Poverty Below the High Line

by Sahra Mirbabaee

The High Line. Photo by Iwan Baan for James Corner Field Operations. Source: Elitism

Of all the factors that contribute to urban livability — including public health, education and infrastructure — policy is often focused disproportionately on economic growth. In pursuit of this assumed prerequisite for prosperity, municipal governments around the world are investing in urban design. At the same time, this investment is fueling inequality and displacement. The allocation of public funds to places of high economic potential favors the rich, creating an unfair playing field for all tax-payers. One of the most striking examples of this trend is the High Line in New York City.

Built on an elevated former railway, the High Line park runs 1.45 miles along Manhattan's West Side. Since the 1990s, the surrounding neighborhoods have changed from a downtrodden post-industrial area to a hot spot in the city's social and cultural scenes. They're now home to many bars, galleries, restaurants and shops like Barneys, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. Past neglect created the conditions for profitable redevelopment, as evident in "Alphabet City" and many other Manhattan districts over the past 20 years.

Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has been hailed as an inspiring use of architecture for urban renewal. It has a large fan-base, including the municipal government. In fact, the High Line has thrived "within the confines of the community of money" because of strong government support. The first two installments cost a reported $152.3 million, and the third is projected to cost $86.2 million. Funding sources comprise $112 million from the city government, $20.3 million from the federal government, $400,000 from the state and $44 million from private donations. Operating costs are estimated at $2-4 million per year. With over half the High Line's budget coming from public funds, concerns over the return on this investment are more than justified.

Government investment in the High Line has created problems for longtime residents who can't afford the increasing cost of living. According to the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 15,000-25,000 people living in poverty in the neighborhoods around the abandoned railway in 2005. More recent census data shows that the poverty rate in New York City rose for the third straight year in 2011, representing 20.9 percent of the total population. For a single person, this means earning less than $11,500 a year; for a family, less than $23,021. These numbers are especially alarming because the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment around the High Line when it opened was already over $1,200 a month. It's possible that poverty rates have dropped since then as low-income residents are priced out of the neighborhoods. This raises important questions as to who is actually benefiting from the city's investment.

The High Line has been a catalyst for gentrification that, according to Neil Smith, "is no longer about a narrow and quixotic oddity in the housing market but has become the leading residential edge of a much larger endeavor: the class remake of the central urban landscape." The project exudes a "cool" image of feigned neglect, despite the troubling irony in this aesthetic. Commodifying ostensibly lower-class spaces for supposedly higher classes is both patronizing and divisive. Liz Diller, one of the lead architects for the High Line, joked that "the great success [of the project] has been introducing New Yorkers to doing nothing." This comment rests on a key oversight: Not everyone earns enough from their work to afford even a few hours of "doing nothing" at the High Line. And would crowds of people without disposable income be welcome in a neighborhood increasingly structured around spending money? Some experience a sense of not belonging there, as one visitor remarked: "I felt like I was in the home of a neatnik with expensive tastes, afraid I would soil the furnishings."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the High Line's most steadfast supporters, proposed cutting $170 million in funding from childcare services in the city. This would make life much harder for low-income parents who rely on these programs to get by. In weighing the value of playgrounds for well-off New Yorkers and tourists versus assistance for people struggling to afford food and rent, the mayor appears to favor of the former.

As disproportionate public investment in real estate development becomes the norm, low-income residents are finding it more and more difficult to escape poverty. Reversing this misappropriation of funds would allow us all to build more vibrant neighborhoods than the High Line's designers could ever have imagined.

Sahra Mirbabaee is a student in the Urban Studies Program at U.C. Berkeley.

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  1. Great post on a very important issue. Now I'd like to see a similarly well-documented look at who's profiting from the area's transformation and to what extent. There are a lot of wonderful things about the High Line, but it also represents an unacceptable global trend toward public finance for redevelopment that leads to gentrification.

  2. Although many of his actions seem unconcerned with poor people, I don't think Bloomberg doesn't care. He just thinks you have to fight poverty by creating jobs through these kinds of projects. But the numbers don't support that belief. That said, are there viable alternatives if we want to create great places in cities? I'd like to see a post on that.

  3. thing is, no matter how many hours someone like bloomberg or diller or any relatively affluent person works, they'll never understand the amount of work it takes to survive on multiple low-paying jobs.

  4. The post asks important questions about what the return on the public investment in the High Line is and will be. It is possible that it is net positive for the people of NYC, figuring that out would be tricky but possible and analyzing the impact on specific subgroups of New Yorkers would be even harder. Would be interesting to see someone try.

  5. Or the city could banish the failed rent control policies that make it impossible to build new affordable housing in the city. But that might hurt landlords that rake in money from high rents.

    1. Absolutely... The rent control policies are failures.. and truly hurt the ability to create affordable market rate housing... Anytime you have a government law that stops the free flow of supply and demand... you always get more unintended consequences.... rent control effectively creates of the problem..which is sky high housing prices... and then government mandates on affordable housing creates... more sky high housing costs....

    2. You can't mandate affordability.... You just can't without creating huge unintended consequences... The most affordable cities to live don't have rent control... they also allow supply and demand to determine prices...

    3. Look... Gentrification is an opportunity... if you are so concerned about poverty, then create a fund where poor people pool their money and then have collective ownership of a property that is increasing in value due to gentrification... Instead of just complaining and pointing that something needs to be done to help the poor... this is a perfect example of how to help....

      You can't and shouldn't want to stop gentrification ... as it creates opportunity for everyone... its just that many people don't see it......

      If you care about poverty so much then get rich and keep giving people money.... see how that works.....

  6. A very interesting article.

    The balance between recreating the city and the adaptive reuse of abandoned infrastructure for the 'greater good' versus over capitalising and other much needed investment missing out.

    I would be interested to hear the political response to the article.

  7. I would like to point out that federal and state governments could well have paid for the entire high line project, and ongoing maintenance, were it not for the tens of billions a year in subsidies they spend on low-density suburban sprawl in the region.

    Because of that, I have no problem seeing public money spent making high-density urban centers like Manhattan more liveable, improving infrastructure, creating jobs and building a stronger economy in the process, which ultimately benefits the poor and working poor.

  8. You state: "It's possible that poverty rates have dropped since then as low-income residents are priced out of the neighborhood."

    Now, firstly that is a terrible quote. It's possible? Of course it's possible. Anything is possible. Where is the data? In any case, it's also possible that poverty rates dropped as a result of the High Line. Have you read the enabling ordinance for the HL? They have some fairly significant low income housing provisions embedded in to new zoning for the area. Now, do I think that is the case? Probably not. Your argument, however, is a presentation of loosely related statistics wrapped around a thin candy shell of indignation.

  9. I work in urban planning. I also lived right next to the High Line before it was created.

    I hate publicly-funded displacement of the poor. I hate all-luxury development. But this article was clearly written by someone who doesn't know anything about New York or the High Line, b/c that isn't what happened here, and if you were using appropriate data, you'd see that.

    Your data on poverty and rent covers a HUGE area of multiple square miles that are worlds away from the High Line.

    If you want to do a proper analysis (which any urban planning student in a halfway decent program can do, I am seriously concerned for Berkeley if you are a planning student there, b/c this is planning school 101) you should use ArcGIS to analysze census block group data, and draw a 1/4 mile buffer around the High Line, and then clip/intersect the block group data with the 1/4 mile buffer.

    You'd find if you did this analysis (which, oh, has been done by lots and lots of people in entry-level planning GIS classes around the US) virtually NO ONE was living near the High Line. It was an abandoned area of underutilized warehouses, whose tenants left in the 60s, 70s and 80s and weren't ever coming back.

    Further, if you knew anything about municipal finance (do they not teach that at Berkeley, either?), you'd realize that the High Line has spurred $2-$3 billion in private development, yielding new intakes of NYC property taxes and NYC income taxes.

    If you analyzed what those taxes are bringing in vs. the cost of this project (an analysis WHICH WAS DONE BEFOREHAND by the Friends of the Highline, by the City, and by independent consultants, too, by the way)you would see a very different picture.

    Now, is the High Line perfect? No. It's too uniformly luxe, not enough mixed-income/affordable housing has been built, as someone else points out above in the comments. Were a handful of still-operating businesses in a desolate area displaced? Yes. Also not perfect.

    But your article is terrible. I cannot believe planetizen linked back to this irresponsible, unbalanced, and uninformed analysis that was clearly written by a non-New Yorker lacking any on-the-ground knowledge of the project.

    If I were you, I would erase this entire blog entry, because you will never get a job or get into graduate school (if you are an undergrad) if anyone finds this slipshod analysis. Hole-filled articles like this get eaten by Republicans for lunch, and wind up making all of us on the left look like uninformed fools and mindlessly anti-development.

    And by the way, 10+ urban planning professionals (who hate displacement and gentrification) I know talked about how terrible this article today. I'm the only one who cares enough to tell you the truth, rather than just shake my head about how all these blogs and planetizen links are really poorly vetted and makes our entire field look bad.

    1. First, thank you very much for your response. This situation requires analysis from all angles, so we appreciate the points you added.

      Do you have data on the new property- and income-tax revenues for the city that you mentioned, and how they're being allocated? I'm sure they're not too difficult to track down, but if you have them readily available, please consider posting them here to fill in the picture. It would definitely help us better understand the impact of the High Line on the city as a whole.

      As for the surrounding neighborhoods, you mentioned that virtually no one has been living near the elevated tracks since the 1980s, and that only a handful of still-operating businesses were displaced. Again, if you could share your sources for those statements (perhaps one of those analyses of census block-group data) that would be very useful.

      If you don't have reputable sources to back up your points, then I see much less value in your mean-spirited critique. And you weren't even brave enough to leave your name, as Sahra was in raising these issues, so how do we know that you don't have a personal stake in the High Line's image? She also cited her sources, unlike you, so that anyone can make an informed decision on whether her argument is valid.

      Finally, how do we explain the increase in people living below the poverty line in New York City for the third year in a row? Of course, this doesn't mean that high-end redevelopment projects are the cause, but Sahra brings up the important question of whether they are helping to reduce poverty.

    2. Anonymous: It's wrong to say that virtually no one was living in the neighborhoods around the tracks since the '80s, and to call them a desolate area before the High Line came in. The gentrification process had already been happening for a long time before the High Line, with all the art galleries, Stella McCartney, etc. The High Line just set it into warp speed toward culture-snob Disney Land. I don't think anyone can argue that this kind of redevelopment doesn't raise nearby rents to the point of being unaffordable for low-income and even middle-class New Yorkers. I still love the High Line, but I agree with you that it isn't perfect and I agree with Nathan that it can still be improved.

  10. @Anonymous Tue Feb 05, 01:45:00 PM GMT-11:00: So if you were living 'right next to the High Line before it was created' and 'virtually NO ONE was living near the High Line' then, I suppose that makes you 'virtually NO ONE', which explains your anonymity. But you did mention that you work in urban planning, and everyone knows that the GIS analyses of planners are 'virtually' infallible guides for creating great urban places. No sources needed, your title is enough. I would be a lot more likely to hire someone like Sahra, who is intelligently questioning the fairness of diverting tax dollars to projects like the High Line, which appear to benefit real estate developers and tourists far more than New Yorkers who live below the poverty line.

  11. This is an excellent piece, and, if I'm not mistaken, the point isn't that the High Line park should never have been created, just that since it receives public funding it should have been done differently (ie with more affordable housing and affordable businesses around it). And I would say that it isn't too late to make that adjustment.

  12. I wish you had taken the time to properly credit the photograph that introduces the piece.

    1. By any chance do you know the name of the photographer? If so, please let us know and we'll add it right away. If not, maybe someone else does? We'll also try again to track it down.

    2. Just found that the photo was taken by Iwan Baan for James Corner Field Operations, and added this before the source. Thank you for prompting the update.

  13. Google is a wonderful thing... $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park and 12,000 jobs.



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