The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin’s life can thus be seen – and this is the first interpretation that springs to mind – as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the Industrial Age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry. This interpretation is, however, inadequate when one tries to make sense of the unease that grips us on seeing those pathetic Playmobil-type little figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense futurist city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart, then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation extending to infinity. That feeling of desolation, too, that takes hold of us as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.
Final paragraph of Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and The Territory, p. 269. First Vintage International Edition, November 2012. Trans. Gavin Bowd.
In ec[o]topia, I immerse myself in the many displacements that linger over and up through the wasted, devastated spaces of dead and dying dreams of progress. I imagine dwelling in the dumps littered with tiny technological shards of rare earth. Pressed and electrified, they belong to the waste pickers now, they are a livelihood. I don’t answer my obsolete cell phone if it still knows how to ring. In ec[o]topia, I seek the full ethical and political expression of an ontology of displaced desire. Everything which desires, displaces. And I ask: If this is true, how do we denounce displacement? How do we place desire? We rethink that most humble form of life: The plant. The plant is desire mobile, globalized, and nomadic, not for the sake of mobility, globalization, or nomadism, but as a mode of struggle attached to spaces of mourning, drawn to melancholy natures, to what will have been. This is desire which listens closely for the life that overcomes death on terms dictated by that to which dreams abandon themselves. It makes an atmosphere from air, it breathes itself into existence from the vast undoing of its ancestors. It does not forget because it does not remember.
If the ruin is a metaphor for hope, as María Zambrano tells us, it is so because it is left to other devices, to be determined by the underdetermined, that first wave of weeds waiting there, always, our botanical kismet. The ruin is precisely that which is unimproved by the impossible dream of invulnerability, of an ever-better life. The weed does not know a better life, only this life and this place, where it waits for decades before emerging. The ruin calls it forth to carpet over the false dream of progress, that dream which concentrates vulnerability elsewhere at uncalculable cost, the dream that creates destruction as a nihilistic mode of renewing demands for improvement. This is not something of which we dream. If there is no possibility of stepping outside this dream, no freedom from its incessant demand to try again later, when the market is better, when the weather makes sense, when the server is back online, then I affirm my desire to be as far away as possible. To be a seed, waiting not for my messiah to come, but for my displacer to move on; to not be underfoot anymore. I seek the freedom of emergence. And as I drift like the angel of queer history, out of the past, I call out the policies of renewal, redevelopment, and revitalization for what they are: Death unaccounted for, murder by other means. I say, with anyone whose displacement is mandated, that this is not new, this is not developed, this is not vital. It’s the same old story, dressed for the promised apocalypse. We don’t need it, we’re already living it. So, move on, and let us grow in our own way.
From Jonathan Mann’s Song-a-Day project.
2012 may mark the year that New York City’s High Line became too big to fail. This is exactly why it must. Let’s start with the basics. Friends of the High Line (FoHL), which is the first organization in the New York to license a public park from the city, listed 84 people on its staff in 2010 to manage and operate a 6.7 acre park (12.5 staff per acre). Compared to the Friends Hudson River Park and the Hudson River Park Trust combined (17 staff for 550 acres = .03 staff per acre), the Central Park Conservancy (367 staff for 843 acres = .4 staff per acre), or the Prospect Park Alliance (263 staff for 585 acres = .44 staff per acre), this is the most highly staffed particular park per acre in the City. [Sources: 2010 Federal 990 filings for individual organizations, except HRPT, for which I used the website to count the staff.] Then there’s the park’s capital requirements for the construction of the third and final section of the High Line: $90 million dollars. This brings the total cost of construction for the park close to $250 million dollars, slightly less than the estimated $266 million (inflation adjusted) that it cost to build Central Park in the 1850s. An estimated 3.7 million visitors in the past year. But I’m already getting too mired in the gargantuan numbers, numbers that will surely continue to pile up before the park is completed. What 2012 really represents for the High Line is the year of gentrification.
Now, nobody could argue that 2012 is the first year that the überpark has been entangled with the ongoing third-wave gentrification of Chelsea, the West Village, and the Meatpacking District. These neighborhoods each have complex and specific histories of first- and second-wave gentrification (look into Neil Smith if you’re unsure about this periodization) into which the Friends of the High Line stepped when they began their effort to save the rail line in 1999. Increasingly incredulous is the Friend’s narrative of grassroots advocacy, considering that the not-for-profit development juggernaut has not only accelerated, consolidated, aspirationally depoliticized, and deeply institutionalized the gentrification of these neighborhoods, it has also set a global precedent for how-to-gentrify the innumerable disabused transportation lines that span many miles of urban space. Who would have thought that a copycat organization advocating for an as-yet unproven light filtering technology to support photosynthesis in an underground park below Delancey Street – a.k.a. the Low Line – would have ever been taken seriously in prevanchist New York? 2012: the year gentrification went underground. These new modes of ecological, state-supported gentrification need closer analysis, and, as the global standard-bearer of this experiment, the High Line is ground zero.
The biggest stories for the High Line in 2012 fall into two categories: development and media criticism. From a development perspective, the last year witnessed two landmark events. The groundbreaking of the new Whitney Museum, a $720 million, 200,000 square foot, Renzo Piano building at the foot of the park on Gansevoort Street. If the High Line’s feet are in the art world, its head is undoubtedly ballooning into the vast empty spaces of big league real estate development. Here, on the account of its convergence with the Hudson Yards development project, or what I like to call ‘the new midtown‘ (the amount of office space under development is roughly twice the amount in all of downtown Seattle) the High Line’s pro-development stance takes on a new order of magnitude.
Section three of the park had an uncertain future from the very earliest phases of the redevelopment process. When CSX initially donated the disabused railway to the City of New York, section three was retained by the private owner on account of its location in the heart of the largest development parcel to come to market in New York in recent decades. In July 2012, after much wrangling, the city announced that it had acquired the final section from CSX as part of a deal with the Hudson Yards developer, Related Companies, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which owns the Hudson Yards site. From here, renderings of the last phase of the High Line development were presented in another of the long line of community input sessions, and, it seemed, the best days of überpark lay further down the tracks.†
Considering these spectacular, iconic, distracting convergences, it is fitting that this is the first year in which the High Line has had to contend with a series of nascent criticisms in both the popular and ‘indie’ press, to say nothing of earlier scholarly criticisms (I’m thinking here of the work done by the Parallel Lines collective and of Jenny Foster’s  piece). At least in the popular media, all of this might be said to have begun with Witold Rybczynski’s 2011 op-ed “Bringing the High Line Back to Earth,” in which the urban planner concludes that:
American cities are always looking for quick fixes to revive their moribund downtowns. Sadly, the dismal record of failed urban design strategies is long: downtown shopping malls, pedestrianized streets, underground passages, skyways, monorails, festival marketplaces, downtown stadiums — and that most elusive fix of all, iconic cultural buildings. It appears likely that we will soon be adding elevated parks to the list.
Rybczynski’s op-ed seemed but a fly on the fresh pile of enthusiasm expressed for the opening of the park’s second phase and its purported $2 billion in affiliated real estate development; he can be read as a curmudgeonly planner unwilling to jump on the glittering green growth wagon. Indeed, it seems he was as much responding to another trend as he was predicting the High Line’s efflorescence in an ever-expanding list of copies: Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct, London’s Fungus Tunnel (my favorite name), Atlanta’s Beltline (in which HR&A Advisors, the High Line’s power consultant – its chairman, John Aslchuler, is the current President of the board of directors of FoHL – is also involved), Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, and Toronto’s West Toronto Rail Path, to name a select few. But this simultaneous Bilbao-esque global diffusion (As Roger Keil suggested in a November 2012 tweet responding to this article on a Sydney version) and northward march of the überpark in 2012 has been greeted with another kind of response: finally naming the park’s unique brand of gentrification.
There are a number of popular media pieces that I will address shortly, but I want first to lay down the arc of my own thinking and writing on the High Line as form of ecological gentrification. In my initial research on the High Line, I concluded that “the futility of trying to repackage this socio-ecological opportunity as an economic engine may yet be revealed if all that the project has sought to grow erases that which was already flourishing” (p. 45; See the whole paper here). I was writing before the third and final section had been secured with the self-consciously naïve hope that a politics of ecological resistance could attach to the last stretch of the structure. More recently, I have shifted my attention to developing a conceptual vocabulary for understanding the particular brand of urban ecological and sexual politics expressed in the High Line. This is what I term an ec[o]topian reading of the park’s gentrifying politics. This neologism is my speculative attempt to name a concept which is sensitive to the politics of displacement, the more-than-human actors involved, and the queerness of it all. Something ec-topic denotes a growth out of place; an anomaly of situation or relation. This partially defines the High Line’s weediness; several of its early botanical colonizers arrived with long histories of being ‘out of place’. It also partially defines the High Line’s seediness, that is, the strangeness of an elevated structure in the middle of a dense city where, among a host of other illicit and unsanctioned activities, queers could go for sex.†† But, perhaps more generally, it accounts for the literal quality of a situation which deviated from a variety of norms governing the appropriate placement and distribution of activities and the bodies which undertake them in a city. Nevertheless, the increasing commonality of spaces similar to the High Line, a reality invited by the twilight of their usefulness for new arrangements of capitalism, is what helped the FoHL effort become a model for urban-ecological ‘revitalization.’
I intervene with an ‘o’ to suggest that the eruption, capture, and management of wild urban naturecultures, to use Donna Haraway’s wonderfully conflated term, has much to do with the politics and anxieties of displacement as the effect of gentrification. Those ‘disturbed’ post-industrial spaces which so often are the next gentrified neighborhood are characterized by a quality of weediness and seediness; something and someone appears to be out of place. The vitality of claims to abandoned spaces reflects their relative openness to being repurposed for new needs and desires emerging in the post-industrial city. The empirical displacements both of the High Line’s queer ecology and the residents and businesses of adjacent neighborhoods calls for a concept which can attend to the relationship between these phenomena over a specific period of time, one which I typically delimit in terms of abandonment. In short, ec[o]topia is an attempt to describe the anomalous relation of sexuality to nature in the midst of a real urbanization process. It is further a gesture toward linking political possibilities for human resistance to particular forms of displacement to the ontological conditions and material realities of existing urban-natures. Here, the ‘displacement’ of former uses and significations helps to create not only new imaginative possibilities, but also new or revived forms of material engagement with and in nature and the city alike, including sexual relations.
With this rather poetic concept, I argue that developers, planners, advocates, and politicians have perverted (and not in the good way) the perhaps singularly inspiring point about the High Line: it’s unplanned, de-developing, retrograde, abandoned, and indeed queer urban nature. I might simply be accused of lagging behind the actual politics (It’s New York City, after all, nothing lasts forever) in favor of a turbo-nostalgia literally rooted in a utopian pastoralism of weeds and sex. Certainly, Friend’s co-founders Josh David and Robert Hammond have been covering their tails on this claim for years. This happens from the opposite direction, however, when they are accused of complicity with the gentrifying forces. Such accusations seemed to have reached a fever pitch in 2012. First there was Michael Bourne’s piece in The Millions in which the author sketches the High Line as, “…the distressed skinny jeans of public parks, the gourmet taco truck of urban tourist attractions, and as such, [a representation of] the high-water mark of the hipster aesthetic, which venerates poverty and decay as signifiers of authenticity.” Bourne’s analysis locates the High Line’s success/legibility in the reversal of white flight i.e. the return of white, aspirationally bourgeois, and suburban-bred folk to the central city. Bourne concludes with a thesis that amounts to a lament for the aestheticization of urban politics:
[T]he High Line, whatever else you can say about it, is a sincere and original response to a genuine social phenomenon. It does what any great work of visual art does, which is to take an inchoate emotional sense shared by a large group of people and make it concrete, visible in three dimensions. What you make of it is largely determined by what you think of its underlying subject, which in this case is gentrification. If you are part of the community pushed out by the new wealth gentrification inevitably brings, then no doubt the High Line’s precious attention to symbols of decay and ruin — all those meticulously landscaped weeds — will seem calculated to piss you off. If, on the other hand, you are part of a gentrifying wave, as so much of young New York now is, then the High Line will seem to be singing from your hymnal, and you will revel in the distressed steel girders and exposed brick walls.
I give Bourne serious points for naming gentrification as the issue, but I think that his poorly divided, artificially coherent camps ‘for’ and ‘against’ gentrification – not to mention his unaddressed foundationalism – invents a non-existent duality and loses the complexity of the dynamic of gentrification. I mean, of course, that he too easily makes gentrification a phenomenon owned (unambiguously) by ‘the young,’ missing both important points of resistance in the very same neighborhood and opting out of a more highly differentiated reading of the racialized, classed, and gendered dynamics at work. I’m thinking here of the efforts of Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE!) who, with their LGBTQ youth of color focus and grassroots politics, have actively resisted gentrification, have continually named the racialized and gendered components that drive or accompany gentrification, and have pushed for spaces that are explicitly rather than incidentally queer. Emerging in response to the threats to queer space and queer lives on the west side piers and to the increase of police profiling and violence in the West Village and NYC more broadly (remember Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima?), FIERCE! first grabbed my attention between 2006 and 2008, when I was doing research for a major paper on the queer and environmental history of the west side waterfront and the present Hudson River Park. For me, FIERCE!’s politics get at two important questions about the convergence of sexuality and public space development: What is it about the creation of parks that naturalizes the displacement of queer uses and bodies, including racialized bodies, from public space? And: What might a queer politics of urban public spaces of nature look like if it were to be democratically shaped by radical politics? For me, both of these questions take on a unique character in the context of the High Line’s gloss on ecologies of public space.
Now, Bourne says nothing of the socio-natural phenomenon underlying the HL’s ‘success’ with ‘young New York,’ (a young NY that doesn’t, it seems, notice groups like FIERCE!). But a subsequent op-ed (“In the Shadows of the High Line“) in the New York Times by Vanishing New York author Jeremiah Moss opens the conversation in this direction. Moss frames his critique with the natural dimensions of the HL’s redevelopment. To start:
I had often wondered what it would be like to climb that graffiti-marked trestle with its wild urban meadow. Of course, I’d seen the architectural renderings and knew not to expect a wilderness. Still, the idea was enticing: a public park above the hubbub, a contemplative space where nature softens the city’s abrasiveness.
Here, we witness some of the ideological power of reclaiming a ‘wild’ urban nature: the ideal form of reclamation for this harsh critic of gentrification would be a space of ‘contemplation.’ I won’t make too much of the ways in which this elides other kinds of activities – from sex, to drug use, to art-making, to encampment – taking place in the meadow, because I think it would unfairly dismiss Moss’s polemical critique. He walks us through the explosion of the park as a global tourist destination, highlighting small acts of resistance like the posting of a flier which reads: “Attention High Line tourists. West Chelsea is not Times Square. It is not a tourist attraction.” He also points out the sense among ‘the youth’ that the High Line isn’t the date spot it used to be on account of being overrun by tourists. Moss also points to more familiar impacts from gentrification, including the displacement of small businesses and working class neighborhoods. But the final paragraph interests me most here:
Within a few years, the ecosystem disrupted by the High Line will find a new equilibrium. The aquarium-like high rises will be for the elite, along with a few exclusive locales like the Standard Hotel. But the new locals will rarely be found at street level, where chain stores and tourist-friendly restaurants will cater to the crowds of passers-by and passers-through. Gone entirely will be regular New Yorkers, the people who used to call the neighborhood home. But then the High Line was never really about them.
Indeed, it was not the industrial-turned-queer-urban-ecology which inspired the Friends and their architectural team, led, notably, by the landscape architect James Corner (the principal proponent of ‘landscape urbanism’☥). The James Corner+Field Operations team narrowed in on the plants (as opposed to the queers or the urban animals or, better yet, the entanglement of all of them) arguing that their design was:
Inspired by the melancholic, unruly beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure, the team retools this industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure, life, and growth. By changing the rules of engagement between plant life and pedestrians, our strategy of agri-tecture combines organic and building materials into a blend of changing proportions that accommodates the wild, the cultivated, the intimate, and the hyper-social. In stark contrast to the speed of Hudson River Park, this parallel linear experience is marked by slowness, distraction and an other-worldliness that preserves the strange character of the High Line. Providing flexibility and responsiveness to the changing needs, opportunities, and desires of the dynamic context, our proposal is designed to remain perpetually unfinished, sustaining emergent growth and change over time.
The designers worked with a narrow vision of landscape, that familiar idiom, to stage an intervention that would call upon the power of the vegetal-ecological imagination to distract from the harsh socioeconomic realities of the High Line’s redevelopment. On the one hand, this scrubbed the High Line of its industrial past while, on the other, it obscured the various destructions undertaken in the name of improvement. The latter obscures and deemphasizes the radical potential of cruising the space while deemphasizing so-called ‘unruly’ ecological figures like invasive species and urban animals. None of these destructions are registered in the non-existent list of losses (costs?), even among vocal critics of gentrification. If we are to try to take full account of the historical memory, we must also include the AIDS genocide among the forces that make the High Line both so ‘successful’ and so powerful a displacement in the city of queer historical memory. The AIDS genocide played a huge factor in making various parts of Lower Manhattan ‘open’ for new residents (See Sarah Schulman’s book Gentrification of the Mind for both concrete figures and more lyrical and textured analysis on this point. I might add that I have often wondered what an effort to establish the High Line as a memorial to the AIDS genocide might have looked like. I’m thinking here of Derek Jarman’s gardens in Dungeness.) A version of the project which focused more centrally on the enmeshed queer ecosystem of the abandoned High Line might have yielded a notion of value quite different than the one that is presently being enshrined in the park’s glittering and untouchable planting beds.
Now, unlike Rybczynski’s or Bourne’s articles, Moss’s piece catalyzed a series of Very Public responses by the Friends and its boosters. Annik La Farge responded nihilistically on her blog, concluding that:
In a constantly changing city, with soul-destroying development running rampant, we might look at this project another way: how lucky we are that the team that restored the High Line did so with such sensitivity, innovation, and authenticity. Other neighborhoods will not be so lucky.
So, because the High Line itself so carefully reconstructed an urban pastoral, we cannot hold ‘it’ responsible for any of the negative effects issuing forth. Green is good, and only that. ‘Other neighborhoods’ (or does La Farge mean to say, neighborhoods of the other) will simply miss out on luck. This argument serenely obscures the incredible powerbrokerage of the whole undertaking with an endlessly Instagrammed planting bed. Remember, ecology is about human and non-human interaction in systems of constant change, but simply labeling the city as a space of constant change is not enough to bypass the political and personal responsibility that the Friends, its boosters, and city politicians actively claimed for themselves, often times against existing, if fledgling, community efforts to envision alternatives for the space. They were for it before they will be against it.
The Times itself printed several responses to Moss (to which, if you want to go down the rabbit hole, Moss responded here), including from David and Hammond themselves. The co-founders retort: “To claim, as Mr. Moss does, that the High Line was never about the neighborhood is not true and an unfortunate simplification of our past and current reality.” A veritable no-comment, backed up by a series of less noteworthy respondents who seek to undercut Moss’s gentrification argument through Darwinization (“cities evolve”), an argument for organicized self-policing (“Jeremiah Moss’s appreciation for the High Line will most certainly blossom the moment he begins to manage his expectations about living in New York.”), and with expressly ambivalent sympathy on account of the “inevitability” of gentrification.
Of course, David and Hammond’s 2011 ‘tell-all’ book on the project, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, is where the real defense is to be found. In it, the duo seem to be at great pains to suggest not only their generally progressive politics (David recounts attending anti-Iraq war protests), but also their specific disagreements about the involvement of developers and real estate power-players in the High Line process (with Hammond more in favor than David in early phases). When I attended a reading of the new book in November 2011 at Chelsea’s 192 Books, Josh David started by reciting a long passage from the beginning of the book in which he firmly placed the High Line at the center of a certain bygone era of gay grit in Chelsea by situating it among the Spike (closed) and the Eagle (relocated), two well-known leather bars. So, it seems that my desire to talk about the High Line as
queer gay urban ecology, might fly just alongside the Friend’s own melancholic narrative of loss and reinvention. A narrative, not insignificantly, which reached full flower only after the earliest phases of the project opened. This timeline seems to affirm the notion of inevitability which is trotted out in front of anyone who remains attached to the idea that the High Line might have been ‘saved’ with a lighter touch, or even no touch at all.
There is certainly a richer analysis to be had of the barb-trading, but I want to rest here on the sublime irony that two of the High Line’s principal characters – Robert Hammond and Liz Diller (on the masthead of project architect Diller Scofidio+Renfro) – have
been displaced themselves seemed to be fleeing from the project in the past year. The evidence? A pair of profiles of the High Line-branded duo and a healthy amount of intuition. Scarcely a week before Moss’s takedown, the Times profiled Robert Hammond in their Sunday Routine column under the quotidian headline, “Meditation, and Cereal for Dinner.” Hammond’s apparent exhaustion with the project rests not to deeply between the lines of the profile:
LUNCH BREAK My favorite place to eat is a restaurant called Moustache. It has been in the neighborhood since I moved in. If I want to eat outside, I’ll go to the Christopher Street pier in Hudson River Park. If I go to the High Line, it feels like work. I see things I want to change and end up sending e-mails to people. It’s not as much of a break for me or my staff. Christopher Street used to be this crumbling pier. I was sad when they were going to turn it into a park, because it was such a great ruin and I thought it would change the dynamics. You had these transsexual kids and then yuppies like me. I had a picnic there recently and it’s still this great cross-section.
Here again, the handsome Hammond (several paparazzi-style shots in the article flatter the formerly named ‘most eligible confirmed bachelor;’ he’s got a boyfriend that makes him açai smoothies now.) displays a pathos confirmed by the Inside Story anecdote in which Hammond saves “his favorite” comment card from an early exhibition on the High Line Ideas Competition. The anonymous commenter wrote: “The High Line Should be preserved, untouched, as a wilderness area. No doubt you will ruin it. So it goes.” Hammond explains his preference for the sentiment: “It spoke to my biggest fear: I loved what it was like up there, as it was. I was afraid that no matter what we designed, it would lose that magic. Until the day we opened, I was secretly scared that we were going to ruin it” (p. 61). Read alongside the Times piece, in which Hammond lumps himself in among the ‘great cross-section’ of the piers, we can infer a certain amount of exhaustion with being held responsible for every effect of the project. And what of the extended period of struggle in which those ‘transsexual’ (a term in waning use in these communities) ‘kids’ on the pier are presently engaged? Hammond deploys the Hudson River Park as a foil to his own overblown project. It’s hardly a secret that in the years since the park opened, the well compensated Executive Director, has put a lot of experiential distance between himself and the project, taking up the American Academy’s Rome Prize, among other diversions. One wonders where the postcard hangs today.
On the other end of things, Liz Diller, professional partner and wife of Ricardo Scofidio, is introduced by a recent Guardian profile (more bombastically titled “Liz Diller: ‘We thought we would have been fired a long time ago“) as “One of the few people not completely mesmerized by [the High Line] and ready to move on from it – who, indeed, believes it is not replicable…” Nevertheless, she professes to be “totally amazed by now many New Yorkers are really thankful and love to go” (my emphasis). With little more than a semicolon, she follows up with her concern that the High Line is “almost too popular for its own good. It could easily consume itself.” Would that be the completion of an ecological feedback loop embedded in the sustainable design of the project? No further reflection required; Ms. Diller “Has other things on her mind.” Indeed, any professional whose project spawns endless copies is likely to move on as quickly as possible to commissions and recognitions, while doing little to account for the localized implications of their work.
So what exactly is going on in the long year (Nov 2011 – Dec 2012) in which the park appears to hit development high notes and achieve maximum saturation, even as it makes people think “Wait…is this gentrification, too?” (To say nothing of the High Line as an example of all the real good gay citizenship can do if it relaxes its melancholic attachment to old cruising spaces and accepts the passive penetration of capitalist ends.) Well, as with many things, it helps that the High Line has become so visible, so recognizable, that a critical mass of observers have all seemed to come to the same general conclusion: this is a form of gentrification worthy of particular criticism. What the more popular critics have missed – not just nuance and texture, but the gay and green dimensions – is what I have been attempting to explore through the concept of ec[o]topia. Rather than attempt any full fledged enumeration of the basic outline of ec[o]topia above, I’d like to pose a few of the research questions which emerge from the particularities of this case:
1. What would a politics of non-intervention in abandoned urban spaces look like? How is it complicated by that-which-remains and that-which-emerges in every abandoned place?
2. Are queer urban ecologies worth ‘preserving’ as such? Is it possible to imagine doing this without bloated, institutionally managed, politically narrow-minded advocacy? Can we do this without creating golden calfs?
3. How might a sensitivity to the particular relations of sexuality, nature, and urban spatial politics in historically specific settings inform a radical agenda of anti-gentrification?
4. Is it still possible to imagine a High Line which isn’t rendered moribund by tightly scripted regimes of capital accumulation and real estate development?
5. How can an explicit politics of anti-homonormativity (normalization of white, male, bourgeois, sexual citizenship) be translated into tactical and strategic political actions for radical spaces and natures in the central city?
6. How can scholars, activists, and people of radical persuasion disentangle themselves from co-opted ‘artistic’ and ‘ecological’ development schemes while still retaining a discourse and practice of affirmative artistic and ecological resistance to such schemes? In other words: How do we stop this from happening again, let alone from becoming a global model for development? Can someone be held responsible for this?
It strikes me that there are two thematic lines emerging from this sextet of questions. The first involves a more thorough exploration of the dynamics and politics of abandonment. While accepting the reality that abandoned properties are part of the circulation of global capital (dross), we might consider how recent tactical and strategic efforts by Occupy and other mid-crisis public-space activisms inform our ability to critique gentrifying projects which mask themselves in discourses of ‘public access,’ ‘sustainability,’ and ‘community input.’ If Friends of the High Line is a community organization, then why is it necessary to name and confine its formal interactions with the community to a model based on meaningless consultation of expert-backed plans? If neighborhood residents claim the power of abandonment or, better yet, radically refuse institutionalized reclamation, it might be possible to politicize the alliance of soon-to-be-displaced residents with soon-to-be-displaced ecologies in which they are enmeshed.
The second involves continual poetic, literary, and artistic efforts at engaging with the ecology of ruins. From Walter Benjamin onward, ruins have remained a captivating thoughtspace for the ‘return to/of nature’ from some of the most materially developed circumstances. The quality of being unmade by forces of vegetality and animality grants ruins a unique position in both cultural and natural imaginaries and in the purview of geophilosophical inquiries into the shape of a posthuman world. We have seen that such power is readily co-opted by capitalist processes of real estate development, which are always on the lookout for ‘new desires’ to commodify. How might a necropolitical embrace of the ruin, one which imagines a responsible and respectful lâcher politique, return us to the forgotten politics of death in the central city? Rather than developing for one-who-might-arrive in response to the clarion call of gentrified streets (messianic development), what if we sought to take responsibility for our hand in the death of previously vital incarnations of those same spaces (an ethics of care)?
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in which the hardscape of the High Line fared relatively well even as Chelsea was ravaged, ecological design is likely to be put forward as a necessary part of infrastructural preparedness for the next natural disaster. Inevitability in another guise. The securitization of the cityscape through ecological intervention will doubtless represent a more tightly scripted regime of security-nature-development in which the needs and interests of particular communities will be overrun by the Green Greater Good. Indeed, we are witnessing the beginning of a public dialogue in which some prominent environmental voices are willing to argue against a right to return. The politics of this position are not wholly obvious. On the one hand, it enforces consequential responsibility on the displaced, implying that the state has no responsibility for the suffering of these people. On the other hand, it contains a strong argument in which the naturalization of human intervention in spaces which appear to belong only to culture is no longer taken for granted. While anthropogenic factors have an undeniable role in the very forces which rendered Sandy so destructive, we may begin to wonder how the immanent struggle to remain in one place and to determine the material conditions of one’s own life – arguably the core of any anti-gentrification effort – stacks up in the new era of intensified gentrification and increased urban vulnerability.
Writ small, the High Line demonstrates what happens when these forces operate at a vegetal, rather than a climactic pace and scale. With a sincere desire to avoid depoliticized apocalyptic narratives, I have offered ec[o]topia in the spirit of thinking through the experience and reality of being constantly out-of-place. Any attempt to locate a group with the most legitimate claim to a ‘right to the city’ is already caught up in the ongoing reality of displacements of one kind or another. This does not make all claims to a place equal; gentrification and displacement are real and must be resisted in situ. It does, however, suggest, that, as our cities produce increasingly entangled and novel ecologies, what I call queer urban ecologies, we will need to draw on both familiar and queer tactics, both involving closer attention to the ground on which we stand and consequential awareness of the long line of displacement from which we all descend to the streets to fight. If what we seek is justice, then we must be prepared to work with the unruly figures to whom ‘the next big thing’ is constantly being abandoned.
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† I should point out one of the more interesting aspects of the HY + HL convergence, the “Save the Spur” campaign. This instance of institutional activism can be traced back to the earliest days of the Friends of the High Line. In this 2009 video, which is perhaps worthy of its own substantial analysis, everyone from Rep. Nadler to a red-t-shirted Robert Hammond jumps in on spur-related advocacy even before the rest of the park had been secured for redevelopment. This brings to mind an action by FIERCE! (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) just a few months earlier to oppose overblown development as part of the Pier 40 / Hudson River Park redevelopment. (More on this above…) Related Companies, which won the initial bid to redevelop Pier 40, would later become the lead developer on the Hudson Yards, after Tishman Speyer withdrew their initial winning bid. Related’s proposal for the pier – dubbed Vegas on the Hudson – was later found to be financially unfeasible for the cash-strapped park. The future of the space is still unresolved following the resignation of power-developer Douglas Durst from the Friends of the Hudson River Park Board of Directors.
†† Here, I am talking about the abandoned High Line; the lost space which existed between 1980 and the opening of the park.
☥ Corner’s manifesto for landscape urbanism, “Terra Fluxus” reads like a charter for ecological gentrification. Where dominant narratives of sustainability turn to a reinvention of industry (Folks like Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovnis or Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart), landscape urbanists see the “context of global capital, post-Fordist models of flexible production, and informal labor relations” as a situation in which “architecture…becomes commodified as a cultural product, ironically rendering many cities less and less distinguishable from one another” (From Charles Waldheim’s 2006 introduction to the Landscape Urbanism reader, p. 15). In an ostensible alternative to this tendency, Corner argues that “landscape drives the process of city formation” (p. 24). As evidence of this ability, Corner offers landscape urbanism’s flexibility and lack of explicitly defined professional practices (p. 28). This core neoliberal value of flexible specialization makes it clear that landscape urbanists are seeking to define their profession as focused on the very fabric of urban space, and not just particular buildings or singular projects within the city. [Source: Corner, James. 2006. “Terra Fluxus.” Pp. 21-24 in The Landscape Urbanism Reader edited by Charles Waldheim. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.; See also my MA thesis, cited earlier, for a detailed analysis of Corner in Lefebvrian terms.]
There are no ruins without the triumph of vegetal life over thatwhich one day proudly rose over the earth. Clearly, everything that isbuilt on the earth in a certain way humiliates the earth. And so, it wasan ancient rite to make sacrifices to the gods of the place – each placehad an owner – in order to placate them so that they would permit therising of the fabric built by human hands. The act of setting up anedifice shows the triumph of man over nature, as well as over history,the historic work that would be so strange to a non-human beholder,if there were one. And in the ruins, the human has been laid wastebut not erased. From that triumph – and all human triumph brings ortakes away pride–there remains something, which already entwineswith triumphant vegetal life, which freely runs, budding among thebroken columns and the torn-down walls. A fusion between natureand history takes place; a pacification, a reconciliation that gives birthto a special beauty that is dispensed by Greek Tragedy, brings with it‘catharsis’. The contemplation of ruins cures, purifies, and expandsthe spirit, making it approach the fluctuations of history, like animmense tragedy without an author. Ruins are really a metaphor thathas reached the category of a Tragedy without an author. Its author issimply time.And tragedy springs from hope in an exaggerated fight with thefatal limitations of destiny, of circumstances. Hope, the most human aswell as the most divine element in the life of man, remains free andexposed, freed from its fights, in ruins. It is the pure transcendence ofhope.To be sure, all ‘culture’ is the realisation of a dream–or ratherthe attempt to realise it; one of those dreams that inexorably pursuesman and from which it is impossible to escape because it is born in theindestructible depths of hope searching for its plot and at the sametime its realisation [la esperanza que busca su argumento, y al par surealización]. Not all dreams ask to be realised, but there are somethat are so endowed with this request that they do not permit humanconsciousness to rest, that they will throw man into any adventure.Realisation is always a frustration. To that extent all history, even themost splendid, is a failure. A failure that carries within also its triumph:the incessant rebirth of human hope symbolised by ivy. Ivy is themetaphor of a life that is born out of death, of the transcendencethat arrives each time something is finished [el trascender que siguea todo acabamiento]. It comes after the cessation of something thatwent far on hope and into it [algo que fue lejos en la esperanza]. And ifCalderón exhorted us ‘to do good [obrar bien], because good is not losteven in dreams’, it would be possible to understand this by thinkingthat from all reality the only thing that may remain will be a dream.To dream up the good [soñar bien] because good is not lost even indeath.