclusively as short-term rentals, bringing different neighbors to a neighborhood every week, and removing housing from a market that desperately needs it. New Orleans ranked in the top ten cities at risk of a housing crisis last year, and while AirBNB is not the sole cause of the city’s housing troubles, stronger regulations are certainly part of the solution.

New York City faces similar issues, with an already deeply strained housing market and a bustling tourist industry. New York has also been found to have a large quantity of vacant apartments that serve as investment properties, like the one I stayed at in Lisbon. Stronger regulation of short-term rentals and vacant apartments, for instance taxing those investment properties as described by Adele Peters in an article for Fast Company, is part of a toolkit cities need to adopt in order to maintain, or perhaps regain, affordability.

That being said, the profound importance of public policy should not excuse individuals from their responsibility to promote inclusivity in their cities and towns. Yes, it’s unlikely that as an individual I can make much of a dent in AirBNB’s actions as a company or the massive scale on which they operate. However, I can vote. I can advocate for better housing policy. I can act in solidarity with those struggling to remain in their homes or find a home at all. Piece by piece, and lot by lot, we can all contribute to creating more equitable and inclusive cities. We have a responsibility to push our cities to be better, not as investments but as homes and communities. 

Winter 2019