Powers of Removal
The origin story of the High Line is well known. The West Side Elevated Rail Line first cut through Manhattan’s then-industrial West Side in the 1930s. With the economic decline and disuse of the ’70s and ’80s, the tracks seemed destined for demolition. But then, in the early 2000s, renewed interest in the romanticized and abandoned railway led to its transformation into the public amusement — and cultural and economic engine — that we know today.1For more, see “The High Line,” by Joel Sternfeld, and “Above Grade: On the High Line,” by Phillip Lopate, in Places. The elevated park is now flanked by high-end residences and commercial art galleries, and bookended at its southern terminus by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which relocated in 2015 from its flagship building on Madison Avenue, and at the northern end by the ongoing construction of Hudson Yards. The so-called “new downtown” has become a problematic vector for gentrification.2In 2015, Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Whitney board, declared “downtown is a new city, a new nation. Why shouldn’t the Whitney be the museum of record there?” See Carol Vogel, “Whitney Picks Downtown Site for Expansion,” New York Times, May 26, 2010. Also see Claire Bishop, “Palace in Plunderland,” Artforum 57, no. 1 (September 2018), where she reviews the Shed, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (also the architects of the High Line), a performance space in Hudson Yards, and writes that it “might ostensibly be open to all, but participation is invitation-only.”
But this material history of the High Line glosses over another vital element of the neighborhood’s past: its role as a haven for queer culture and creative experimentation in the 1970s, followed by the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s that cut short this vibrant period. We have forgotten, or have chosen to forget, the extent to which the influence of artists and the gay community alike contributed to the unique spatial character of the neighborhood, and to the aesthetic sensibilities which were later appropriated in the design of the High Line.
During the 1970s, as the critic Douglas Crimp extensively documented from his own experiences, artists resourcefully converted the cheaply acquired “forsaken spaces” in the formerly industrial Chelsea and the Meatpacking District into live-work studios and galleries, where they created and presented experimental works that challenged the standing definitions of “art.”3Douglas Crimp, “Action Around the Edges,” in Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, ed. Lynn Cooke and Kristin Poor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 98. In the same period, the gay community migrated north from the West Village to Chelsea, as clubs and discotheques opened in former warehouses. The warren of deteriorating piers along the Hudson River and the weedy landscape of the disused railway line became the backdrop for an exuberant mix of creative practices and pre-AIDS sexual and social experimentation. With a shared sense of freedom and deviance, artists such as Vito Acconci, Alvin Baltrop, and Gordon Matta-Clark used these sites as artistic playgrounds for works that flirted with the real and perceived danger of the spaces, which were at once decaying infrastructure and stage sets for clandestine sexual encounters.4 For more on Matta-Clark and Baltrop, see “Spacism,” by Frances Richard, and “Unbuilding Gender,” by Jack Halberstam, in Places.
This period of cultural exuberance came to an end with the onslaught of AIDS in the early 1980s. The stigma of the disease produced a shift in the energy of New York’s gay scene, giving rise to new political advocacy and engaged artistic practices. In a special issue of October published in 1987, titled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” Crimp analyzed the problematic responses to the crisis by health officials, politicians, and citizens alike, all of whom conflated issues of status, class, and sexuality with the dangers of misinformation and the perceived authority and neutrality of science.5Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October 43, no. 102 (Winter 1987): 3–16. The effect of AIDS on the communities in Chelsea and Meatpacking District was underscored by the ways in which the artistic community and its cultural production came to represent a connection between the lived experiences of the disease and the value of art made in the face of tragedy. The degree to which the High Line has enabled the cleaning-up and repackaging of this vital chapter in social and public health history is significant. But if the programming at the park embraces certain aspects of queer placemaking, it also fails to adequately acknowledge the AIDS epidemic and the resulting community-based activism as relevant to the history of the site.6“Behind the Bushes: The Gay History of the High Line,” The High Line.
The High Line’s history as “a thriving garden of wild plants” is cited more often than the AIDS crisis as the spatial-imaginary precursor to its development, though the weeds and the crisis were happening at the same time.7History,” The High Line. The spare reinterpretation of the elevated rail’s once-gritty industrial palette, in combination with a transplantation of the “wild” vegetation that had overtaken the tracks, has become the parks’ signature aesthetic.8It has also influenced many projects outside New York, and given rise to an eponymous “Effect.” See for instance, “The High Line Effect: Are Our New Parks Trojan Horses of Gentrification?,” Aaron Betsky, Metropolis Magazine. This aestheticization, however, fails to credit the socio-cultural vibrancy or the history of co-produced queer, creative, and deviant spaces which are embedded in the historic neighborhood and indeed in the High Line itself — the very forces that helped to make the area desirable for redevelopment in the first place.
The socio-spatial histories of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District and their postindustrial infrastructures are in fact inextricable. Much work remains to be done to knit together the shared histories of artistic expression, social liberation, and loss that define the narrative arc of the High Line. This sort of historical refocusing can also provide a lens through which to view our current crises of public health and social justice. Just as during the AIDS epidemic, marginalized groups are now disproportionately suffering the brunt of social and economic injustices. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, one cannot help but wonder what new spatial and aesthetic experiences will be born, and how they will change not only the city but also its inhabitants, and how we will acknowledge the economic, social, and bodily conditions that shape these experiences.
The slogan “Silence = Death” was a response to the AIDS epidemic; it was created by ACT-UP, a group of activist artists working to resist the stigmatization of those suffering with the disease.9See “ACT UP Historical Archive,” ACT UP New York; and Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” 7. Today, the slogan is echoed with the assertion that “Silence = Violence,” which argues that the refusal to acknowledge the far-reaching effects of systemic racism on Black and brown Americans constitutes complicity in the ongoing violence. To reconsider the history of the High Line in a time of cultural upheaval is thus to challenge our own silence in the face of suffering. It is imperative that we not perpetuate such erasures in the narratives of our cultural landscapes.
The title of this piece derives from Lytle Shaw’s essay, “The Powers of Removal: Interventions in the Name of the City,” in the exhibition catalogue Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, ed. Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010). The phrase “powers of removal” is itself taken from a 1904 account of New York City by Henry James, written by the novelist upon discovering the erasure of his childhood home in the extensive redevelopment of Lower Manhattan at the turn of the century.
- For more, see “The High Line,” by Joel Sternfeld, and “Above Grade: On the High Line,” by Philip Lopate in Places.
- In 2015, Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Whitney board, declared “downtown is a new city, a new nation. Why shouldn’t the Whitney be the museum of record there?” See Carol Vogel, “Whitney Picks Downtown Site for Expansion,” New York Times (May 26, 2010). See also Claire Bishop, “Palace in Plunderland,” Artforum 57, no. 1 (September 2018), where she writes that the Shed, a performance space in Hudson Yards, “might ostensibly be open to all, but participation is invitation-only.”
- Douglas Crimp, “Action Around the Edges,” in Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, ed. Lynn Cooke and Kristin Poor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 98.
- For more on Matta-Clark and Baltrop, see “Spacism,” by Frances Richard, and “Unbuilding Gender,” by Jack Halberstam, in Places.
- Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October 43, no. 102 (Winter 1987): 3–16.
- “Behind the Bushes: The Gay History of the High Line,” The High Line (June 28, 2019).
- History,” The High Line.
- Indeed, it has also influenced many projects outside New York and contributed to the eponymous “High Line Effect.” See, for instance, “The High Line Effect: Are Our New Parks Trojan Horses of Gentrification?,” Aaron Betsky, Metropolis Magazine.
- See “ACT UP Historical Archive,” ACT UP New York and Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” 7.