Twenty years ago when plans were announced to demolish the High Line, an abandoned elevated track along 10th Avenue built in the 1930s for freight trains to deliver food goods to Lower Manhattan, like most people, Robert Hammond assumed someone else was doing something to stop it. After attending a community board meeting on the matter, he learned that his assumption was wrong. At that meeting he met Joshua David and together they took up the charge to save the High Line. The pair founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy, in 1999. After ten years of rallying support, fighting to save the historic site and creating a transformative plan to turn the former railroad tracks into an elevated public park, the first section opened in 2009.
This year, Friends of the High Line celebrated its twentieth year in operation and reached a momentous accomplishment as the last section of the park to contain original rail tracks, the Spur, opened this summer. Untapped Cities sat down with Friends of the High Line co-founder and Executive Director Robert Hammond to look back at the past two decades, the present state, and future of the High Line as well as New York City at large, and the growing field of industrial re-use in America.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: What is your favorite “untapped “spot in New York City?
Robert Hammond: When I first moved to New York I spent a lot of time on the Christopher Street Pier before they redeveloped it, so I still have a soft spot for that space and what the pier was like. It was just this literally crumbling concrete piece and there was sort of a chainlink fence that people had cut open and you could go right out to the end. I mean literally, the concrete was falling apart. You could get down close to the water and people would be sunbathing and naked and just hanging out. It felt just like, I don’t know, it was a great way of being. It was weird because it felt like being in nature, which was weird because it’s this concrete thing, but to me that’s one of my favorite things about New York. It’s that it makes you experience nature in different ways and appreciate it in different ways. I think that’s one of the things about the High Line, it’s not an escape from the city. You can see, smell and hear all of the city but you’re also around nature. I think that’s that experience I had there. It was close to the water, it was all this open space, the city was in back of you, New Jersey was in front of you, you were sitting on a crumbing concrete pier, but it felt like somehow you had this connection to nature.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: That’s a really good one. What places are on your New York City Bucket list?
Robert Hammond: Oh so many! The Statue of Liberty, really embarrassing.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: That’s one of mine too! There’s a new museum there now.
Robert Hammond: Yes, I’d love to see that because Diane von Furstenberg helped build it and she’s been so important to us. I have never been to the World Trade Center memorial. I think I have a psychological barrier to it. I lived downtown and I watched the towers fall so I think I have some kind of block. I’ve always loved that design and I’ve driven by it, so I’d like to go there and to the memorial. The new park in Queens, Hunters Point, I definitely want to see that. I’ve heard amazing things about it. I’d love to go on Newton Creek. Not in New York City but I’ve always wanted to go kayaking in New Jersey where it’s all reeds, near the Hackensack River.
One of my favorite bucket list things that I did was going down to the third water tunnel before it was finished. They were digging a hole for it right at the corner of 10th Avenue and 30th Street so I traded a High Line tour for a tour to go down there. My favorite thing was they said, before we went down there, “You’re welcome to take pictures but just keep in mind it’s an all male crew and there’s no toilet facilities, so watch what you’re photographing.” But it was amazing. That was cool.
Hunters Point Park in Queens Designed by SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: What makes New York City great to you?
Robert Hammond: I guess the people. You can meet so many interesting people and it’s just endless. I talk to people who leave New York and they say you get to know the people in your town and that’s nice because it’s small, but here you’re just constantly meeting fascinating people. I think sometimes in other places people are defined by their jobs and, people in New York, they have a job and then they have a passion. Sometimes their job is their passion but even if they have passion for their job they have four other passions! So I always like asking people instead of, “What do you do?, What are you excited about?” And people in New York have like five things they’re excited about. New Yorkers have a lot of passion.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: It’s so true, just doing another one of these interviews I was talking to the master planner of Battery Park City and in addition to being this great urban planner for his entire career he’s also a farmer, and a composer/musician and a Hudson River School trained painter.
On the flip side of that last question, what would you change about New York City?
Robert Hammond: I think what most people want the city to be like is what it was like in their twenties, that’s what people look back on. I think back to the things I love about New York that were there when I was in my twenties, but people have been saying that for decades.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Continuing with looking back, what projects from the past are you most proud of?
Robert Hammond: We built a roller skating rink underneath the High Line when we opened section two at 30th and 10th and it was really hard. It was really hard to build a public roller skating rink in a parking lot for two months, turns out. But I loved that. Really proud of the Mile Long Opera we did last year.
The Mile Long Opera, Photograph by Liz Ligon
I was involved in the really early stages of the Tribute in Light. These two architects that lived near me got in touch with me like the day after and had the idea of putting a whole bunch of beacons, originally thought to be put in the water at World Trade Center harbor but we quickly realized it would make the light move. I put them in touch with Anne Pasternak at Creative Time and with the Municipal Arts Society and eventually they partnered with some other artists and it became the World Trade Center Tribute in Light. I played a really small role but I’m really proud of that because it’s one of my favorite annual things in New York that has meaning to me.
Five years ago I became a meditation teacher. I left my job at the High Line and moved to India for three months. I teach meditation once a month. So I’m still really proud of that. It’s like my other favorite job. I feel like I’m really blessed to have two great jobs that are really interesting and very different.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: You teach meditation classes in the city?
Robert Hammond: Yep, once a month I do a four day class.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Also the High Line just opened the Spur this summer, how has that been going?
Robert Hammond: Yea and that was really meaningful because it was the most likely to be demolished, even after we had saved section one and opened section one and were getting ready to open section two, that part was still slated for demolition. We did a lot of different designs for it that didn’t quite work, so I’m really proud of what we opened. I love the art piece, it’s one of my favorite we’ve ever done. My favorite view of it is from the street, not from the High Line. When you’re coming up you see the High Line over the street and then Brick House, the Simone Leigh sculpture over it. I’m really proud and excited about it.
Untapped Cities Insiders in front of Simone Leigh’s Brick House on the Spur
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Our Insiders loved getting a sneak peek of the Spur on the early access tours with you and Adam Ganser, the Vice President of Planning and Design. What projects are you working on right now?
Robert Hammond: I’m on the board of Pier 55 which you can see right here. (Here we both glance right outside the window of Robert’s office at the High Line headquarters on Washington Street to see right out to the water and construction of Pier 55). I was a big skeptic when I first heard Barry Diller start talking about it. I didn’t think it was a very good idea. I was just very skeptical but, now I’m very excited about it. I think it’s going to be very special. Here at the High Line we actually have another section of the park that’s going to be at street level between 17th and 18th street that we are going to start construction on soon. We have the High Line Network which is a project we started four years ago which is a network of other industrial reuse projects all over the country. We are doing a big gathering of fifty different projects from all over the country to meet together at the Ford Foundation in October. I’m really excited about that. It’s sort of like a coming out event for this new kind of field that’s emerging. And it’s not about how to learn how we do it, but how do we learn from each other. It’s not like the High Line is the way to do it.
Image via Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio. Renderings by Luxigon.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: What are some of the other projects in the network?
Robert Hammond: There are massive projects like the LA River and the Beltline in Atlanta, to other projects like the 606 in Chicago, the Bentway in Toronto and some projects under construction like the Under Line in Miami, Waller Creek in Austin. They are all different kinds of typologies. Klyde Warren Park which is on top of the highway, they built a park on top of a highway in Dallas, there’s the Buffalo Bayou. Another one under construction is the Seattle Waterfront.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Lots of exciting projects! What other projects in New York City specifically are exciting to you right now?
Robert Hammond: Well, Pier 55. Freshkills I think is really interesting and people don’t realize how big that park is. I love the history of it. Again it’s this weird kind of man-made nature. It’s the largest point on the Eastern Seaboard and it’s man-made and it’s made of trash and there’s all this science behind it and under it of how it works. I find that fascinating. What else…I’m really interested in how New York responds to the rising sea levels and what’s happening in downtown New York, how they’re thinking about dealing with the coast line. It’s something I think that’s going to happen not just in New York City but all over the world. How do we respond to rising sea levels not only to deal with climate change but also the need for public open space? How can this new infrastructure do double, triple, quadruple duty. I’ve been really inspired by the book by Eric Klinenberg called Palaces for the People. It’s about social infrastructure and how, we think of the built infrastructure as so important, but what about social infrastructure? To me what’s really interesting is how can they do double duty. Can it be built as environmental infrastructure but also serve as social infrastructure?
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Going back to your bucket list places, I feel like Hunters Point South Park is a good example of that. We visited the studios of SWA/Balsley, the firm that designed it, and learned about how the design fosters social interaction and then also all of the environmental features they took into consideration like bringing back marshland and building flood protection. It was very interesting.
What advice would you give to people starting their careers today?
Robert Hammond: It’s work for someone you respect and want to be like, because you become the boss you have in your twenties, I think, whether you like them or not, or you want to, that’s how you learn to manage. I think people now are going to have so many different careers in so many different fields. To me the field or the job is less important than who you’re working for. It’s not about a specific skill related to one industry, it’s more about how do you manage and how do you learn to work? You learn that from the people you work for and with, so to me that’s the most important choice.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: What book are you reading right now?
Robert Hammond: Oh so many books. The Montessori Toddler, because I have a year and a half year old and How Do Toddlers Thrive?, another kids book. I always have a long list. I’m reading a book about Russian pre-revolutionary history because I love Russian history. I’m reading a book about OKRs, Objects and Key Results. A book by David Hawkins about consciousness, Power Versus Force. I love his books. His books I listen to on Audible. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. I’m sort of obsessed with Kara Swisher. I love Recode Decode and Pivot. I’m listening to some old There Goes the Neighborhood episodes about gentrification. I’m listening to the Chernobyl podcast about the Chernobyl series.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: That’s a big thing now. Tourism is skyrocketing over there.
Robert Hammond: Yea! I lived in the Soviet Union for three months in 1987, the year afterwards, when I was in High School.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Wow, that’s an interesting fact which leads into the next question, tell us one surprising thing about you!
Robert Hammond: That I teach meditation, that’s something sort of different that a lot of people don’t know. I used to be a painter, and I may be again. I taught myself to paint in my mid-twenties and for awhile that was my other passion besides the High Line. I have a painting in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park next to the elevator that they bought. In a third of the rooms I have paintings in there. As the High Line sort took off I became sort of less interested but I hope someday to return to it.
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Those are all of the questions I have, thank you so much for sitting down with us!
Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets Of The High Line in NYC