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High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky

Joshua David and Robert Hammond

Farrar, Straus nd Giroux, 352 pp., $29.95

When you think of how city parks get built, you probably don't think a whole lot about the people behind them. You might imagine that it was just another bureaucratic stiff in the Gilded Age, in charge of carving out green space way back when urban farming wasn't a hobby and rotting horse carcasses were no more surprising a sight on city streets than taxicabs are today.

Surely you don't imagine booze-fueled benefits at the Roxy, a onetime gay hot spot and dance club-cum-roller rink in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, featuring a roster of drag queens in evening gowns. But that's the kind of thing that went into the creation of the High Line, a public park perched atop an abandoned elevated rail line that was once seen as a blight on the city's West Side.

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the SkyThe park was inspired by the vision of a pair of ordinary New Yorkers, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who live, respectively, in Chelsea and the West Village -- neighborhoods now connected by the park -- and who have documented their efforts in High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky. What their story reveals most strikingly is that it's something of a miracle that the park opened at all. The rail line, built in the 1930s for freight trains, was seen as an obstacle to progress, a place to get crapped on by pigeons by day and a shady pickup spot by night. But David and Hammond saw something more: a piece of history ripe for rediscovery and a unique landscape where nature could triumph over urban grit.

Their quest began in the late 1990s. Over the ensuing years, the two-man team expanded to become Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit that somehow managed to muddle through some of the city's darkest days, gaining steam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and eventually opening the park to the public in 2009, during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

David and Hammond tell an engaging tale of how they pulled this off, giving ample credit to celebrities (Edward Norton), fashion moguls (Diane von Furstenberg), hedge fund managers (Philip Falcone), and powerful politicians (Mayor Michael Bloomberg). They battled developers who wanted to tear the structure down, navigated arcane federal agencies to win permission to turn the rail line into a walking trail, and became celebrities in their own right as they rubbed elbows at fund-raising galas with New York's see-and-be-seen set.

At first glance, their book might seem the sort that you'd politely pass over in a museum shop, another drab entry in the category of urban studies. The first half is in the form of a 120-page-long conversation between David and Hammond; the second is a collection of more than 200 photographs and illustrations. Yet despite the book's staid appearance, David and Hammond reveal themselves to be wonderfully human -- eccentric, neurotic, and easy to relate to.

Hammond confesses that now that he has actually accomplished something, he's finally getting over his embarrassment about all the self-help books he's read. David, meanwhile, lets on that the only reason the two men met in the first place is that he thought Hammond was cute. Later, just as the team was gaining traction, Hammond had to be persuaded not to skip an important High Line event in order to attend a meeting of the Radical Faeries.

Yet David and Hammond do not come off as frivolous or simply blessed with dumb luck. Their combination of personal quirks, public blunders, and political acuity make for a surprisingly uplifting account. At the park's groundbreaking ceremony, Diane von Furstenberg said: "The High Line tells us that in New York City dreams come true." A groan-worthy line, perhaps, but it's nice to see that you don't need to be rich and powerful to effect change. Regular people matter too.

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >