Monday, October 12, 2009

Historical Memory

By Greg

I finally got up to New York to see the High Line. As expected, it is pretty cool. It was packed with people sunning themselves, walking, eating at a cafĂ© – all experienced at an elevation to which we are not quite accustomed.

The High Line has some interesting features that attempt to retain the site’s historical memory as a an abandoned railroad bed, like overgrown vegetation and railroad tracks emerging out of the ground in some spots. I found these elements particularly important to the experience. No matter how expensive the park’s finishes (it cost $150 million so far) or the luxury buildings that abut the High Line, its designers want us to remember a period when this viaduct was abandoned and overgrown – a ghost of a vibrant industrial past.

Looking out over the edge of the High Line, it was clear that this linear park was the most recent addition to the living urban museum that is Chelsea. The surrounding neighborhood has similar features of industrial infrastructure captured in a semi-blighted state, adorned and modernized with expensive materials, made relevant through modern uses. Former industrial warehouses hold high-end restaurants, couture shops, and art galleries. Places like Chelsea Market relish the trendy aesthetic of crumbling brick contrasted with expensive lighting and modern art.

Later, from the ground looking up at the High Line I realized something; when there are gaps in the people walking upon it, there is no indication from the street that this modern floating park even exists. From below it still looks like an overgrown and blighted railroad viaduct. And that’s the point. Reusing historic infrastructure is trendy, but surely for the High Line’s designers the viaduct’s reuse was about retaining the historical memory of a less vibrant past.

Like many postindustrial urban areas, there was a time not too long ago when Chelsea’s fate was considerably more uncertain. In a story of urban revitalization that has become well known, Chelsea was rediscovered by artists in the 1980s and 1990s, then by main-stream New Yorkers. Today it is hypergentrified as the High Line floats above a Vera Wang boutique, and runs beside a new Frank Gehry building. Modern-day Chelsea has the privilege of recalling its darker days, while celebrating its affluent success. Many urban areas are not so lucky.

Staring up at the High Line, while eating lunch at an outdoor restaurant where beers cost $7, I thought about my hometown of Philadelphia and our own Reading Viaduct that some hope to turn into the next High Line-esque park. However, unlike in Chelsea, there is no Vera Wang or Barneys in Philadelphia’s Callowhill and Chinatown North neighborhoods. Instead Philadelphia still has postindustrial areas suffering from physical blight and urban decay.

No matter how neat a floating park could be in Philadelphia, the Reading Viaduct’s context makes this reuse inappropriate just now. Its surrounding neighborhoods are not in a position to memorialize the history of a blighted past; that blighted past has not yet become history. Those who feel that the Reading Viaduct is ready to become the next High Line are missing the underlying symbolic meaning of the High Line and its context.

I don’t mean to say that the Reading Viaduct should not be preserved and at some point transformed. However, if this happens, it must be part of a larger strategy that focuses on true neighborhood revitalization, rather than a standalone project.

As I mentioned in a previous post, a few years ago a group of community organizations came to the table and cooperated in developing the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. The plan charts a course for a comprehensive approach to building physical connectivity, attracting new residential and commercial growth, addressing issues of affordable housing and local economic development, as well as adding new recreational sites (including restoring a major portion of the Reading Viaduct as a floating park). It’s a good plan that was developed through a consensus building process. The City and neighborhood groups should agree to put their weight behind it and make the plan a reality.

Urban revitalization is not about picking and choosing physical projects from other cities and sticking them into one’s own. Building a Reading Viaduct park in Philadelphia without the other investments included in the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan simply misses the point. In contrast, a focus on restoring the community around the Reading Viaduct, with a floating park as an eventual goal to celebrate the community’s resurgence, shows a more thoughtful view of how we rebuild cities, preserve the past, and connect our past to our future.

One final note: While Chelsea is gentrified to the point of no return, the areas around the Reading Viaduct maintain the potential for an equitable revitalization. If Philadelphia can figure out the formula for transforming neighborhoods while retaining diverse, livable, and affordable communities, then we have truly landed on something worth celebrating.

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