It’s hard not to fall in love with the High Line. Anyone lucky enough to have glimpsed the abandoned West Side railway from above–or better yet, walked its tracks–is quickly seduced by the accidental elegance of its rusted railings, tangled overgrowth and expansive views. The fact that it’s off limits to the general public makes it even more alluring, like a nightclub with a velvet rope.
Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit group that saved the elevated rail from demolition, is similarly elite, studded with boldface names like Edward Norton, Deborah Harry, Glenn Close and Diane von Furstenberg. With their help, the High Line has generated countless newspaper articles and over $1 million in private donations.
Though it’s only 1.5 miles long and barely wide enough for a soccer game, an open call for re-use ideas drew 720 proposals from around the world, including tongue-in-cheek plans to turn it into a lap pool or a roller coaster. In October, four hundred city residents sat in roundtable conversations with local architects, sharing their own dreams for the precious park.
The High Line has also become a cause du jour for local politicos, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. Congress recently appropriated $500,000 to help make it happen. City Council speaker Gifford Miller, who reportedly has a photo of the High Line hanging in his home, pledged a whopping $15.75 million from the city’s coffers.
But not everyone is high on the High Line. In neighborhoods like Bushwick, Sunset Park and the South Bronx, activists say their own efforts to create new parks rarely inspire swanky fundraisers or multimillion-dollar promises from City Hall. “I would celebrate any community getting more green space,” says Anthony Winn, director for environmental justice at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a Bronx group. “But when do they stop and look at who needs it most?”
The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) has spent the past decade doing just that sort of research. In 2000, the group released a pivotal report revealing that the city hadn’t gotten its fair share of state dollars set aside for open space. Now the Regional Advisory Committee, which helps set priorities for the state’s Open Space Conservation Plan, is preparing to reconvene for the first time in three years. And NYCEJA is tackling the equity issue yet again.
“There’s no monitoring mechanism and no standards” to ensure fairness, complains Hugh Hogan, formerly of NYCEJA and now director of the North Star Fund, a progressive foundation. For example, he points out, Hudson River Park, which runs from the Battery to 59th Street, will cost an estimated $400 million to complete; a new plan to create or renovate 13 parks in lower Manhattan will cost $25 million; and then there’s the High Line. “There’s a certain focus on communities that tend to be white and tend to be wealthier and connected to the halls of power.”
Before he left NYCEJA, Hogan helped map the distribution of green space correlated with factors such as race, income and asthma rates. Though the report is not yet completed, its preliminary findings are striking: In the 20 highest-income community board districts, there are more than five acres of open space for every thousand people. In the 20 lowest-income districts, the same number of people have barely 1.5 acres.
With few exceptions, the areas with the least open space (including Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and High Bridge and Mott Haven in the Bronx) also have the highest proportion of people of color. More than half of New York’s children live in neighborhoods of color, but they only have immediate access (within their community board districts) to 27 percent of the city’s open space.
While any good High Liner is quick to point out that Chelsea is also relatively low on open space, activists say its generous average household income ($50,580 per year) is an argument against special treatment. In more affluent districts, “residents are more likely to have access to other homes [in greener areas] or cars to leave the city,” says Irene Shen, the NYCEJA’s Open Space Equity campaign director.
Residents of Bushwick, where the average household income is $22,100, are far less likely to have a weekend-getaway option. That’s one reason Make the Road by Walking, a local nonprofit, wants to turn abandoned lots into mini parks. The group succeeded in getting the city to take over one lot at Myrtle and Grove, and sell it to them, but the project has languished awaiting $50,000 promised by the state to complete its two playground areas. “It’s been really hard to get help from the city,” says Manuel Castro, Make the Road’s environmental justice project organizer. “It’s fenced; there’s a gazebo,” he says. As for the all-important greenery, however, “there was some grass, but it died.”
The same problems have plagued UPROSE, a Sunset park group whose teen members have worked to bring more open space to their industrial neighborhood. The Port Authority expressed interest in creating a new waterfront park, but pulled out after 9/11, says director Elizabeth Yeampierre. The state pledged $75,000 to help plan a new greenway project, but the money has yet to materialize.
Hogan points out one reason the High Line is on the fast track while Sunset Park is, well, parked, has to do with the neighborhoods’ different capabilities when it comes to raising private funds. “We’ve moved to this public/private paradigm,” Hogan says. “It’s a pay-to-play way of providing park services, and it’s not serving the needs of communities of color.”
Despite these struggles, there are also signs of success for the environmental justice movement. Two new parks are underway in the Brxon, and after years of wrestling over the fate of the Sheridan Expressway in Hunts Point, the state Department of Transportation is finally considering the community’s plan to tear it down and create open space instead.
Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, the nonprofit that helped steer the campaign, considers this a pivotal time. If low-income communities become more livable, she says, they can attract economic development and that will bring jobs. “We’re trying to instill in the public consciousness that the climate in these neighborhoods can and will change,” she says. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic.”
Ironically, if Carter’s vision pans out, residents could have another problem on their hands: gentrification. “Environmental justice communities are acutely aware that they need more open space and also aware that the only thing that maintains affordable housing is the despicable quality of life,” explains Joan Byron, architectural director for the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED).
The solution, she says, is for local residents to stay heavily involved in land use planning, and for the city to employ new anti-displacement tools, such as the creation of land trusts. In January, Byron will help launch PICCED’s Environment and Equity initiative to harness the efforts of community groups already pushing the city toward environmental reform.
As for the High Line, Byron just hopes the energy it generates will spill into other open-space efforts. “It raises the bar in terms of quality and imaginativeness. It gets people’s juices flowing,” she says. “If it’s a good idea [to convert the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side], why isn’t it a good idea to convert an underused highway in the Bronx? We’re not any wackier than those people in Chelsea.”