The Desire for the Real in Urban Real Estate

Winter, 2010

New York’s High Line, the highly anticipated park built on an abandoned elevated train line on Manhattan’s West Side, opened to the public on June 9, 2010. The date culminated an eleven-year process of gaining city and public support initiated by a citizen advocacy group, Friends of the High Line. The story of the group’s efforts have been often told: they saved the decaying piece of infrastructure from imminent demolition under the Giuliani Administration, successfully lobbied for a City Council endorsement, drafted a report that proved the project’s economic viability, and sponsored society events and a design competition to raise funding and awareness for the High Line’s preservation. The public took notice and the High Line became a sensational media darling, gaining publicity in newspapers and magazines from The New York Times to Architectural Record and Forbes. In 2005 New York City negotiated to acquire the High Line’s property rights from CSX Transportation, the company that had owned the High Line since its active use as a railway. Through an omnibus legal procedure know as railbanking, the complex pattern of property ownership and air rights held by CSX could be summarily transferred to the city so that the High Line could be used as a public space. Meanwhile, the team of James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro was selected to design the park, amidst a firestorm of publicity and fanfare. The High Line was becoming a reality and it had captured urban culture’s imagination like no other public project in decades.

Throughout this period of planning and hype, the High Line did not escape the notice of the real estate developers. While the industry first lobbied for the High Line’s demolition to make way for new construction, by 2005 developers had become attune to the High Line’s cultural sensation. Anticipating a spike in property value in the abandoned rail’s proximity, developers began rampant acquisition of all available land neighboring the High Line.  One journalist described this rush to acquire property as “Manhattan’s biggest land grab since a handful of Native Americans took a few beads in trade for the entire borough.”  Some of the worlds most famous architects, like Jean Nouvel, Neil Denari, Robert A.M. Stern and Frank Gehry, were retained for the design of over 5,500 housing units (most of them luxury condos), restaurants and hotels.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the city’s hottest public project was catalyzing the city’s hottest new real-estate market.

Much has been written about the High Line – its history, its design and its current pop-cultural sensation. But little attention has been paid to precisely what is behind its allure. How has this piece of derelict infrastructure so captured the fantasy and imagination of audiences from the architectural community to the design-skeptic community activist; from the staid government bureaucrat to the society glitterati? Beneath the buzz, the High Line and its attendant building boom is a revealing case study in the consumer desire that drives much of today’s urban real-estate development in the United States. This desire can be framed as a yearning for deep authenticity beyond the surface of apparent reality – an insatiable desire for an authentic urban lifestyle amidst the historic working-class grit and detritus of the of the 20th century metropolis. Such a yearning aligns with what theorist Slavoj Zizek has called the passion for the real.

Read the whole essay in MONU