Chelsea’s High Line opened last month after a half-decade of relentless buildup, and its journey to completion tells a fascinating narrative about New York’s recent economic history. It snakes from the Meatpacking District’s cobble-stoned designer mall (where a few meat plants still manage to pay their boutique-rate rents), through the West Chelsea gallery area, past the tacky clubs in the upper 20s (where the absence of actual residents means no noise complaints) and towards the possible future site of a massive housing project and office park disaster known as the Hudson Yards. The High Line echoes the stories of economic extremes that were hallmarks of the recent boom, and it will likely remain a monument to the flash and flair of the early aughts. Still, it’s a singular instance of private and public interests turning something old and abandoned into an engine for new development and vitality. This, in turn, makes it a compelling blueprint for revitalization in less obvious, outlying locales.
Though the result of a unique synergy between business interests, public supporters and generous benefactors, the High Line has fostered the kind of economic diversity less privileged neighborhoods and abandoned sites could benefit from immensely. Already, plans for a similar, larger project in the country’s eco-design capital, Chicago, are underway, and other cities are looking for similar sites. And, of course, Paris did the industrial railway-to-elevated park conversion thing first. But who’s to say the next High Line shouldn’t also be in New York? Instead of being redeployed in another city, why not export the concept to the outer boroughs? Here, then, are some stubbornly pre-recession plans for old infrastructure and industrial locales outside Manhattan that could use some of that High Line loving.
Queens: Flushing Airport
Flushing was one of the busiest airports in the city from its 1927 opening — under the snazzy name Speed’s Airport — until the 60s. Thereafter neighboring LaGuardia International, which lies just west around Flushing Bay, slowly overtook it, and a deadly crash in 1977, combined with continual flooding, led to its closing in 1984. Several plans for reopening the old airport as an airfield (for the Goodyear Blimp, among other aircraft) have fallen through. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to turn the marshy lands into a commercial park, but that didn’t go over so well with the locals, and then the economy tanked. In the fall of 2008, some of its last remaining hangars, hulking structures slowly keeling over in various states of disrepair, were torn down.
Separated from the Flushing and Browne Park neighborhoods to the east by a highway, and from semi-suburban College Point to the west by malls and their expansive parking lots, Flushing Airport would make a spectacular hub park and cultural center for the surrounding neighborhoods. Think of it as a really big (about three times bigger) McCarren Park, drawing crowds from all adjacent areas and further. Roughly equal parts marsh, meadow and paved terrain, the park could accommodate a broad variety of outdoor activities including but not limited to: biking, rowing, kayaking, a skate park, playing fields and a community-run farm (like in Red Hook).
With all that paved surface area, the site also gets plenty of sun year round, making Flushing Airport Park the perfect locale for “eco-friendly” New York’s first solar power farm. Besides, Brooklyn Navy Yard already got the city’s first permanent wind turbines. Finally, being plainly visible from the highway, and (eventually) connected to LaGuardia via a high-speed rail link and bike-share program, what better way to attract passing motorists and visitors from further away than with the city’s only year-round drive-in movie theater (with pedestrian seating, of course)? The drive-in would also double as a performance space for outdoor theater and concerts in the summer.
Brooklyn: Brooklyn Terminal Market
Currently fairly inaccessible via public transportation (the closest subway stop is the L train’s Rockaway Parkway terminus), this massive, partially outdoor market set between Canarsie and East Flatbush is bisected by a largely unused industrial rail line that meets the subway tracks at the New Lots Avenue stop. Obviously, a tramway shuttle will be set up in the interim and eventually the L can be extended by two stops to end up at the market. When the city finally realizes it needs a cross-Brooklyn subway line, that quiet industrial track will form its core, bringing folks from Sunset Park, Bay Ridge and East New York to the cheap wholesale market in less than half an hour. That rail bed will also be outfitted with adjacent bike paths and walking trails for those living nearby. Accordingly, the market’s grounds will gradually become less car-centric — at present it’s basically one half warehouses and one half parking lots.
Firstly, an elaborate eco-canopy will go up over the entire site, with tiny, movable solar panels that adjust to the position of the sun and can be controlled to let through more or less light. Also, vertical farms lining the whole site will turn the market into a green cube that generates its own produce and electricity. As shoppers and vendors increase in number, adjacent abandoned lots will allow for expansion and diversification. Eventually, a new state-of-the-art zero-waste kitchen facility with community composting onsite will accommodate the City University of New York’s new Brooklyn Terminal Market Culinary School. This new institution consolidates CUNY’s two current food services programs into a competitive school that also offers community training, classes and public workshops. Finally, community gardens, a performance space and playing fields will turn the Terminal into much more than a grocery-shopping destination.
The Bronx: Port Morris Terminal
This one’s a deliberate exercise in reverse engineering the evil that Robert Moses wrought. Blocked off from the much larger and more dysfunctional neighborhood of Mott Haven to the north, Port Morris is basically The Bronx’s Red Hook: a little wild, mostly industrial and separated from the closest subway station (the Cypress Avenue stop on the 6) by a massive highway courtesy Mr. Moses. Its old ferry landing, picturesque Port Morris Terminal, is where Long Island Sound, the Harlem River and East River meet. It features a beautiful view towards Rikers Island and North Brother Island — the super-creepy abandoned smallpox hospital that replaced Roosevelt Island’s pretty creepy Riverside Hospital — which were two of the destinations served most regularly by its ferries between 1923 and 1969. That historical island destination will be refurbished and made accessible via kayak, peddle-boat and zip line as part of the new Port Morris Terminal Park.
Rusty from decades of disuse, the goal post-shaped terminal structures look very similar to the old ferry landing at Gantry State Park in Long Island City. This hypothetical park is also a no-brainer for already having a major piece of public art onsite. A monumental Richard Serra sculpture entitled “Bellamy” stands disassembled on the site, its curbed, rusted walls blending nearly seamlessly into the surrounding post-industrial wastes. That will have to be put back together and made the centerpiece of the new green space. New pedestrian piers jutting out into the river will allow for scenic views and fishing for those who like their fish toxic. The two terminal structures will be renovated and outfitted with wind turbines and, once the park gains in popularity, giant swings that can be hooked up to the turbines, supplementing wind power with human-generated energy. Water taxi service will make the new park accessible to crowds coming from beyond the Bronx, and a tram will connect Port Morris to the Cypress Avenue subway stop in Mott Haven. As people move back to the area, that tram can be extended and water taxi service increased to give the area’s commuters more transportation options.
Staten Island: North Shore Branch of the Staten Island Railway
You may have heard about the city’s ambitious Freshkills Park project, which aims to convert New York’s former go-to landfill into a massive wetlands park. Problem is, that site is on the west side of Staten Island, far from the closest Staten Island Railway stop and the free ferry the borough is known for. Well, it just so happens that a disused passenger rail line runs along the north shore of Shaolin Island, connecting the Saint George area where the ferry lands to Port Ivory, which is about two thirds of the way to the future Freshkills Park for visiting New Yorkers. That abandoned stretch of the SIR follows the north coast of the island, in places running along the water’s edge and elsewhere gliding over neighborhoods, High Line-style.
Can you say bike route? With a bike-share program at the Saint George ferry landing, day trippers can pedal along the converted rail bed all the way to Port Ivory, and from there south to Freshkills along a purpose-built extension. Also, since green has become the central pillar of the city’s public relations program, the North Shore Park’s waterfront stretches will be conspicuously adorned with wind turbines and the country’s first tidal power generator. Those shore stretches will also feature year-round bird-watching facilities, which will become among the richest and most popular in the region as wildlife returns to post-landfill Staten Island. These sections will also feature new and refurbished piers from which visitors can fish for trash or fly plastic bag kites. Inland stretches of the North Shore Park will be kept semi-wild, allowing for bike and pedestrian passages while maintaining the local ecosystems that have reclaimed the rail bed. Elevated sections of the railway in dense neighborhoods will have space set aside for community farming where locals can grow produce and keep chickens and bees.
Just because the High Line is all glitzy and glam with fancy lighting and encroaching luxury buildings doesn’t mean the next slate of urban-industrial parks can’t function as extremely utilitarian green spaces that bring visitors and developers to areas that really need them. With the city undertaking a major green makeover since the High Line project was first announced, it doesn’t seem completely unrealistic to imagine these and other environmentally friendly retrofits being applied to some of our romantic industrial and infrastructural ruins. Of course, knowing the way funding for public parks gets distributed around here, the next major makeover will probably be in Manhattan — urban farming on the elevated sections of FDR Drive anyone? With a little luck, we’ll see some of the seeds sewn in West Chelsea sprouting elsewhere in the city over the next decade. •