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.

Homelessness in the Welfare State

During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.

Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.

Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.

Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018