G-Sync: Riding The High Line To GRR (A New York Love Story)

More flights from Grand Rapids are direct routes to cities that used to be accessible only after often nerve-splitting connections. Today, our city has also been experiencing some other direct connections, both in dialog and substance.

For quite some time, I have been forming a deep and longstanding relationship with New York City. In the days and weeks ahead, Grand Rapids will have new opportunities to create new connections with the East Coast urban center. 

St. Cecilia Music Center (SCMC), beginning with the 2012/13 Season, has formed a partnership with the New York Artistic Directors of The Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center. New Yorkers David Finckel and Wu Han, Musical America’s December 2011 “Musicians of the Year,” will begin programming the chamber music series at St. Cecilia with artists of the New York Chamber Music Society.

“Grand Rapids audiences will quickly come to know CMS@SCMC as a place that gathers extraordinary musicians from across both generations and cultures,” reads a statement from Finckel and Wu Han. “The musicians we bring to you will soon be your friends, and during the course of our partnership, a whole community of unbelievable performers, from all over the world, will come to know Grand Rapids as a center of culture in America.”

Another unique opportunity awaits those who will venture to UICA’s Penny Stamp Lecture on Friday, Feb. 3 when Robert Hammond, co-founder of The Friends of the High Line, will be visiting Grand Rapids from New York. Hammond will share insights on the creation of the world-class park project, The High Line, that has captivated the imagination of neighborhoods and community organizers all over the world.  

Hammond and Joshua David (not attending UICA’s lecture) did not intend before that first meeting to be involved with the project. In fact, the two men did not even know each other before they attended a community meeting held in their Chelsea neighborhood. Each man went to the meeting to listen to plans about The High Line structure, then a 20-year old, abandoned 1.5 mile elevated railway that runs from Gansevoort Street, one block below West 12th St., up to the Hudson Yards at 34th St.

When David arrived, he scoped the room and did not see anyone he recognized so he set next to a man (Hammond) he thought was cute.

Hammond, who also had never set foot in a community meeting before, had asked a few people what they thought about this structure, which the New York Times had just covered in a feature story. One friend, a city council member, told him that of all the plans that would be presented, the thought that, in Manhattan, someone would argue to preserve this neglected railway was a stupid idea.

But undeterred by the negative, Hammond, who was on vacation at the time, departed Fire Island to return to the hot, sweltering city to attend an informational meeting.  

After the meeting, where people were less than friendly to any talks of preservation, Hammond looked at David and the two began to tap dance around the topic.

Since neither one of them wanted to be a leader on such a huge project, they agreed to take small steps to explore ideas about the rail line.

“We were mainly concerned at this stage with proceeding slowly,” says Hammond. “We knew there was a spark of an idea there and from there, we began to build upon our ‘what if’ conversations on this structure.”

What both men shared in common was that they were from the community. And although they didn't set out to create one of the city’s most imaginative park projects since Central Park, they were at the very least open to trying something new.

When I pressed Hammond about what else he could have done that day, he was very candid in reminding me of the temptations found all around us that could at any point pull our focus and alter our day. He was on vacation, after all, and who could blame someone for sitting this meeting out?

“Had I not set foot in that neighborhood meeting, I know I would not have met David,” says Hammond. “And if I did not meet David and begin our conversation after that first meeting, I doubt the High Line would have happened.” 

The story of their exploration, collaboration and then creation of the High Line park in the face of incredible odds, including a last-minute demolition order from exiting Mayor Giuliani signed just hours before he left office, will be shared at UICA.

What drove the men to create a new pathway in the form of a park from idea to reality within their community were the incomparable words of another New Yorker who continues to inspire community advocates the world over: Jane Jacobs.

“We subscribed to Jacobs’ view that this park would serve diverse groups of visitors coming from diverse places for different reasons at different times of the day,” says Hammond. “This viewpoint helped provide the guiding principals upon which we would build this park that many have come to love.”

Jacobs, like David and Hammond who are not urban planners, had no formal training in city planning. She just navigated against all odds through the time of Robert Moses, the New York planner who, had he won his battle with Jacobs and her neighbors, would have sliced up the West Village like he had divided other neighborhoods around the city. Jacobs always kept her head held high, but navigated the choppy waters of her opposition with her heart working like a finely-tuned compass.

The creation of the High Line Park would provide a new model for new generation of community as to how the public and private sectors could successfully intersect. Hammond and David have provided an exportable model, with steps rooted in community organizing to achieve a goal thought impossible.

Many of us cannot always be a leader, but we can make time to contribute our talents to a project.  Leadership does not have to be one person directing a group. The collaboration between Hammond and David is a perfect example of what people can achieve working together.  

“All you really need to do is just start something by taking those first steps,” says Hammond.

We never know when the project will present itself or how big or small it will be when we decide to take that first step. The most important part of the equation is people like you and me working together, sharing the responsibilities and generating ideas.

For some people, that path might put them in direct connection with giants like the New York Lincoln Center. For others, something as simple as attending an inspiring lecture may provide the impetus for action and the allies needed to move beyond conception to reality.

Ultimately, it’s the love of our cities that binds all us to our future as we move into the future.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

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