Over the years, there have been other efforts to reimagine the High Line as a public space—as early as 1981, the architect Steven Holl proposed a project preserving the railbed, which he praised as “a suspended green valley in the Manhattan Alps”—but these were all lost in legal wrangling or dismissed as the idle noodlings of urban fantasists. Where Hammond and David have been successful, though, is in assembling a glamorous coalition of tastemakers, the right people at the right time, and convincing them that a neighborhood green space could be a win-win for everyone involved. From the beginning, they presented the High Line as a kind of industrial-chic anchor, a sculpture in the sky, in a blossoming arts district. Their save–the–High Line effort, which at first glance seemed impossible, now, in hindsight, seems inevitable, given how the High Line can appeal both to people’s rediscovered nostalgia for the city’s iron-age past and to that tingling, money-flushed excitement for tomorrow, in which every inch of Manhattan will be reclaimed and converted into an impeccably designed playground.
Together, the pair is unfailingly gracious and quick to deflect praise. They refuse to even really acknowledge what is essentially their victory lap. They share a bemused ambivalence toward all the profiteers now benefiting from the High Line’s prestige. Early on, they looked into trademarking the name “High Line,” but found they couldn’t, any more than you could trademark “Central Park.” Besides, they say, eight years ago, an overabundance of enthusiasm for the idea of the High Line was the least of their problems. David recalls an early City Council meeting they attended, along with socialite Amanda Burden, where their pie-eyed plan was so roundly ridiculed that, he says, “You really did feel like you were getting pissed on.” Then Burden rose to speak. “She rallied the most incredible response about how great it is that there are still dreamers in New York,” says David.
“Since when is dreamers a dirty word?” says Hammond.
It’s easy to see how, with their combined strengths, they went from stuffing envelopes in an apartment in Chelsea in 1999 to attending a groundbreaking ceremony in 2006 at which every politician within a hundred-mile radius—Hillary, Schumer, Nadler, Bloomberg—crowded the podium, smiling for the photo op. Hammond, who’s 37, used to work as a marketing and Internet consultant, and he pairs an artist’s eye with a salesman’s vigor for cold-calling contacts. David, who’s 43, is a former freelance journalist with a specialty in urban design, which came in handy while writing the High Line literature and eloquently articulating the group’s goals. They also share a strong interest in aesthetics. When I call them one day at their office and ask what they’re up to, David says, “We’re arguing about fonts.”
As it happens, Hammond and David met by accident, when they sat next to each other at a community-board meeting about the High Line in 1999. Both of them had hoped to connect with whatever Save the High Line movement was already organizing, only to discover that no such movement existed. After the meeting, they started talking and decided to form a group themselves. “Of course,” says David, “we didn’t realize we were stepping into a fight that had been in the courts since the early eighties.”
See, the High Line was built in the thirties to service the warehouses along the West Side. It replaced a Tenth Avenue train track that ran down the middle of the street and, with distressing frequency, ran down pedestrians. (The street was nicknamed Death Avenue.) No sooner was the High Line built, however, than train traffic slowed to a trickle, thanks to a double whammy of the Depression and the popularity of truck transport. The last train ran on the High Line in 1980, at which point it was more or less abandoned: a typical shard of industrial blight, left to rust and grow wild with weeds.
Conrail, the railroad that owned the High Line, wanted it gone. A consortium of local property owners, led by one of the area’s largest interests, Edison Parking, a company run by Jerry Gottesman, wanted it gone. The city wanted it gone. And the only reason it isn’t gone is that, essentially, no one wanted to pay to take it down. And so the High Line languished, untouched and off-limits, while legal battles over its fate smoldered for the better part of twenty years.
Which brings us to 1999, when Hammond and David met and formed Friends of the High Line. From the beginning, they knew they needed to invest their cause with a certain intangible downtown sexiness, to excite potential donors about the possibilities for this long-neglected piece of industrial detritus. They enlisted Paula Sher, a partner at the graphics firm Pentagram, to design a logo and a look for their literature. Then Hammond started hounding every notable and/or powerful person he could think of: gallerists like Paula Cooper and Matthew Marks, architects like Richard Meier, and the well-connected like Amanda Burden, who had a seat on the City Planning Commission. These efforts, of course, pleased no one who’d been entangled in the long battle to topple the High Line, least of all Gottesman, who was eager to build a FedEx depot on his property at Tenth and 18th. By this point, Mayor Giuliani had thrown his support behind the drive to demolish the railway. To prevent that, Hammond and David decided to sue. They needed $60,000 in up-front legal fees, so the Friends of the High Line held its first fund-raiser, in December 2000, at the Lucas Schoorman gallery in Chelsea. They sent out fliers, one of which ended up in the hands of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, who actually showed up at the party. As David remembers it, a newspaper also covered the event—and framed it the next day as a celebrity push to stop FedEx.