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Q&A: Friends of the High Line interview

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CNN talked to Josh David and Robert Hammond, founders of Friends of the High Line, atop the High Line in New York City.

CNN: What got you interested in the High Line?

Josh David: Well, I live down the street from the High Line in Chelsea in Manhattan and for many years I never paid attention to it. It hides between buildings a lot in Chelsea. But then I was working on a project researching the neighborhood and I spent a lot of time walking around West Chelsea; I became much more aware of this structure and how big and incredible it was.

Robert Hammond: I was reading in The New York Times that they were going to tear down the High Line and I couldn't believe it. I thought some group would be working to preserve it so I thought I could help out or volunteer. I went to my first community meeting and sat next to Josh and we realized no one was going to do anything so we decided to start this together.

Josh David: When you realize that the High Line goes through 22 blocks of Manhattan, unbroken, connecting three neighborhoods -- the convention center area, West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District -- you realize that there's an amazing opportunity to create something really unusual and unique in New York City.

Robert Hammond: When we started Friends of the High Line, the goal was really preserving it. Mayor Giuliani at the time wanted to tear it down, so at first we were fighting just to keep it. But the goal long-term was always to bring the public up here. It was such a magical experience for us; we wanted to make it public.

CNN: What path does the High Line take?

Robert Hammond: You start right at the Javits Center on 34th Street and for four blocks you walk right along the Hudson River looking over the park. Then you turn and take this straight shot down 30th Street with the Empire State Building in the background.

It's an interesting feeling because you see the New York skyline in the background -- the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building -- and you have this great juxtaposition with the wildflowers and the grasses.

Then you make a turn at 30th Street and go straight for about a mile -- you don't see that very often in New York --right through the heart of Chelsea, the gallery district, where there's over 300 galleries a stone's throw from the High Line.

Then it turns and goes across 14th Street through the Meatpacking District, which is now home to a lot of shops and restaurants in addition to some meat packers and it ends at the West Village.

CNN: Tell us what the High Line is going to be like.

Josh David: When the High Line is complete it's going to be an elevated park that runs 30 feet above the streets of New York for 22 blocks. There'll be access points roughly every two blocks with both stairs and elevators coming up to it.

Once you get up here you'll see a park unlike any other in the world. The design team, Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, have created an amazing, innovative design. We have a planking system that allows the greenery to come up between it so you get a feeling very like the feeling you see here today, of pathways that have vegetation integrated into them.

CNN: Can you describe how you felt the first time you came up onto the High Line?

Josh David: It was with a tour led by CSX, the railroad that owned the southern section at that time. We'd already started the project and we'd come up with this idea that we wanted to make a park up here, yet we'd never set foot on it, so to step out on the High Line was just breathtaking. To have this huge vista of space opening up in front of you that you'd never seen before, seven acres of it that was just hidden away in between the buildings in Manhattan, was incredible.

Robert Hammond: Throughout the year it changes. Sometimes it looks like a wheat field; sometimes it's covered in yellow flowers; in the fall these thigh-high, white Queen Anne's Lace come out. The juxtaposition of this wildflower field on this steel structure with the Empire State Building in the background was really magical.

CNN: What sort of support did you receive?

Josh David: A few people thought that we were lunatics, but we were amazed by how many people came forward to support us. The High Line goes through an area with a lot of art galleries, artists and architects and they were the first to jump on board and say, This is a great idea, we should support it.

Very quickly, we had this real wave of support come up behind us, which made Friends of the High Line a really strong organization and got the message across to the city. We now have over 10,000 supporters from the city, across the country and from overseas. It's really amazing.

CNN: Did you think you stood any chance of success when you started out?

Robert Hammond: I remember my mother asking, "What are the chances of this happening?" and I said, "Oh, about one in a hundred," and up until just a few years ago the chances were still really slim. Josh and I get a lot of credit for it, but really the most important thing we did was raise the flag and start it -- then a whole bunch of smart people with a lot of different expertise helped us make it happen.

CNN: What stage is the High Line at?

Robert Hammond: We started construction last April and we're on schedule to open in 2008. The first stage is going to be Gansevoort to 20th, so almost half the line will open in a year.

CNN: How does that make you feel?

Robert Hammond: A lot of times I have to remind myself that it's actually happening. Dreams are coming true for us.

Josh David: Back in April of 2006, the first day that I walked along the street and looked up and saw construction crews up here with hard hats and equipment starting work on the High Line, was just the most incredible day.

CNN: What do you think has made the High Line possible?

Robert Hammond: For me it's about people. The infrastructure and the history are interesting, but the people helped us make this happen. New York is full of people that are also dreamers -- it's thought of as a hard city or a very practical city but it's also a city where people are willing to take a chance on a crazy project like this.

CNN: How is the High Line changing the area around it?

Robert Hammond: The design created by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro has inspired a lot of developers to use interesting architects in the buildings around it. Just in these few blocks there are projects already under construction by Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Neil Denari, Steven Holl -- it's really exciting that this neighborhood's not only going to have the High Line but some of the best architecture in the city.

CNN: What makes your partnership work?

Robert Hammond: I think it works because we bring different things to the table -- and Josh is very patient ...!

Josh David: We have such different skill sets and they complement each other very well. At the beginning of the project, Robert was much more outgoing, much more forward in soliciting fundraising and other kinds of support. I'm maybe a little quieter: that really helped us develop a lot of written materials that were really strong and do a lot of the background work that an organization like this needs.

CNN: Have you got any crazy ideas left in you? What do you plan to do next?

Robert Hammond: Well, Friends of the High Line is going to go on. We hope to manage and operate the park with the New York Parks Department -- it's one thing to build a great park but a park isn't successful unless it's managed, safe and well attended.

Josh David: We've really just started construction; private money has to be raised to complete the construction and fund the park's ongoing operations so we still have a lot of work to do.

CNN: What can other people take from your experience?

Robert Hammond: I hope it inspires other people to believe that they can start projects like this. Neither Josh nor I had any experience in any of this -- it was really about other people with the experience coming up behind us to make it happen.

Josh David: I think that a lot of community-based organizations often get their starts trying to stop something from happening. There was a degree of that when we started -- we were trying to stop it from being torn down -- but it's not just about stopping something from happening but about building something great for the future of New York City.

Read on to find out more about the High Line >>


Robert Hammond and Joshua David

Robert Hammond (l) and Joshua David, founders of Friends of the High Line

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