Perspective, as its inventor remarked, is a beautiful thing. What horrors of damp huts, where human beings languish, may not become picturesque through aerial distance!
Situated along Tenth Avenue and winding its way north from the Meat Market through the Chelsea Gallery District to the Hudson Yards, New York's elevated High Line Park enjoys popular recognition currently unrivaled by other urban parks. Featuring sweeping views of Manhattan's west side and the Hudson River, the site of the park exploits the path of the original rail line, which was elevated above the city's streets in the mid 1930s for safety and efficiency. Decommissioned in 1980, it became a neglected industrial remnant, and its transformation into an endlessly stimulating “world class” park now emulated by cities across the globe began with the 2001 book, Walking the High Line, by the photographer Joel Sternfeld.
Sternfeld's photographs documented the elevated rail line in a state of ruin and under an overgrowth of wildflowers and weeds over the course of a year, resurrecting an overlooked and derelict urban site into one with an unmistakably romantic appeal.
Conveying a quiet, desolate beauty eventually forfeited in the process of creating a one-of-a-kind urban park, Sternfeld's photographs now represent a somewhat unique (and contradictory) instance of the power of images to alter the built environment. Initiating the transformation of the disused rail line into a highly stimulating, elevated walkway fueling cultural tourism and a rapid expansion of the high-end real estate market, the calmness and pacific qualities Sternfeld uncovered amidst the overgrown industrial ruin, so unexpected within an urban environment and once serving as a central argument for the site's revival, are now in increasingly short supply.
Bearing a strong resemblance to his landscape photographs of ancient ruins on the outskirts of Rome, Sternfeld’s treatment of New York's overgrown industrial ruin on Tenth Avenue also owes a significant debt to the picturesque landscape tradition. Now relegated to cliché and associated with picture postcard views of nature and tourist guidebooks, aspects of the historical picturesque live on not only through Sternfeld’s Walking the High Line project, but in its influence on what the site of his project would eventually become.
With its origins in 17th- and 18th-century European landscape painting, the picturesque aesthetic is considered a kind of middle point between the extremes of the beautiful and the sublime as outlined by Edmund Burke in 1757, its lack of specificity in some ways resulting in a versatility of application across several centuries and disciplines. Where the beautiful in nature is contained, ordered and smooth, and the sublime is overwhelming to the point of inspiring fear, the picturesque is variegated and particular, with a sufficient amount of “roughness” to avoid the banalities of the beautiful while approximating the underlying threat of the sublime. Inspired by landscape paintings incorporating Roman and Gothic ruins acquired by English gentleman through their travels in Europe, picturesque theory was initially confined to what comprised a pleasing painting, gradually expanding to a proper way of seeing, interacting with, and ultimately shaping landscape. Enormously influential in English culture from the 18th century onwards, the picturesque eventually found its way to America, most notably in the design of New York’s Greenwood Cemetery and Central Park.
In the mid-1700s William Gilpin, one of the main proponents of the picturesque, wrote guidebooks that combined aesthetic theory with walking tours of rural England, framing the landscape in terms of picturesque ideals and spawning tourists who roamed the countryside in search of a particularized natural beauty. Transforming the landscape itself to suit picturesque aesthetics, Capability Brown and William Kent designed English gardens influenced by paintings brought back from the continent, incorporating architectural elements placed in the landscape “at a distance,” with the views in the gardens reminiscent of the painting's compositions. Though designed for private estates, the gardens were often opened to the public, and in many ways were the predecessors to public parks.
Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna — sleeping like a corpse — possibly from too little food. I pulled up immediately not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom and gave the mother money not in charity, but to keep the flies off it while I made a sketch. I don't see how this is to be avoided, but it is very hardening.
John Ruskin, 1845
While the picturesque tradition was predominantly about landscape, it did not concern itself exclusively with nature. Landscape paintings considered picturesque often included agrarian laborers and shepherds in the view, who, because they seen as “of the earth,” were included as a personification of rusticity. Usually dotting the landscape and seen from a distance, they were the human equivalent to the authenticity symbolized by the ruins. Nor was the picturesque limited to rural experience. As English and American societies became increasingly urbanized, the picturesque became a means to cope with the rapid social, technological, and economic shifts occurring as a result of industrialization. Through picturesque literary tours which prosaically described immigrant ghettos in London and New York, urban poverty was often aestheticized, glossing over emerging contradictions of class and race in an increasingly industrialized, free-market society.
According to Carrie Tirado Bramen in The Urban Picturesque and the Spectacle of Americanization, “…the urban picturesque trans-formed [sic] the economic, racial and ethnic divisions that characterized urban space into an aesthetic spectacle.” In one particular instance of this phenomenon, the journalist Viola Roseboro, enjoyed strolling through Mulberry Bend because she found the Italians “delightfully pictur-esque [sic].” When observing the arrival of immigrants at Castle Garden, she admitted that the immigrant “adds to the picturesqueness ... throughout all the lower part of Manhattan island.” Transforming complex urban problems into “pictures” via prosaic descriptions of poor immigrants in their environment depoliticized and glossed over the systemic conditions which led to their plight, relieving readers of any burden of responsibility for an economic system that may have contributed to impoverished conditions for new arrivals. While the artist and writer John Ruskin expressed ambivalence regarding the “heartlessness” of similar thumbnail sketches which emphasized the “quaintness” of London’s poor, he at times could not resist engaging in a detached, purely aesthetic reading of his environment, succumbing to an urge to reduce and simplify societal complexities through pictorial means, which lives on in many of today’s exercises in branding, advertising, and lifestyle culture, though often through subtler means.
21st Century Picturesque
The documentary Elevated Thinking: The High Line in New York City produced as part of the PBS Great Museums series, offers a contemporary version of a 19th-century picturesque tour. Narrated by Susan Sarandon and featuring the Friends of the High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond as well as the architects, designers, and officials behind the project, the mostly effusive documentary avoids the socio-economic cause and effect equation for the neighborhood as a whole. In one description of the neighborhood surrounding the park, Sarandon’s voiceover gives way to Joshua David's, as the two describe in turn the views available to the west and east of the High Line:
On the High Line, merging views of Chelsea can be taken in with one turn of the head. To the west is the Chelsea art district and when you look to the east you see the Chelsea historic district where all the really beautiful historic town houses of Chelsea are located on these beautiful tree-lined streets .
While undoubtedly charming and in close proximity to the park, the residential, brownstone-filled “historic district” makes up only about three of the fifteen blocks along Tenth Avenue (before the park goes westward at 29th Street). Far more visible from the High Line but unmentioned in the hour-long documentary are the public housing projects (seen through a massive, open “picture frame” at 26th Street) which occupy more than half the land to the east. Despite being ignored by most High Line narratives, a New York Times article on the increasing income gap across Tenth Avenue reveals that many public housing residents are keenly aware of the High Line and its “halo effect” (a developer-friendly term that refers to economic benefits radiating from the park), finding affordable options for food and day-to-day supplies gradually disappearing, as they begin to fear that their homes will eventually fall prey to soaring land values.
Exhibiting the City
You can see the Statue of Liberty one way and the Empire State Building the other, it is a mile and a half long line that's a lot like a gallery and a museum, if you will, that allows you to experience the city in an extraordinary way where the city is now the exhibit.
Likening the experience of the near entirety of the West Chelsea neighborhood to an art exhibit, design team member James Cormer reiterates the documentary’s conceit of urban park as museum. But this analogy, while making a claim for the primacy of aesthetics as an end-game for urban parks, does not go far enough. Through its combination of high end design, picturesque mix of rustic and natural features, and elevated perspective, the High Line has become an aestheticizing machine that utilizes all of the above elements as a means to not only reshape how we see the urban environment around it but, ultimately, to service the reshaping of that environment itself. Unlike Central Park, which adopted picturesque principles of design within a designated area set aside for recreational use, the High Line grafts picturesque aesthetic ideals on top of an inherently contradictory urban environment which processes cultural and economic tensions on a daily basis, implicating itself within conflicting urban interests and goals in a manner that few of its supporters seem willing to acknowledge.
As the “unsightly” auto parts stores, scrap yards, mechanics, taxi garages, and diners have been gradually removed from the High Line’s view (to be followed, most likely, by the little that remains of the meat-packing industry), a growing canyon of luxury projects by signature architects begins to close in on the repurposed rail line. While in the early days of the park, the view of these soon-to-be obsolete, unattractively functional businesses may have perplexed the parkgoer, the High Line’s halo effect has helped scrub the nearby streets mostly clean of workaday distractions, save for the occasional pocket of ruin or graffiti that becomes a popular subject on Instagram or Flickr.
Emulating the picturesque aesthetic that, as a result of Joel Sternfeld’s photographs, seems encoded in the park’s DNA, the appeal of seeing the urban environment as a mix of industrial fetish and “natural” rusticity, ultimately providing a backdrop for glamorous, cutting edge architecture, feels limitless. As the park forges its way north to the mega Hudson Yards development, it leaves in its wake a New York neighborhood, once considered mixed-use with a momentary balance between residential, industrial, cultural, and commercial, yielding to an almost totalizing luxury economy, displacing that which does not service it.
And I thought if this could be saved in very much the same spirit as we found it, it could be one of the great wonders of New York City.
Amanda Burden, City Planning Commissioner
I just pray that, if they save the High Line, they’ll save some of the virgin parts, so that people can have this kind of hallucinatory experience of nature in the city.
If it is indeed true that the city planning commissioner and the artist himself hoped that some sense of the peace and tranquility found in Sternfeld’s pictures would be saved, all has not gone according to plan. Having rescued the grandness (sublime) of the city's industrial past from its derelict state under dystopian overgrowth, then reconstructed it as boutique charm (beautiful), the High Line's artifice employs a picturesque middle ground that has made the sites origins inaccessible. Referencing Sternfeld’s “wilds” through an extremely self-conscious display of design that "re-pictures" his images minus the risk and peaceful reward that direct experience might bring, the High Line reconstitutes New York’s past as a kind of time lapse photography, eradicating any meaning that might come from understanding its historical context. With the site's history evacuated then repurposed as theatre, a clean slate affords sweeping change and, when accompanied by the unquestionably beautiful plantings anointing the attendant economic growth as a “natural“ (and apolitical) process, encounters few obstacles or challenges from “reasonable” people.
While the private construction boom that increasingly crowds the High Line has lately bred more skepticism of the park’s public function, the seeds of this growth were planted over a decade ago during Bloomberg’s massive citywide rezoning campaign. Lulled by the fantasy of a green space in the sky amidst an urban setting that would seemingly only benefit by its presence, few saw reason to take issue with a unique, elevated park featuring an articulated industrial artifact that melded nature and culture to such great effect. But with this careful choreography now upended and clogged by the ever larger crowds along its path, and blinded by the glitz of a newly minted starchitects row of glamorous projects from above, the quiet solace conveyed in Joel Sternfeld’s High Line images, so instrumental to the parks coming into being, refer to a moment incomprehensible in the present, with a new kind of overgrowth rapidly obscuring this past from our view.