‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…

…that I love New York so’.  There’s a lot of old cobblers talked about ‘the urban’ (hope my PhD supervisors don’t read this).  The Urban Experience, the Urban Moment, City of Modernity, City of Post-Modernity, City of God, City of Man, City of Hope, City of Culture, Global Cities, Network Cities, Creative Cities, Faith in the Cities…Urban Shmurban!

All the same, ever since I first came here in 1986, New York City has held a special place in my heart.  It’s important to try and disentangle the towers and film-sets from the reality of a place that’s sprawling, diverse, home to millions and can as readily be defined by the suburbs of Levittown as the Empire State Building. I’ve been to all five boroughs, but it’s Manhattan that holds the stuff of the most recognisable images of our urban imaginations.  I like to look at the island”s skyline from the other side of the Hudson River, where you can’t hear the sounds and remember that this massive human imprint on the landscape has happened in little more than one hundred years.

It’s sometimes said that a characteristic of NYC is its ability to constantly reinvent itself.  I’m not sure what that means because it seems to suggest that the city has a life of its own, but this morning I had an experience that reaffirms my feeling that this is a special place.

The High Line is a disused elevated rail track that runs along 10th Avenue.  It’s origins date back to Manhattan’s industrial past and the docks and meatpacking warehouses of what is now the fashionable district of Chelsea, where Budd Schulberg set the novel of ‘On the Waterfront’ (see previous post).  Obsolescence led to a reclaiming by nature and a campaign for preservation to prevent demolition.  Today the old line has been converted to a new public park that gives the feeling of walking through the city and its history.  There are landscaped flower beds, herb gardens, wooden benches, art installations, viewing platforms, but the most interesting aspect for me is to have a unique vantage point on the huge variety of industrial, commercial and residential buildings that give Manhattan its flavour.  Pleasingly, as in the UK, public housing (there’s a lot in NYC) acts as a fire-wall against the relentless spread of corporate gentrification, even on the most valuable development land in the world.  Urban designers go on about ‘the public realm’ and sometimes this means little more than a commercialised piazza with a water feature.  The High Line is much more than that and shows how we can retain something of our urban past by creating something that makes city life better today.  I’ve made a shaky video and if I ever figure out how to download it, I’ll show you what I mean.

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