Hammond on the High Line

Photo: Liz Ligon, courtesy of Friends of the High Line
His foresight and imagination transformed a forsaken railroad into a pioneering public urban space

When Robert Hammond started Friends of the High Line with Joshua David in 1999, the group’s plan to fashion an elevated public greenway on the abandoned West Side rail tracks was regarded by many as a pipe dream.

Their vision for the derelict railway, which at the time was overgrown with vegetation and targeted for demolition, was practically ridiculed in some quarters.

“There are significant financial, maintenance, operation and liability issues,” Joseph B. Rose, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Planning Commission chair, said in The New York Times, adding, “to the extent that the romantic vision is a stalking horse to preclude this area of town from continuing to evolve, that’s problematic.”

Nineteen years later, with the High Line the centerpiece of a West Side hub for art, architecture, food and tourism, the notion it could have been an obstacle to the neighborhood’s evolution is all but inconceivable.

The High Line’s success as a park, gathering place, performance venue, arts center and all-purpose transformative project is so well documented that it’s become easy to take for granted as an inexorable part of the Manhattan cityscape — it welcomes 7 million people each year, as many as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But Hammond isn’t focused on past accomplishments — as the Friends’ executive director, he’s charting the course for the High Line’s future.

“In a lot of ways we’re like a teenager,” Hammond said from his Gansevoort Street office, which overlooks the mile-and-a-half long park’s southernmost stretch. “We look fully grown, but it’s unclear what’s going to happen next.”

The park is almost completely built — a spur near 30th Street is scheduled to open next year — and, Hammond said, “the opportunity we have going forward is to really figure out: what is the cultural institution for the 21st century?”

It’s clear, Hammond thinks, that it will look something like the High Line. Free, open to the public and offering a wide range of amenities and opportunities for engagement. “People no longer just want to go to big boxes for their art, for their theater, for their music, for their food,” he said. “They want to have multiple experiences at the same time.”

The High Line fulfills all of these roles and more. “New Yorkers are in charge of how they want to experience it,” Hammond said.

Among the challenges Hammond faces is dealing with what he calls the “interesting problem of over-success.”

“Just because something is free and open to the public doesn’t mean that everyone feels welcome,” he said. Programming designed by and for New Yorkers, including job and internship programs for local youth, has helped make the High Line’s visitorship as diverse as the neighborhood it runs through.

As the High Line’s success helped spur a wider urban movement to repurpose outdated infrastructure as public space, the Friends created the High Line Network to share knowledge from peer projects around the world.

“How do you make sure these public spaces benefit everyone?” Hammond said of the network’s mission. “We’re proof of concept, and we’re learning from each other rather than us teaching them how to do it.”

“We were in the right place at the right time, but one of the things that was really helpful is actually Josh and I didn’t have any experience in this,” Hammond said. “Our talent was for listening to smart people.”

“These crazy dreams can come true,” he said.